Senegalese Soccer

Michaela Kobsa-Mark


March 22, 2011

A week ago, I was selling crème glaces and frozen ginger juices for my work at a soccer tournament. The first game had the local girls team, Mama Nguedj, playing against a team from Mbour. What struck me is that during the game the girls were laughing. They seemed to be sacrificing competitiveness for enjoyment. Soccer is a sport I have never played but always wanted to, so I thought, Why not here?

When I showed up for the first practice the next day, the girls were in the middle of playing. “Thanks Aïda!” a petite girl calls out as a short-haired girl blocks another girl from scoring. I hear the sharp sound of palms slapping together. Three girls laugh as a girl wearing brown leggings under short shorts tries to kick the ball, but misses and almost falls. I laugh, and some of them turn around. “Hey, can I play?” I ask, and I’m on the team.

Practices are hard work balanced by laughter. There is the two-mile warm-up, but then there are the muscle-building exercises that we do that reduce us to hysterics. One of them involves us squatting and moving one leg at a time toward our partner, then slapping each other’s hands as we hop up and down. Later, we scrimmage. “Dance Usa when you score a goal!” Louise calls to me, referring to a new Senegalese dance that involves the dancer singing out “Usa! Usa” whilst rubbing everything that a bikini is supposed to hide. When I do score a goal, my very first goal, we run around screaming and slapping hands. “Dance usa!” Louise commands. I rub my tummy and sing out “Usa! Usa!”

The camaraderie brings me back to my high school sport days, and even if everyone on my team is African, even if palm trees and the ocean border the dilapidated dirt soccer field, I feel as if I am back in the states. Are we going to walk to Starbucks after practice? I wonder if we’ll have team bonding with pizza. A girl who reminds me of a girl on my high school track team whips out her cell phone. She dials a number and I expect her to say: “Hey Mom. Practice is over. Can you pick me up?” Of course she doesn’t. A girl who kicks the soccer ball around in flip flops for lack of cleats is not going to have a car. Don’t be stupid, I chide myself. But the feeling of familiarity still lingers.

A few days ago, after we played soccer non-stop for an hour, the Coach, a Pygmy, had us run up and down the field. “Sing Mamadada! Mamadada!” Marie Jean, a talkative beanpole orders. She begins singing “Mamadada! Mamadada!” Some of the girls around her join. I’m relieved that the team cheer is so short. I’ll be sure to memorize it. “Mamadada! Mamadada!” I begin, while clapping my hands and laughing. “Mamadada!” The other girls quiet down and clap along. “Mamadada!” Thirty seconds and one kind-hearted teammate later, I find out that Mamadada means testicles.

Michaela Kobsa-Mark