Coca-Cola Everywhere, But Not a Drop to Drink

September 21, 2013 - Zanzibar, Tanzania

“Never trust a journey from Zanzibar until you are on the boat or the airplane,” Coach Chui told the team last Friday in Kiswahili. “We leave for Bongo tomorrow, God willing.” With these wise words, we began our week-long trip to the Copa Coca-Cola Tournament on the mainland of Tanzania.

In his book, Fear in Bongoland, Marc Summers writes “Bongoland is a worthy nickname for one of Africa's fastest-growing cities. The city's real name, Dar es Salaam, means 'Haven of Peace' in Arabic, a remnant of Team Zanzibarthe city's beginning as a royal getaway for Zanzibar's Swahili Sultans. The new nickname is drawn from Tanzania's two national languages (Swahili and English) to create 'Brainland,' the place where those with bongo or 'brains'—the cunning and the shrewd—thrive.” My first taste of Dar es Salaam came several days before the tournament, as the girls passed around copies of adjusted birth certificates—someone had conspicuously pasted a new number on top of the last digit of each woman's birthday year, then recopied the birth certificate. The tournament welcomed all players under the age of fifteen to play; the women of the New Generation Queens range in age from 14 to 32, most of whom were signed up to play. “Is this really going to fly?” we asked the team's secretary, Layla. “This is Bongo,” she replied. “Anything goes.”

Bongoland proved to be a wild, lovable, dusty city. I arrived with the team on Saturday morning, barely in one piece. My first ferry upon arrival to East Africa was smooth sailing (pun intended), but the 90-minute trip this go-around had everyone's stomachs churning. Before the trip began, an attendant passed out black, plastic bags labeled “Boat Sick.” Maybe the waters were rougher than usual, or maybe it was sitting on the far edge of the top deck, but five or six girls on the team had to use them. I held it together until the shiny city was in view, then tossed my own breakfast in the ferry's bathroom. By the time I emerged, we'd arrived.

Chillin' at the Zanzibar Football Association HQPale, shaky, and grateful to be on solid ground, I was counting down the minutes until I'd be laying in our hotel bed, possibly even taking my first hot shower in a month. I shouldn't have counted. We waited two-and-a-half hours on the side of the road for the team's bus to arrive. When the whole team was finally aboard, I thought to myself, “Soon, very soon, I'll be swimming in clean sheets and soaking in a hot bath.” Wrong again. We drove for another two-and-a-half hours, through Dar's famously terrible traffic and then well out of town, before we finally reached the empty boarding school where every soccer player in the tournament was staying. We had hoped to stay where the team was staying (which we'd wrongly assumed would be in a hotel), but they didn't have room for us, so I kicked dust and played Snake on mySo many spectators, they lined the fences outside! Nokia brick until we were finally able to hop on the backs of motorcycles—along with our camera gear, tripod, my jam-packed bag with a broken handle, all of Megan's suitcases, and a large bag of soccer balls—in order to head several kilometers to the nearest hotel. From our home in Zanzibar to the hotel outside of Dar to the mainland—what I thought would be a 90-minute hop, skip, and jump—had turned into an eleven-hour journey. Megan and I were hungry, exhausted, covered in a thick layer of dust, and ready for a beer.

A few entries ago, I wrote that if a plan is arranged, the plan is the only thing you can count Group prayer before the first gameon not happening. Through the entirety of my stay in Tanzania, but particularly while at the whims of my generous hosts in Dar es Salaam, my grasp of the cultural understanding of time, place, and plans has been consistently subverted. The eleven-hour expedition was the tip of the iceberg. Sunday morning, the team was scheduled to depart for their first game at 11:00 a.m. At 8:30 a.m., we got an urgent text from the team captain, Riziki, telling us that the team was leaving NOW and we should haul ass over there. We were planning to arrive a few hours early to capture the team getting ready, so we were fortunately already packed and on our way out the door, but we were bummed we'd be missing the pre-departure footage. When we arrived, it was clear the team was nowhere near ready to depart. They left not at 8:30 am, not atPre-game warm-ups
11:00 a.m., but at 12:30 p.m. The next morning: different day, same story. We were scheduled to depart at 7:00 a.m., so Megan and I set our alarms for six. At 5:55 a.m., Riziki was knocking on our door, once again with urgency. “The bus is leaving now!” she exclaimed, when I answered the door. “Yeah yeah, I've heard that before!” I thought to myself, rubbing sleep out of my eyes and haphazardly throwing everything in sight into my suitcase. As it turned out, the bus left five minutes later. As we were driving down the dusty road, on the two-hour journey back to the center of Dar, Megan turned to me and said, “And to think: ten minutes ago, we were asleep!” The moment I finally gave up hope of ever Bus commute: sitting optionalunderstanding time, space, place, and plans in East Africa came the next day. After two days of four hour commutes, with the charm of the very spirited (very loud) singing and dancing on the bus commute beginning to wane, we brought our suitcases with us to Dar es Salaam, and set out to find a hotel closer to the field where they were scheduled to play their final match. We found a budget hotel a stone's throw from the field, paid for the room, and started settling in when we got a text from Riziki—the final game had been moved to a field next-door to the boarding school, the reverse two-hour commute from our newfound hotel.

I would love to pen a tale in which Team Zanzibar, the clear underdogs at this tournament of hot-shots and Meg catches the actionall-stars, snuck up on the top runners to win the tournament. No such luck. The New Generation Queens were crushed by their opponents in all three of their games, without scoring a single goal. In sharp contrast—demonstrating just how antipodal men's soccer is to women's soccer here on the island—the under-15 men's team took first place, parading through the streets of Stone Town with their medals and comically large trophy. But the silver lining isn't hard to find: this is the first year that Zanzibar has sent a women's team to Copa Coca-Cola, a tournament that has been hosting both men's and women's teams every year for the past half decade. This is something that was unthinkable, perhaps even laughable, a very short time ago. And in the finalSabaha leaves for the Tanzanian National Team game, after Coca-Cola adorned each player in heavily branded shorts and jerseys but failed to provide sufficient water and quality meals (the food had rocks and small bones in every bite), the team collectively refused to play until water was provided. The story doesn't end there: the tournament's main aim was to scout for players, and Zanzibar's star player, Sabaha, was recruited for the under-20 national team for Tanzania.

In their first game back on the island, the New Generation Queens demolished the team from Kidimni, with I'd be cringing, too!a final score of 6-1. In the speeches following the game, Layla announced that for the upcoming FIFA tournament, Zanzibar would send not only the New Generation Queens, but the best players from across the island. Coach Chui told a story in his speech that sums up my own feelings about women's soccer on the island. He said, “When we first started playing, we lost our first game, twelve to nothing. We kept practicing and working hard, and soon, we were losing by six goals. We kept working hard, and soon we were only losing my two points. Now, we win our games. If you keep practicing, this will be your story, too.” The New Generation Queens still have a long way to go before they'll be a nationally competitive team, but they're taking steps every day toward equality, acceptance, and victory. And that is the stuff that inspirational stories are made of.


Group prayer before the first game
These gals had a better time on the ferry than me!
Team Zanzibar
Sabaha leaves for the Tanzanian National Team
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