Karl Lindholm: One goal: ‘Pamoja Ngudu!’
Ever been to Lewiston, Maine? Maybe to visit Bates College.
Lewiston is the second largest city in Maine — not Augusta, the capital, or Bangor in the north. 36,000 people live in Lewiston and another 23,000 reside in Auburn just across the bridge over the Androscoggin River.
That’s my hometown, Lewiston, where I grew up and why in some considerable measure I am who I am.
Lewiston has always been a city of immigrants. In the second half of the 19th century, Franco-Americans descended from Quebec to work in the textile industry, the Bates Mill, in Lewiston. Textile tycoon Benjamin Bates was the founder of both the Bates Mill (1850) and Bates College (1855).
The Bates Mill employed over 1,000 workers and Lewiston became a booming industrial city, and in Auburn shoe manufacturing thrived in factories there.
When I was growing up in Lewiston in the 1950s and ’60s my friends and teammates at Lewiston High School were the sons and daughters of millworkers.
The factories in Lewiston-Auburn are long gone, but Lewiston in the last two decades has again become the destination of a large influx of visitors. These are hardly tourists desiring the Vacationland experience, but immigrants, refugees, black families from Africa, Somalia mostly, but other African countries, too.
Contemporary post-industrial Lewiston is the setting for a terrific book, a sports book — “One Goal: a Coach, a Team, and the Game that Brought a Divided Town Together,” by Amy Bass, who came to know Lewiston in her four years as a student at Bates.
Lewiston is the final stop on a journey for these Muslim immigrants, after fleeing their impossible war-torn countries and being shuttled to settlement camps, often in Kenya, and then on to various cities in the U.S.
Why Lewiston, one of the poorest cities in one of the whitest states in America? Simply enough, they braved the wintry climate of Maine because in Lewiston were people like them already there.
They came despite the fact that Lewiston’s mayor early on pleaded with them not to come. They came despite a protest organized by a white nationalist group — a protest, as it turned out, that was overwhelmed numerically by a counter-protest held at Bates College.
In the 2010 census, 7,000 Africans are listed among the 36,000 Lewistonians, an 800 percent increase in Lewiston’s nonwhite population in a decade. At Lewiston High School, about 25 percent of the 1,300 students (Lewiston is one the largest high schools in the state) are African, the majority Somali.
“One Goal” ostensibly tells the dramatic story of the 2015 Lewiston High School soccer team and their path to the state championship and recognition as one of the best high school teams in the country.
Bass narrates the story of Lewiston itself and the local heroes that embraced and supported these new citizens, who were treated at best with skepticism and suspicion and often with racist taunts and Islamophobic threats.
The young men on the Lewiston soccer team, nearly all African, were often greeted with liberal use of the n-word and monkey sounds from opposing players and fans.
The most heroic figure in “One Goal” is the team’s coach, Mike McGraw, a Mainer in his mid-60s, soccer coach at LHS for over four decades. His sensitivity to the cultural complexities of his task was extraordinary, as was his understanding of the enormous daily challenges of his players and their families.
McGraw’s love of the game rivaled that of his players, for whom soccer was truly a survival mechanism. It was how these kids were able to “live where they landed.”
McGraw’s love of sports and kids was evident in everything he did.
In one game, when the opposition was playing with unnecessary brutality, McGraw exhorted his young charges: “We play the right way. You rise above everybody else. We play hard. We play fair. Because winning without playing fair is a shallow victory. You let other people play those games. Just beat ‘em!”
As the narrative of the season progresses in “One Goal,” we get to know the players and their families, and their complicated adjustment to life in Maine. Bass had extraordinary access, having earned the trust of coaches, players, parents, teachers and administrators.
We meet the star players on the championship team — Abdi Shariff-Hassan, Maulid Abdow, Mohamed Khalid, and others. The team adopted as its rallying cry, “Pamoja Ndugu!” (Together Brothers), a Swahili phrase.
The overriding theme in “One Goal” is the power of sports to bridge differences through communal effort (the team!) and setting of common goals, and the ecstasy of physical exertion and competition. It’s about the power of sports to unite a community of diverse elements.
There’s talk of a movie, of course. Such an inspirational story is irresistible. The climax of the movie, like the book, is likely to depict the celebration after the final victory, with white people and black people, young and old, native and immigrant, hugging one another, deliriously joyful.
But there’s no ending, really. There’s always more to the actual narrative, a “to be continued…”
On June 12, last month, a brawl in Kennedy Park in downtown Lewiston between black and white young men resulted in the death of one of the combatants, a white man, hit by a brick to the head and killed.
Tensions thus are running high in L-A this summer.
Perhaps the glorious championship of 2015 that Amy Bass so beautifully documents in “One Goal” is providing a base of resilience and connection that will serve the community in this stressful time.
In the meantime, pick up “One Goal.” You won’t be able to put it down.
See when your favorite high school team is competing in the fall sports playoffs.
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