They love soccer on the mountain. I should say, the boys love soccer. The Mia Hamm phenomenon hasn’t reached here yet. Little girls play with the littlest boys, but by the time they’re teens, it’s an all-boy sport.
They especially love Brazilian soccer. They feel some connection to the Brazilians. Haitians have their own nicknames for many of the Brazilian stars, and each Haitian boy has one whom he tries to emulate: Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Bebeto, Roberto Carlos. They tell me I play like Dunga, but what they’re really looking at is his short, graying hair. Brazil’s loss to France in the finals of the last World Cup was a double tragedy: French victory
combined with Brazilian defeat.
Space to play in is hard to come by on our steep, rocky, densely populated mountain, but any small clearing is likely enough to host a game of whatever size it will bear. On some of the smallest spots-short, relatively flat stretches of our narrow, unpaved road, for example-you’ll find games of two-on-two. Anything relatively round will serve as a ball. Very often, little boys will use unripe grapefruit. As the zest scrapes against their rock-strewn field, the smell of the citrus wafts teasingly through the air.
Since I arrived in August, the older boys in Ka Glo have had a first-rate leather ball, courtesy of Leo Pickens, the Director of Athletics at St. John’s College. There are regular games of 4-on-4 in the 30 by 50 foot clearing that opens beneath the giant mapou tree outside my gate. The games consist of a lot of shooting and a tremendous amount of shouting. The whole neighborhood gathers to watch. There’s singing and encouragement and ridicule of all sorts.
The field they play on is about as bad for the ball as one can imagine. It’s thickly strewn with jagged rocks ranging from marble-size to baseball-size and larger. The first few weeks I was constantly filling the ball up for the boys with the small pump that Leo sent with their ball. One day, they weren’t playing, and I asked why. It turns out that the ball was already torn and wouldn’t hold air at all. I figured it was back to grapefruit.
A few days later, the ball made a new appearance. Eli and Jinyò had taken it to the market in Bwa Moket, a 45 minute walk down the mountain, where they found someone to repair it. Jinyò is one of the younger teens. At 15, he’s smaller and weaker than the older boys he plays with. On our small, restrictive field, it’s hard for him to compete. But Jinyò can play. Beautifully. Dribbling, faking, shooting from all angles. Like most of the
boys, he plays in flip-flops or barefoot. He’ll put a sneaker one of his feet if he can find one. I’ve rarely seen him with two. Everyone loves watching him. He thinks nothing of kicking the ball backwards over his head, even though falling on his back means landing painfully on the rocky ground.
When Eli and Jinyò returned from Bwa Moket, the ball was back in action, good as new. For a few weeks, anyway.
But this is where things get interesting. One day I saw Jinyò with the ball. It was obviously torn again. I looked it over, and noticed that in the course of trying to pump the torn ball up, the kids had displaced the valve that the needle enters. I figured the ball was finished. I asked Jinyò what he planned to do with it, and he said that he was leaving things to Eli.
Now, Eli is a very short, asthmatic 16-year-old boy. He is much smaller than the other boys, and he is convinced his asthma will prevent him from ever growing much. It amuses him that I call him “Big Eli” to distinguish him from the other Eli, a little boy of six or seven, in our village. He rarely plays because of his asthma, but he watches. He watches everything, and he really pays attention. I followed Jinyò to find him, and I sat down to do some watching myself.
It turns out that Eli didn’t go with Jinyò to Bwa Moket for nothing. He had carefully observed the man they took their ball to, and was now prepared to try to repair the ball himself. He had a knife, a needle, and some thick thread. He worked slowly, with extraordinary patience. He cut the ball open, repaired a couple of new leaks, re-attached the valve, and sewed the ball up again. A couple of hours later, the boys were playing again and Eli was watching.
The other day, when I got home, Eli was sitting on one of the benches in front of my porch. Once again, he had needle and thread in hand. But this time, instead of the ball that Leo gave us, he had a pile of small, carefully cut-out hexagons and pentagons in worn brown leather. Somewhere, his friends had found him a small, black rubber bladder and an old leather book bag that he had already cut up. Big Eli was making a ball from scratch. It took a lot of doing. He had to sew things together and tear them apart again several times through the afternoon. By early evening, he was finished. Once again, he had to sit and watch others enjoy his work. I didn’t hear anyone thank him, or even speak well of the work he had done. But they do talk to him and of him with genuine respect. And so do I.