Magazine article The Spectator

Not My Game

Magazine article The Spectator

Not My Game

Article excerpt

After work the farm labourers like to head for the football pitch. They go barefoot, or in their Bata takkies, and they play rough. The first ball I gave them was an imported silver Fifa-approvcd item of great expense and they impaled it on a nearby fever tree within days. After that I bought cheap balls in Nairobi. These still get punctured regularly on thorns. The giant of a goalkeeper is a man named Magoolgool - named, like many of his tribe, after a treasured bull - who specialises in thumping the ball with such force that it rockets into the stratosphere and bursts with a distant pop.

I don't play. It just causes embarrassment. Soccer is not my game. On the occasions I've persevered, I just end up getting squashed, which does have some entertainment value for the workers. No, at 39 I'm now a junior elder. I should be sitting on the touchline with my friend Tom, knocking back the Tuskers with our drinking steers in attendance. A drinking steer, by the way, is what the cattle-mad Samburu men use to generate a party spirit. It's a beast with particularly fine lyre-shaped horns that you tether at your side to swell your heart with gladness while you get thoroughly pissed. I am still shopping for my steer, but in the meantime I use a lovely hogget with a back that's flat enough to rest a beer on.

A couple of Sundays ago, our guys were invited over to the neighbouring ranch to play an away match. Their team had been training for years and was impressively kitted out in proper jerseys and boots, which we haven't yet had a chance to organise. We're the underdogs, the new boys. Our opponents laughed at us. What they hadn't counted on was that our guys are generally young and because of all the work going on at our new place - cutting tracks, putting up miles of dry-stone walls, earthworks, constructing huts - they are fighting fit. The score was 4-1. We wiped the floor with them, and it was largely thanks to our striker Lekurdoi (another bull).

Long after sunset, a man came to the cottage to report that a brawl had erupted after the match. The captain of the losing side had attacked Lekurdoi and knocked him out. That had been two hours before. Cursing the messenger for not telling me sooner, I trotted down to the workers' campi to find our striker had still not regained consciousness. He lay on the ground surrounded by a circle of men who just stared while one youth repeatedly slapped him in the face. …

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