Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Need for Football and Faith in Africa

Dear all,

I had two seriously faith-based experiences this weekend. The first, the Cameroon-Egypt soccer match to qualify for the World Cup, I watched in bar on Saturday night. The second, an Evangelical church service, I attended on Sunday morning. One was depressing, the other uplifting; and the combined experience has helped me to understand how such an unreliable government, topped off with a national football team that disappoints, makes religion a necessary force among the people.

The entire city flocked to viewing points for the game on Saturday; by 2 pm, two hours before kick-off, traffic was down to a minimum, all home televisions were on, and bars were full of happy people with already-blurred vision. My friend Alla and I joined the scene, decked out in our Lions jerseys… The spirit was contagious, and we found ourselves gleefully being interviewed by amateur film-makers (and of course predicting a win), drinking Cameroon's famous "33" beer, and awaiting a match with only one conceivable outcome: victory, and entrance into the World Cup 2006. Everybody came together to await the same promised "coming", and it felt very nearly religious.

Football here is not a sport, but a hope and pride that grips the entire nation's sensibilities; winning is salvation, like the realization of a dream, that can unify the country and vault it, albeit for one glorious moment in a limited context, into the world's view as a powerful and respected force. When we failed to advance from a tied game with a weak penalty kick in the last minute, the whole city was absolutely CRUSHED. People just closed their eyes, turned their faces, and walked dazed out into the street. Instead of salvation we had been dealt a minor apocalypse, and the idea of returning to "life as usual", life before and without victory, was obviously disappointing and painful for the innumerable football fans who flooded the streets. I was fearful on the night-time taxi ride home that night, wondering if my mercilessly bright jersey would be seen as a mockery, and inflame some fanatic's misery into anger and violence... I found our usually cheerful neighbor, Ton-ton, crouched in a dark doorway, depressed and unable to talk about the game (which he had viewed at the stadium, brave soul) and not yet prepared to enter the bright cheer of the house. Wallowing was to be the evening's official activity.

The following morning, I was happy to see that one group of people had managed to pick up the broken pieces and find a new hope and joy. This was the Evangelical church congregation near my work, which is attended by nearly all the lab/conference employees. Once again, I saw people converging on a single point, clothed in their most spirited outfits, to celebrate and anticipate another great event: this time, the saving of mankind, not just Cameroon. As the service was warming up and congregation still filing in, I felt drawn to the spirit and music of the place. In front of me sat the young choir, leaning their heads together over the few rows they occupied, a mass of bobbing heads and clapping hands as they joyously whispered their practice hymns. To my left, in the other front corner, were Dr. Mbabcham, lab director; Akindeh, lab statistician; and Terence, lab driver. I chuckled to myself as Mbacham hoisted an electric guitar onto his lap and started to strum, Terence took to the drum set, and Akindeh snapped his fingers and crooed a happy tune. I'd never seen a research administrator and statistician break it down! The whole service was lively and joyous, and I, once again swept away by a contagious spirit, felt a tremendous upwelling of song and hope in their music. When I joined in the singing (altering some of the hymns' key words to suit my own spiritual philosophies, just to make it all the more personalized and satisfying), I felt totally uplifted - not so much by the words, which in the end mattered little, but by the strength of the voices and the hope.

This weekend, I have experienced the power of faith here, and seen the ways in which it crushes and uplifts people. Football is an unreliable deliverer, and those who rest their hopes upon it are subject to painful ups and downs that they can no more control than Pittsburghers can will the Steelers into the SuperBowl every year. Religion, on the other hand, is a breed of faith that can take its time in deliverance...and thus sustain believers for a long time. Who knows if what the Evangelical church says is really true - that "Soon, very soon, we will see the King (or as I said, Light)"? - but while they wait, they create a community that supports and believes, that educates and nourishes, that celebrates its members and welcomes newcomers! Religion here is strong because of its lastingness, its openness (at least in terms of doors and hearts, if not minds), and its dependability. And seeing the lab and conference workers in church together has helped me to understand (though I'm still infinitely impressed) their ability to persevere, and even excel, despite all odds and limited resources.

Meanwhile, as I start to see how people cope with the world, I’m losing my own grip on reality. Half an hour into a television show with helicopter views of Spain’s sparkling coastal towns and resorts, I voiced my confident opinion that it was all computerized – how could roads be so spotless and smooth, cars so bright and parked so nicely, buildings so clean??? Everyone else was apparently able to distinguish real Spanish resort boulevards from real Yaounde streets, but I could not accommodate the vast differences in realities… Holding fast to the red dirt and potholes, and accepting nothing less than triple-parked cars,



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