St. Louis Park columnist: Soccer contest provides chance to teach life lessons
By Eric Rahman – Guest Columnist
Shortly after my arrival in Arivonimamo, I began going door to door to get the lay of the land. My new neighbor Rija happened to be a member of the delegation that coordinates sports for Arivonimamo.
With summer vacation fast approaching, I asked what the hoards of students get up to during the break? “To be honest, nothing” was the answer I received.
“Well, why don’t we organize a tournament for the kids?” I suggested.
After some deliberation, we outlined two separate tournaments, soccer and basketball for ages 14-17, taking place in September.
During tournament prep, Rija suggested we include some fanomezana, or awards. He proposed a trophy, jerseys and a ball for the winning team, and just jerseys and a ball for second place. OK, sure. So I went ahead, printed up flyers, notified the important officials and painted the town with posters advertising this new summer vacation tournament.
That was the point at which the other shoe dropped, and I realized I hadn’t the faintest idea where I was going to get all the prizes. After a lot of running around on my part, I have to thank the non-governmental organization Friends of Madagascar, the head of my district, the mayor of Arivonimamo and a French volunteer living in Ampefy for contributing.
As for refs, it turns out that though Rija knew just about everyone who was anyone related to soccer in Arivonimamo, he wasn’t all that well connected when it came to basketball. Fortunately, it’s a sport that Americans tend to excel at and my fellow region mates, Anders, Emma and Sarah, signed on.
We had three teams for the basketball tournament, so we decided to do it all in one weekend. Games went well, people had fun, we had hoards of spectators and everything looked as if it would go off without a hitch… until we tried to have a guys’ match just for fun before our girls final.
The game devolved quickly into physical fighting despite our refs’ best efforts. Discussions disintegrated into a lament about the general mindset of Malagasy people in Arivonimamo whenever some sort of competition is introduced. This was not my discussion, mind you, but a shouting match between the Malagasy participants.
We had 13 soccer games total. The most heartening aspect of the whole thing was that older organized teams here in Arivonimamo took younger players under their wings by helping them organize. When the final game arrived, we had close to 300 people watching.
I was able to give my little speech; I awarded the trophies and treated the refs to a cake bought from Rija’s fundraiser to support the Boy Scouts in Madagascar.
In all, I learned a great deal from the tournaments about how to get things done here and I’ve had adults coming out of the woodwork saying they feel inspired and want to help.
The one thing that worries me a bit is the fatalism and angst I saw boiling beneath the surface whenever a fight erupted in one of the games. Their startling propensity to attribute minor altercations to a fundamental flaw in Malagasy mindset was alarming.
If what Malagasy friends tell me is true, and there really is a cultural inclination towards fatalism, risk-aversion and a general dearth of trust impeding compromise and perseverance, then that seems like something I should try to work on – especially since those attitudes inherently suppress economic development.
I figure if I can convince these kids to play team sports and adhere to the rules, then that’s as good a way to teach a life lesson as any.
Until next time, veloma.
Eric Rahman is a member of the Peace Corps in Madagascar. He grew up in St. Louis Park.