While traveling abroad, I've always found sports to be a great way to break down cultural barriers. South Africa has been no different.
I played soccer and basketball growing up, and these two sports are great for the international traveler. One would truly be hard-pressed to find a city on the face of the Earth where one of these two games was not being played on a weekend afternoon. Johannesburg is no different. On Sunday afternoons the basketball court at Zoo Lake Park sees a fairly large crowd of guys playing pick-up games. My Congolese friend James invited me out to join him.
The group of players was very diverse. Whites, Blacks, and Asians all played together. As is ususally the case in South Africa, English was the lingua franca, although bits of Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, French, and Chinese could be heard when someone made an especially good (or bad) play.
My own play was decent, on the whole. I've never been much of an offensive powerhouse, but my defense and rebounding was respectable. I think my main role was taking a couple charges from a guy who could seemingly dunk at will. The play was also fairly sophisticated. When the other team saw how many rebounds I was pulling down, they had my man stick to the outside of the perimeter, keeping me away from the hoop.
The big sporting event here has been the European Soccer Championship, better known as Euro 2012. The tournament has been going on for almost a month, and the semi-finals are this week. The games have been a good opportunity to hang out with two of my three roommates, Matt and Victor. Matt and Victor are from Cameroon, but Matt grew up speaking English.
Watching soccer in Cameroon must almost be a sport in an of itself. Matt, Victor, and their West African friends are some of the most animated spectators I've ever seen, especially considering that, as the tournament is solely European national teams, they have no national pride on the line. Before the game we'll hang out, speaking in English. Once the first whistle blows, however, everyone switches to Pidgin, a Cameroonian dialect that I frankly can't understand. A referee's decision will bring about intense discussions on the fairness of the call. Tactics and strategy will be passionately discussed throughout the game. Players are yelled at as if they could hear my friends' vehement instructions or criticisms. A missed shot will bring everyone else to their feet, coats and hats thrown to the floor.
I'll be into the game, and offer some commentary, encouragement, or frustration, but to them I must look absolutely dispassionate. I never raise my voice or wave my hands. If I get off the couch, it’s probably to get a beer. In comparison, I probably come off as stoic. I hope to one day see my friends watch the Cameroonian national team play. I’ll be the quiet guy in the corner, watching the spectators more than the game.