Old Socks and Bits of String

Esther - Kigali, Rwanda
Entered on August 28, 2012
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There is a language found on every continent, in every village I’ve seen. Granted, I have not been to every mountaintop, nor have I scoured the deserts. My life is considerably humbler. I travel second, third, even last class, smashed into the half-seat remaining in a taxi, or thrown on board an open truck, on top of cassava sacks, bouncing as much as my grimy pack. But no matter where I step out, no matter if I don’t know even the first greeting, I am confident I will communicate: Just toss me a couple of plastic bags, old socks, a bit of sisal fiber, and voilà! There’s a ball dancing between my feet, and all too soon, a swarm of children, or young men, sometimes women, ready to create a dialogue without ever opening their mouths.

You’ve probably heard all this before. Football is the world’s favorite sport, one of its greatest obsessions. But have you ever considered football a language?

I started playing football around the same time I officially started school. My parents recognized the power books had over me way back when I had to lift a dictionary with both of my hands; they worried that I would bury myself in so many pages that I would forget what sunshine felt like on my nose, so they conspired to introduce me to what would become one of my heart languages. Amongst the neighborhood children behind a rundown supermarket, I chased a miniature ball toward a goal that probably only reaches my waist these days. Photos from those first matches show a girl with a boyish haircut and a smile so wide it threatens to pop off her face.

As it is with all of life, knowing the language of football has brought those sudden smiles, but it has been the cause of just as many tears. I’ve learned how to make football moves sexier with a Mexican men’s team’s raucous encouragement. I’ve sung my fair share of karaoke after wild matches with my Laotian teammates. I’ve also stood sobbing while some of those same boys threw bricks at our opponents after racist threats had been tossed their direction. Fathers of those boys created me into the beast of a player that I used to be when they realized that their own sons didn’t have the motivation to succeed. Though they would never step foot in a university, they pushed me through painful hours of drills and laps and being beaten past my ability to breathe so that at last I was able to jog into a stadium, head held high, as the sweeper of my university’s inaugural women’s team.

The number of feet that have tackled me fairly (and un-) are countless; the faces attached to those feet represent almost every continent. I would never have met as many people had I been limited by the words my tongue forms. Give me old socks and a bit of sisal string instead of a dictionary any day.