Editor’s note: Since last August, our columnist has been filing his stories from Cameroon, West Africa.
At the end of the movie “The Color of Money,” a rejuvenated, if middle-age, “Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman), pronounces triumphantly, “I’m back!”
That’s me, sort of. After 10 months in Africa, I’m here to announce tentatively: “I’m back?”
I am just a few days into this transition between two different worlds: Yaounde, the teeming capitol (2 million people) of Cameroon, and Middlebury, our village in rural Vermont, USA.
Brett, my wife, is still there in Yaounde for another week, grading exams. One of the final tasks she has assigned herself is to create a soundscape of our urban neighborhood: horns honking, sirens keening in the distance, dogs barking (pig squealing next door), a thunderstorm, human voices in French and “pidgin,” birds singing ... and the shouts and cries of the five-15 boys playing football right outside our front door every day now that school’s out, hour after hour.
Football (soccer) is huge in Cameroon. It is played in every vacant lot in Yaounde; every patch of urban space is taken up by pick-up games. Everywhere in the rest Africa too, the second largest continent in the world, (54 countries) with 15 percent of the world’s population. Africans love their football.
Football is dominant just about everywhere else in the world too. Not so in the USA, but that might be changing: the USA-Portugal match last Sunday was watched by 24.7 million people in the U.S.
Soccer may be the link for me personally, coming back to the U.S. now, something to tie the two places and experiences together.
I spent my 10 months in Cameroon teaching at the American School of Yaounde (ASOY), where my kids, Peter, 18, and Annie, 16, were enrolled. It’s a small school, 148 kids from pre-K though grade 12, representing 40 different national backgrounds.
The high school, grades 8-12, has only 40 students. Only two sports are offered for interscholastic competition — basketball and soccer. Annie and Peter played on both teams, despite not ever having played a minute of soccer since their days at Bingham Elementary School in Cornwall. Peter was the back-up goalie and Annie a fierce mid-fielder.
When Annie and I got off the plane at Burlington Airport on Sunday after a full day of travel, the USA-Portugal match was on an enormous TV screen in the waiting area, with a couple of dozen rapt viewers.
Annie and I unloaded our luggage, a year of our lives in eight suitcases, into two waiting cars, and traveled to my daughter Jane’s Monkton home and watched the agonizing end of the match there, before heading here to Cornwall.
I feel sympathy this week for my Cameroonian friends, who anticipated this World Cup with such excitement, but their team, called by all the Indomitable Lions, fared so poorly. The USA at least has a fair chance at advancing to the next round.
This was Cameroon’s seventh World Cup, more appearances than any other African country. In 1990, Cameroon made it out of the Group Stage, all the way to the quarterfinals before losing to England. The Lions have won four Africa Cup of Nations Championships.
Ever since the Lions qualified for the Cup last November, Cameroonians have been garbed in green and gold, eagerly waiting for the Coupe du Monde to commence. However, the Lions have not had much success in recent Cups, winning only once in its last 14 matches — and this year, alas, proved to be no exception, as Cameroon went out quickly, losing all three of its games.
The first game against Mexico was played on Friday, the 13th of this month, the last day of school at ASOY.
Every year, on the evening of the final day, the faculty and staff gather for a party at the school’s apartment building (housing is provided for faculty) and celebrate. The Cameroon-Mexico match at 5 p.m., Cameroon-time, was a nice coincidence.
I gathered with my ASOY colleagues, American expats and Cameroonian natives, in the apartment of one of the American teachers, who projected the game on the wall of his living room. About 50 of us crowded together, drinking beer and making a lot of noise.
Alas, a late goal by Mexico ruined the party, though we still found some consolation in “33,” the name of the most popular beer in Cameroon.
This defeat led to the all-important second game against Croatia, who had put up a good fight against host Brazil in their first game, before succumbing. I watched the Cameroon-Croatia game from home with family as it started at 11 p.m., given the five-hour time difference.
I had hoped to go to one of the (extremely) modest local bars, the Barakou Bar, but the late start discouraged me, a wise decision, I suspect, as the mood was likely to be churlish with the 4-0 trouncing of the Lions.
Back home in Vermont on Monday, I dutifully ran it out and watched the inconsequential, playing-for-pride-only match against host Brazil by myself. The Lions played hard but fell, 3-1. I imagine Yaounde in deep mourning and awash in recriminations.
As I write this, like so many other Americans, I am awaiting with great anticipation Thursday’s match at noon with powerhouse Germany. I don’t know yet where I’ll be, precisely, to watch the game.
As you read this, you already know the result. Are we celebrating, and moving on, or drowning our sorrows, like the Cameroonians?
Not usually jingoistic, I’ll nonetheless be chanting “USA, USA,” perhaps just to myself, here at home.