Game on: the experience of a western girl playing basketball with Liberian ex combatants and Pakistani peacekeepers
When I stepped on the court the locals took one look at my first shot and simply said “she can play.” The peacekeepers were not sold so easily and appeared a little more disturbed by my appearance. At first I couldn’t tell if it was the white legs, the need for a sports bra or the cultural perceptions about gender roles. With time and familiarity it didn’t seem to matter too much for some, for others it clearly did, but the feminist in me wasn’t going to tolerate any of it, so in an ever so slightly sassy manner, I stood my ground on a court overflowing with testosterone.
The Pakistanis, dressed in matching green and red warm ups have approximately 9 plastic balls and a plan. They begin standard warm-up procedures, which seems a bit odd in this post conflict Liberian setting but, I have seen stranger things; and, given my own eccentricities, I was a huge fan of the oddity of it all. Very quickly I noticed they all could shoot and some clearly were quite savvy about the game. Two of them were remarkably tall, one of which is painstakingly slim and the other has a serious vertical jump. A number of others, sporting classic middle-eastern beards, had a good eye for the court and a very serious attitude. Most of them have dark bushy mustaches and for some reason I couldn’t quite take these guys seriously. I noticed a few of them refused to shake my hand and others avoided direct body contact with me. At the end of the day it seemed we were all were struggling with the subtleties of it all. However, with time and exposure, we managed to eventually take each others talents seriously. No one quite knew what to do with the fact that something like this has never happened here before and everybody felt a bit confused about the rules of engagement; but, eventually I started to get pushed around and when one guy eventually knocked me to the ground, I knew that they knew I could play.
The local guys are only 4 in number so I can’t tell if they recruited me because they thought I might be able to play or simply because they needed a warm body. Of the four, only one has any skill. The other three are athletic but sloppy and somewhat lazy which gets me agitated quickly. My agitation is partly the result of genetics - I take after my father and am fiercely competitive. The remaining part is tied to my firm belief in defense and teamwork and showy sloppiness drives me crazy. I begin to swear like a sailor and make sly comments about Jesus, Mary and Joseph which might have actually endured to me a few of the players. Although I was all smiles and laughs before and after the game, during the game I was a raging competitor and, aside from Patrick, our very talented point guard, nobody quite knows what to do with me. .
It became evident the Pakistanis are VERY used to wining and tend to be cherry pickers even when they are ahead. It takes some time, but Patrick and I find a groove and the others manage to rebound a little and clean up their acts. We eventually managed to pull ahead and I have to admit I was beside myself when we actually won. After the game the Pakistanis pull out a massive blue cooler with exquisitely clear filtered cold water and graciously serve us in tin coffee cups. All the show and edginess is gone and they are once again a bit timid in their interactions with me. I realize they too love the game and suffer from self inflicted pangs of competitiveness.
Just as easily as it was turned off, it is turned back on and we are all once again relating to one another based on some established developing world gender status quo. Although at some point in the game I became first a player, it quickly wore off and, as the game solidified into a memory, I was once again first a woman. We chat for a while and decide it will be important for us to play every day and add an extra morning practice on Sundays to begin at 6:30. This is serious – no more resting and rock collecting for gv…..all I can say to this is bring it – game on!