The Beautiful Game

25 07 2008

Maasai 2

Maasai United practicing free kicks near the Masai Mara, Kenya

They stood before us, line abreast: four stern-faced Maasai morani, or warriors. The razor-sharp blades of their spears glinting in the sun, wooden knobkerries and well-worn daggers thrust through their belts. They had suddenly appeared from the acacia scrub that surrounded our tents and watched us disdainfully as we scrubbed our socks in a large bowl of dirty grey water.


“Football?” one of them asked, pointing at the volleyball lying on the ground.

“Sure.” we responded, swiftly downing our laundry in an effort to regain our compromised masculinity. They spoke minimal English, we spoke no Maa and only the odd word of Swahili, but the common language was soccer.

The metal flight of a spear was used to draw a goal line before four spears were thrust into the hard, sun-baked ground as goalposts. Daggers and clubs were placed beside them and our opponents’ flowing red shukas were hoisted up and tucked into their belts. It was to be four against four. The Maasai were fit, lithe and sinewy and loomed over us by at least a head. By comparison we were short, unshaven, sun-burned and in trouble.

It was mighty warriors against Hobbits.

We lined up facing each other. Sandals made of shredded tyres versus fancy footwear with velcro, elaborate treads and silly brand names. Aluminium water bottles versus gourds of cow’s blood and milk. T-shirts versus togas. Tan lines versus battle scars.

We graciously allowed the side with the most weapons to kick-off. The light volleyball hopped and bounced across the rutted dusty ground and disappeared into the bush. Hands on hips, we exchanged glances before a Hobbit volunteered to retrieve it. Play resumed, the dust began to fly and the sweat fell. The Hobbits were soon breathless, the Warriors effortlessly striding about in the equatorial heat. There were shouts, tackles, crosses and shots but neither side could hit a cape buffalo with a banjo.  It was soon clear that while the Warriors were supremely fitter and stronger than we’d ever be, they’d spent their formative years engaged in far more worthwhile pursuits than kicking a ball around: things like hunting lions and staying alive.

As the match progressed, the Warriors seemed to grow younger. They shed their gladiatorial demeanour and reverted to the fun-loving teenagers that they actually were. With the transformation came more smiles and laughs and more fun…until the volleyball met an untimely end with a sharp acacia thorn, popped and slowly deflated with a whimper.

We all shook hands and patted each other on the backs. They picked up their spears, clubs and knives and with a wave, headed off back into the bush whistling and chatting.

It was a cross-cultural experience of the finest order. There was no bartering for souvenirs, no begging for pens or money, no requests for photographs and no patronising or hostility. We were simply eight guys from four different countries all engaged in fun for fun’s sake. All of us, perhaps for the first time, realised that regardless of surroundings, appearance, occupation or culture, we were basically all the same…and none of us would ever be a threat to David Beckham!


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008