A Language Beyond Words

Elias Estabrook - Senegal


October 10, 2011

Legs churning. Bodies weaving. Ball zooming. Drums beating. Voices calling. Minds rushing. The match has begun. Like the soccer stadium, Senegal is alive with football.

Without many words, the world of football has hurriedly welcomed me to a new playing field, a new environment.  Similar to my general adaptation in Senegal, my first steps on to the terrain de football were slightly hesitant; I was prone to stumble.  After a match on a hard, unforgiving gravel field, I literally came away with cuts and wounds on my hands and knees, evidence of how rocky initial adjustment can be. Nevertheless, I’ve found not only my usual outlet (when stressed or craving a fun time) but also a valuable mode to connect with the Senegalese population in football. By virtue of being the world’s sport, football and its rhythmic flow are a language comprehensible for billions of people. And the first — and most essential — thing I’ve learned: never again call the game with two goals and a round ball “soccer”; it’s football. Furthermore, as my inability to fully communicate in Wolof, and Pulaar (the local language that my village speaks), and even French has persisted  as a frustrating barrier, football has truly become my go-to.

Beach soccer match in northern Senegal

Still, the Senegalese speak a different dialect of football than I’ve ever had to speak in my many years of playing, shaped by the circumstances they’ve played in and style they’ve learned. Simply put: the Senegalese play football anywhere, with anything. In Dakar, you can see young people bounding across strips of sand, hard gravel at the L’Ecole Police, or cracked concrete basketball courts (it was only when I went to the National Stadium that I saw my first grass field). In my isolated village, along the Atlantic coast, the beach is converted to a make-shift stadium, flooded with players and avid fans alike. When it comes to equipment, only the bare minimum is necessary, and creativity is a must. Few players have the conventional soccer “cleats” we see in the US; more normal are beat-up sneakers, plastic “cage-toe” sandals, or — simply — bare feet. The “footballs” I’ve seen are even more strange, as normal inflated footballs are coveted possessions: a plastic wad, tied and wrapped in canvas, a deflated bouncy ball, a molded piece of hardened baguette. And because a game needs rules (however flexible they may be), “referees”, trusted boys from the neighborhood, slap empty soda bottles against posts or trees if a whistle isn’t available. Take football as a model of the Senegalese knack for innovation and resourcefulness, and you have a source of hope that its young people may be able to adapt despite the odds.

As I step onto this stage, slightly anxious and nervous as an ambassador, toubab (white man), and foreigner, eyes are on me as I attempt to match the new speed, agility, and awareness that are demanded in the Senegalese game. In the instances where I find my footing and manage to impress, despite the pressure that I feel, I smile at my peers approval, join in the goal celebrations, and am encouraged to dig in deeper and take greater risks. Here, as is often true with football, your “game” speaks for you, and solely through my capable play, hustle, and passion I seem to convey to teammates and opponents alike a sense of respect. After each match, we slap hands, Senegalese-style, commenting to each other, “Bien joue,” well played.  Surely my adaptation will still take time, and occasionally I make a wrong step or weak pass; however, as in my broader experience in Senegal, I’m learning to shake off the mistakes and eventually stride with greater assurance the next time around.

Undoubtedly, football is a first push to superficially connect and make friends, yet my efforts truly communicate that in some way we are on similar terms, that we can understand each other, that I’m discovering common ground. In the random school courtyards and crumbling city stadiums, football becomes more than a game. Instead, it transcends as a vibrant medium of expression of joy and passion. It is a language far  beyond words.

Elias Estabrook