So I’m late again, I’m trying not to turn this into too much of a habit. Recently I’ve been really struggling to find something to write about…and then I went to my friend (well of our friend) Abongile’s (Bongi) soccer matches yesterday. Bongi runs a soccer program for youth in the township Khayelitsha as a way to keep them away from the omnipresent harsh realities of their lives, to give them a chance at rising above the situation that they have so unjustly been placed in. Anyways, this isn’t the first time I’ve been to his teams’ games but it probably the most important and memorable time.
Last time I went to a match it was with Marita and Jessica and it was on their home turf – Mandela Park in Khayelitsha. This time I went by myself and the match was held in dystopian suburbia…err I mean Claremont (quick aside – Claremont is actually a lovely place it just freaks me out, as do most suburbs since I’ve been here. It is just so detached from the realities of Cape Town that it’s frightening). Back on track, because of my singularity and new setting I think I was part of a unique experience.
The surface differences between the two clubs are apparent as soon as I walk through the gates to the fields. The teams from Claremont are predominantly white and classified colored while Bongi’s teams are universally black. It is an all too common separation harkening back to the Apartheid that is still one of the dominant social forces here. Differences went beyond color, the facilities in Claremont were newish and it was immediately clear which team had funding and which team had none, I’ll give you one guess as to which one is which. The most disheartening of the differences was fan support. Parents attending the game in support of the Khayelitsha Fire Fighters were sparse while there were plenty for Santos FC (this would be the Claremont team). This is not because there is a lack of parent interest in the Fire Fighters, au contraire I would guess. No, this is a burning indictment of the state of things in Cape Town and South Africa as a whole. Most parents simply can’t see their kids play for the Fire Fighters. Transportation is too expensive and if not that the parents are working, trying to scrape by so their kids can eat insufficient meals to give them the energy to play soccer. While this is something I’ve talked about with Bongi before it really hit me at these matches.
It took me back to my own experiences as a kid playing sports. I remember being able to look to the sideline and see my Dad holding the coaches clipboard for almost every sports season I ever played (3 sports a year from too young to remember to high school). I remember seeing my Mom standing and cheering from the bleachers or the collection of lawn chairs on the other sideline often holding a camera to add to our collection of home movies and offering her protection from sideline (sometimes I was certain during games that she would throw on the uniform just to make sure the other kids stayed off of me). I remember seeing grandparents and aunts and uncles, all there to support me – to watch me play football, basketball, baseball, and soccer; to watch me swim and later run cross country. Every game or meet or match I would see them all after, they would grin and bear it and tell me how great of a job I did even if I didn’t.
I went back even further into the recesses of my memory. I remembered the time in 5th grade when I failed the fitness test mile. I remember the embarrassment of an overweight kid who called himself husky to save an iota of self-esteem, a smidgen that was lost when he couldn’t even realize the benchmark of not being fat (simply passing). More important than all of this I remember my mother. I remember her walking with me to Duffy Elementary School the day after with a stopwatch where I ran and practiced. She would not let me quit until I passed that day. A few days later I retested and passed. As I look back on this moment I look at it as maybe the first seminal moment of my life – something I can look at and define myself with (hard work, determination, and never-say-die-attitude). I also realize something else, how my parents – in this case my Mom – were always there for me, always involved, always pushing me when I needed it and comforting when I needed that too.
This is such an immense privilege that I never fully realized until yesterday. In the past I’ve always considered myself ‘the self-made man.’ I’ve managed to tell myself that I am who I am because I am. I’m here because of what I think of as uncommon work ethic and drive. I’m learning that this is not the case at all. I’m here for a lot of reasons. I’ve always known that I am immensely fortunate, that my ‘hardships’ are borderline laughable, I’ve never been more keenly aware of that as I am now. It broke my heart yesterday when I realized that many of these kids have never had that feeling of comfort, security, and confidence that comes with looking to the sideline and seeing parents and family cheering them on.
I was in the middle of despairing about this when I realized something else about the Khayelitsha Fire Fighters – this is a special group of kids. How do I know this? Anyone could know this by watching them for a day. There are a couple of teams with different age levels (seems to be about 11 to 16). Every team was present for all of the games – every kid from every age level was watching every game intently. This is unheard of. For comparison the Santos FC kids showed up only for their games and left right after barely even interacting with their own, immediate teammates. Anyways, the Fire Fighters cheered, they jeered, they were concerned for their teammates and they laughed at them – it goes even beyond this. I constantly saw the older kids with the younger kids – they were teaching, mentoring, and keeping them out of trouble. It was chilling seeing a group of 16-year-old boys (but really men) showing maturity beyond their years, fulfilling the role of positive role model to the younger kids when they themselves could have very well never had one. What hit me the most was when one Fire Fighter went down during the game he was immediately surrounded by every Fire Fighter on the field and sometimes every Fire Fighter watching the game. What made this stand out more was the fact that it appeared as if the kids from Santos FC could care less about each other when the Fire Fighters were a bonafide family. I attribute this to Bongi; he has done a better job with these kids, building this team, nurturing this family than I could ever possibly envision as possible. It really comes as no surprise to me, if anyone can do this it would be Bongi, one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. I’m always in awe when I’m in his presence and he is simply someone you want to root for, there is no one I respect more.
Abongile with one of his Khayelitsha Fire Fighters Football Teams
Well I sat down to write about the game and I didn’t even get to that. The Fire Fighters played great, as always – it just so happens that Bongi is a master soccer technician in addition to his other qualities and his players are uncommonly good for their age. I guess I also learned from yesterday that it simply isn’t about winning and losing, it’s about what it takes to get there and beyond. I’m looking forward to thanking Bongi and his teams for teaching me more in a day than I’ve learned in almost 21 years about love, family, commitment, and being part of something far greater than the self. Now, I’m going to go ahead and call my parents.