By Mohezin Tejani
Enclosed inside the O-shaped housing complex of Madras Gardens, stands a three-tiered grassy field that we Ugandan boys—some thirty of us including Sikhs, Hindus, Punjabis, Bagandas, and Muslims, both Shia and Sunni—use as much more than a playground. It is our life-after-school haven that we sprint to as soon as the three o’clock bell of the last period rings.
The bottom tier, a grassy patch twenty meters long and ten meters wide, is our football field. Our local chappals (flips flops or sandals made of rubber tires) serve as goal posts (with no net) and as field boundaries (with no linesmen). Every afternoon, barefoot “wannabe Pele” strikers snake passed “make-believe Garrincha” defenders—our two Brazilian heroes who by 1962 have already won two World Cup Jules Rimet trophies—as they continue down the field scoring stupendous goals between the two chappals. A referee, selected from among us and agreed to by both teams, has the final word on whether the tattered leather ball is out of bounds during play or a flying torpedo shot to the goalposts is too high over the imaginary net to be counted as a valid goal.
This field—our own Kampala version of Old Trafford Stadium in England, the land of our colonial godfathers—is maintained by all of us with unfaltering pride. Boys on rotational duty make sure that the grass does not grow too long, cutting it down with machetes on weekends and twice a week during the rainy season. Littering is prohibited and intruder birds from the sky or neighborhood dogs wanting to defecate are persona non grata. Slippery animal shit or a discarded can of coke can create havoc on a boy’s feet as he dribbles his way to stardom. Our star forwards, nicknamed Bobby Charlton, and our goal keepers dubbed Lev Yashin are crowned after each game. In our minds, it is just a question of time and practice before some of us will be playing on the Ugandan team and eventually even the FA Cup finals at Wembley.
The middle tier at Madras Gardens serves as our cricket grounds. It is a bit more even up front but slopes downward at the bottom end where hardly any grass grows. In the center is the pitch, a parallel line of red dirt two meters wide and ten meters long, that we flatten with a concrete roller (over buckets of sweat and heated discussions), borrowed from a neighbor who works at a construction site. Eventually, it’s smooth enough for bowlers to deliver “googlie” balls to strike out the lone batsman at the front end of the pitch. Unfortunately, the bottom sloping end of the tier denies us the luxury of having two batsmen batting at the same time. The cricket ball itself is made out of real cork but the wickets and bells were homemade from local teak wood. The two bats, cut from the branches of a nearby mahogany tree, are shared by the five-a-side batsmen, and are polished with grease after each game to enhance their longevity.
Every afternoon, the more enthusiastic players imagine themselves to be the one of the three Ws (Worrell, Walcott, or Weekes) from the West Indies National team, who recently became world champions despite the racial policies of their colonial masters. They bat their way to stardom. Meanwhile boys who didn’t make the cut for the football game become batsmen and fielders patiently waiting their turn, while chewing on a stalk of sugar cane or chatting with each other about the latest Bollywood musical or Hollywood western playing at one of the four theaters in the city.
The third and final tier at the top of the playground is full of large unmovable rocks, a few trees and unmanageable weeds, and is used in the evenings only. After the football and cricket games are over, many of us die-hard athletes—those brave enough to ignore our mothers’ call to come home for dinner or else risk a spanking—start up local games like tree tag played on guava trees or thapo, our version of hide-and-seek, that go on till the pangs of hunger and thirst give way to childhood play.
This three-tiered playground is our escape from the world of adults. It’s the place that we designed by ourselves, where we make our own decisions, and implement changes as needed on games schedules, structural improvements, and even inclusion or dismissal of participants, as called for, after intense discussions followed by a majority consensus vote. Participatory democracy by children with minimal intervention from the power-brokering adults!
