Last month, Mali, a serious contender for the March 2010 World Cup soccer tournament, welcomed Benin to their soccer stadium in the capital for a World Cup finalizing match. Soccer borders on religion for many in West Africa and with the World Cup in South Africa less than a year away the soccer mania in Mali is reaching fever pitch.
I met with three other volunteers at a restaurant in the afternoon to take a taxi over to the stadium. We were in varying degrees of support for our team – Antony and Kate in Mali soccer jerseys, me in my Barack Obama dress and Mali cap and Natalie representing for the casual Bohemians of America in jeans and a black tank. The cab driver insisted on driving us straight into the mob of people lined up outside the stadium, dropping us off as close to the entrance as possible. Once we were able to get our doors open against the pressing mob, we fought our way to the back and absorbed into the long, militant line of people trailing out and around the stadium. We weaved in and out of cake sellers and children hawking cool drinks in plastic tubs. People were offering to let us cut in line which I took to be an extremism of Malian generosity but later learned to be a line cutting scheme. For a mere 1,000 CFA (about $2) I could cut almost the entire mob of people behind me. As I lingered for a moment by one of the welcoming schemers, Kate grabbed my arm and pulled me to the back of the line. Seeing the intensity with which the people towards the back took the line, I agreed with Kate and decided it was not worth saving a few minutes only to face the angry mob once inside the stadium. Malians would throw a fit immediately if someone did cut and threaten to turn the wrong-doers into the police waiting in complete raid gear at the front of the line.
Posing with one of the police men - the flash makes him look like a wax model but he was real!
Stories of the Ivory Coast finalizing match game where 22 people died in a stampede and 130 people were left injured made me think twice about going to the Mali-Benin game. I reasoned that I would stay far from stampede-like situations and hold hands crossing the street like my Mom always says ☺. I also banked on the love of Barack Obama by wearing my dress in hopes that any conflicts could be smoothed over by erupting into chants of "Yes we can!" (It works outside of soccer stadiums here!) The line was deceptive in its length and we breezed through in about 20 minutes to the front where the police did in fact throw out line cutters to the back of the line with a threatening wave of their night sticks. While intimidating, it was refereshing to see justice in action. The police, decked out in terminator-like raid gear, called out for those entering the stadium to hold their ticket above their head. They yelled out “billet, billet!” I beamed with pride at my forethought to wear such a peace making outfit thinking they were saying “bien, bien!” at my Barack Obama dress since the dress is usually met with big thumbs up from Malians. Ah, the funny confusions that occur when language and vanity get in the way. Once inside we merged into the excited mass of people vying for the best of the numberless seats. A wave of red, green and yellow clad consumers waving flags, beating drums and buying snacks. The field looked small and our ringside seats felt illegally close for the price of the ticket (1500 CFA, about $3).
Kate and I field-side during warm-ups.
Benin scored the first goal after team Mali practically threw the ball into the net for the Beninois – chalk it up to home turf nerves. We recouped at half-time to even the score before rain clouds that had been threatening all afternoon let loose over the stadium. As the teams retreated to their respective locker rooms for orange slices and Gatorade (or whatever it is professional soccer teams eat at half-time) male fans took off their shirts and everyone shook their hips and hands to the Malian music blaring over the loudspeakers. I’m always cognizant of the fact that I am not from here. I stumble over words in Bambara. I am white. I am an outspoken, brazen, unmarried (gasp!) woman. But there are times like when the rains fall on a filled-to-capacity soccer stadium in Bamako and the music draws the spirit from everyone that I can forget for a minute that I don’t belong and the community that surrounds me makes me feel at home.
Radiant smiles post-game as we pose with other volunteers we found at the game and their Malian friends/co-workers.
The second half brought more rain and 2 more goals for Mali bringing the final score 3-1 Mali Eagles. As we bled out of the stadium with all the other exhausted soccer fans whistles bought only hours before already losing their steam, tired flags waving from tired hands, it was the first time I had to fight to flag down a taxi. As I unloaded from the car in front of Khadi’s house, my voice hoarse from cheering on my team, feet tired and dirty from dancing in the rain, I looked back to my cabbie and bid him good night and we gave our final hurrahs that Mali – our team – had won the night.