When we first arrived to the school in Njoro, we were a little reluctant at first, and were glad when Coach Ally took the lead and got out of the car. He spoke in Swahili to the group of kids and had them doing stretches in a circle in less than 5 minutes. Impressive. Then he had them run laps, for a long while. A word about Tanzania and running, they go together like peanut butter and jelly. Mpira (soccer) is the perfect showcase for the amazing running talent of Tanzanians. It was 96F that day, and the local kids were running no problem. Barely sweating. Sam and Reid had wet, bright red faces but hung in there. Next came shirts and skins and dividing of the group into two teams. Coach Ally put Sam and Reid together on the “shirts” side. Good man.
The boys played real, unadulterated soccer that Friday, and each Friday after that for the next three months. While they were playing, Tate and I would watch, walk to the river, and play in the dirt with the local kids. Chickens would come on the field and run around, young kids wearing their school uniforms would chase the chickens and practice their English with us, and there was always lots of interest in our car. The wind would occasionally blow the red dirt into dirt devils in the middle of a game, but the kids would pass the ball around with their eyes closed to the dust to avoid the dirt devils. Our soccer fields at home were pristine in comparison.
One day Coach Ally asked if he could have money for new soccer shoes. Two weeks later he asked for bus fare for his son to come home from University in Mbeya. Both were small amounts of money to most Americans, so we gave it to him as a loan to his wages. As a thank you he invited us to lunch on a Sunday with his family. This was an experience that made a huge impression on the kids.
Coach Ally and his family lived in a room of a house in the neighborhood of Majengo, close to Njoro. He and his wife had four boys and one girl and they shared two rooms, one for cooking and bathing, and one for everything else–sleeping, eating, relaxing, etc.
Bathrooms are located outside in Tanzanian homes. His wife cooked the meal while we sat in the next room and talked in a mixture of English and our bad Swahili. She cooked rice and soupu (a vegetable stew made with a coconut milk base) bent over at the waist hovered over a small indoor open fire. My back hurt just watching. We had fresh warm milk with masala spice and avocados, bananas and cucumbers with the meal she cooked. It was delicious. We ate the food sitting on their sofa which doubled as a bed and used the coffee table to eat on. They served us the best portions of the stew on their best mismatched bowls with spoons. Reid and I shared a spoon because there wasn’t enough to go around. They bought brand new bottled water just for us. We knew the water, milk and the meal was extravagant for them, because their only source of income was the small vegetable street stall or “Duka” Coach Ally’s wife ran around the corner from where they lived. So we ate all the food we were served and did not leave any in our bowls. After we ate, we talked about politics and education, while one of the sons took a nap next to us. No lights or electricity or phone. It was amazingly real, and for that even more than the soccer we will always be grateful.
A month later, during the rainy season, we decided to take a break from the extra soccer. School had gotten very busy and we needed the time to finish our service projects. We let Coach Ally know that we wouldn’t be able to meet on Mondays and Fridays anymore and that we would be returning to the U.S. soon. We thanked him for all of his help and for sharing his family, and forgave him for the small loans we had given him. The next day Coach Ally called and asked for a significant loan for his family. His son at University in Mbeya needed TSH 300,000 (about $175) to complete his exams. This posed a dilemma for me. He was no longer working for us, and so I knew he had no way to re-pay a loan. So it was really not a loan rather a donation. On the other hand, he had shown us kindness and had given us an invaluable experience. In the end, we decided to drop off a week’s bundle of food – beans, corn meal and tea – that is the staple of most Tanzanian’s diet. This was our gesture of thank you for real Tanzanian soccer.0