When political and ethnic strife takes over our city in 1966 following the ouster of Bagandan president King Mutesa by Prime Minster Obote whose army thugs slaughter hundreds of protesting Bagandans, the Baganda boys have special dispensation to head home well before dark, especially during the 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. citywide curfews. When the Muslim boys plead that they are under intense family pressure to forfeit games in order to attend mosque prayers on Friday evenings or during religious festivals like Eid (the celebration of Prophet Mohammed’s birthday) or Ramadhan (the month of fasting), we let them off the hook. Over time, we come up with the rule that boys from any ethnic group have the right to be absent if they have to attend a religious festival or national day, as long as we get to share some of their “goodies” from the event. During Holi, a Hindu water-throwing festival to commemorate the coming of the rains after the dry season, we all fill up colored water balloons for water fights among designated teams. During the Diwali fireworks festival, we use coke bottles and tin cans as our launching pads for the rockets and shooting stars we use to light up the African sky. We become cross-cultural experts through default.
When the fields are due for maintenance and upkeep, we have back-up plans for games devised for outside the three-tiered fields. . . . Whichever particularly tasty fruit is in season at the time, teams are organized for the night raid of the neighborhood fruit trees. There are many to choose from—guavas, custard apples, mangoes, and our favorite, the African pafu on the tall tree trunks with sturdy branches that can hold our weight. Fruit-stealing teams are elected based on the skills each of us have in terms of speed and stealth, essential qualities needed so as not to get caught by the fruit owners or their ferocious mutts. Luwanga, a Bagandan who is our champion fruit stealer, always leads the strategic plans for each night’s raids.
During the rainy season, when the football and cricket fields are too soggy to play either game, we turn them into areas for our two favorite games, nagoria and gili danda, in which everyone can participate.
The first one, nagoria, involves seven flat stones and a tennis ball. The team batting piles flat stones on top of each other, the largest at the bottom and the smallest at the top. The fielding team pitcher aims to break the pile with a tennis ball from a distance. Once broken, the batting team spreads over the field to avoid any of their players being tagged by the tennis ball from the fielding team. If the batting team is able to pile up all the stones back onto the pile without being tagged, they win a point and the game starts all over again. If not, the teams changes sides. The first team to reach ten points wins the game.
Gili danda is an Indian version of baseball played with two wooden sticks, one long, one short. The longer one is used as the bat and the shorter one as the ball. The batsman places the short stick in a V-shaped groove dug out of the dirt. Using the “bat” to flip it spinning into the air, he then tries to hit it again in mid air as far as he can from home base. Three missed strikes on the short stick or a catch by any of the fielders and the batsman is out. When all the batsmen are out, the team changes sides. The team with the most points, measured with the long stick from the point where the short stick lands to home base, wins the game.
We play these games for hours on end, stopping only when the drizzle turns into ferocious sheets of rain, creating minor rivers in our fields and forcing us to head home, so we can nurse our colds before they turn into lethal dengue fever.
* * *
Boyhood grows into adulthood. Black and white TV comes to Uganda, sounding the death knell of communal games. Prime Minister Obote’s thugs slaughter more Bagandas during another purge. Luwanga, our master fruit stealer, gets killed by rifle bullets in the head from a passing army jeep for breaking curfew. A few years later, General Idi Amin, a product of our colonial exploiters, kicks out all 80,000 Ugandan Asians claiming they are “milking the economy for free.” The games, the boys, the camaraderie are dispersed to the worldwide winds of change.
I return to Uganda in 1997 after twenty-five years of exile. The three-tiered fields of Madras Gardens—deserted and unmaintained for years—are covered in pigeon and dog shit with poisonous mamba snakes crawling in and out of the tall elephant grass.
Date posted on Simerg: April 8, 2011
Copyright: M. Tejani 2011
About the writer: Mohezin Tejani, a globetrotting Muslim exiled from Idi Amin’s Uganda, is writing his trilogy memoirs. The first volume “A Chameleon’s Tale: True Stories of a Global Refugee,” published in 2006, was a finalist for a PEN book award in New York. Three of his stories from the second volume “Global Crossroads” have won Gold and Silver Awards in a world wide travel writing competition. The piece “Childhood Games” is from a collection of essays, poems and letters written over four decades. He currently lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or though his website: www.motejani.com.
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