Balls and Balls
A couple of months ago, I participated in two very different examples of events that exemplify a lot about the cultures I am living in at the moment. A world-cup qualifier soccer game between Burkina Faso and Benin and a Marine Ball at the embassy.
Going to a soccer game in a place that takes soccer very seriously is always a bit stressful. Will I get crushed in the crowd? Pickpocketed? Have to avoid over-enthusiastic fans expressing their feelings in non-positive ways? I once read a book about mob mentality as illustrated by soccer fans in England and it made a lasting, terrifying impression on me.
All of this being said, I love to watch sports with enthusiastic fans, especially sports that are being played at an elite level. I’m partial to yelling at TVs to encourage or berate, even when I’m not emotionally invested in a game. If you know my Mom, you’ll understand this aspect of my personality a bit better.
When I found out that Benin and Burkina were playing a World Cup Qualifier minutes from my house and that I could attend for less than $5, I jumped at the opportunity. After slathering on sunscreen (the worst sunburn of my life happened at a soccer match in Ghana. This is a prime example of me taking the adage “learn from your mistakes” seriously), I set off for the Stadium of Friendship with a small group of friends. After expertly bargaining for tickets with a hawker, we walked into the stadium. I think I was one of four women in attendance who was not selling refreshments.
There was chest paint, there was chanting, there was passion. Benin seemed to be the lesser team, but they pulled ahead and won the game, to everyone’s intense joy. Riot police ringed the field, standing stoically and becoming progressively more damp as people launched plastic bags full of water down from the stands onto the track, singing Benin’s national anthem as they hurled their celebratory water bombs.
The Benin Squirrels won! (Although they lost soon after, unfortunately falling out of the running for the World Cup.) It was a wonderful day with no crowd violence (unless you count the water bombs, which I don’t.) And in case you are wondering, no, I have never seen a single squirrel in Benin.
Every year there is a Marine Ball to celebrate the birthday of the Marine Corps anywhere there are Marines. (I think.) Benin just got its first Marines to protect our very fancy new American Embassy. This year in Benin there was actually just a “Cake Cutting Ceremony” and not a ball, but I think that is really a persnickety detail because it seemed plenty fancy to me and I danced a lot. Anyway, I do not own a ball gown and I love cake, so a cake cutting ceremony suited me fine.
Because I live in Cotonou I was invited to participate and be one of the faces of the Peace Corps present at the event. I tried to make myself look a little more presentable and less sweaty than usual, and set off. The event was the most elegant thing I’ve been to in a while. There were a lot of important people in attendance. The level of decorum was difficult to uphold when the DJ couldn’t start the national anthem and accidentally put on some serious dance tunes instead. For probably over a minute and a half, all of the marines and the Ambassador were standing there, in formation, trying to bring the flag in. The DJ fumbled and fumbled. I had a hard time not laughing because 1) of course this happened, even though we are technically on American soil, we are still in Benin, and 2) this mishap was followed by a ceremony where a marine very seriously cut a cake with a saber which was symbolically poignant, I’m sure, but also seemed comedic to me. Luckily, I avoided an embarrassing outbreak of giggles.
We recently got a new ambassador in Benin who I met at the Peace Corps office before the event. 100% recovered from my near-laughing fit, I went over and re-introduced myself. She, in turn, introduced me to a man who I’m pretty sure was the ambassador to Belgium. We were chatting and he looked at my leg, noticing my scar (the one I got from dramatically falling into a manhole.) He said “Is that a mosquito bite?”
No, I explained, I fell into a manhole. My scar is just a reminder that Cotonou can be treacherous. He then told a bilingual dad joke. A dad joke is, according to me, “A joke that is sometimes funny, but mostly corny, one that makes you want to say “Awwww DAD!” the sort which your father probably tells at the dinner table, especially if you have friends over.”
Some background information you need to understand this joke is that the word for hole in French is “trou,” pronounced “true.” So when I said “Cotonou is treacherous,” he said “It isn’t Cotonou, it is Coto-TROU!” Although this took a moment for me to get, due to its bilingual nature, I thought it was absolutely hilarious and dorky.
Later that evening I danced the twist with the two ambassadors. I respect ambassadors who do things like dance to the twist at official events, because I think that shows a level of levity that can be hard to maintain for people in high offices. Anyway, later in the evening, the Belgian Ambassador (WAS HE THE BELGIAN AMBASSADOR? I WILL NEVER KNOW!) brought over a good-looking young man (presumably also Belgian, although who’s to say?) The Ambassador said “I recently met this young woman and she is a good dancer. This man is also a good dancer!”
In this moment, which could have been the start of a whirlwind romance or at least a dance, I reverted to my Beninese instincts. The appropriate thing to do in this situation in Benin is to make a joke. So I said “AH, BON?! (a very Beninese way to say “Oh really?”) I won’t believe you can dance until I see it!” My accent and body language were extremely Beninese, which people here usually find charming.
Instead of finding me charming, the young, handsome Belgian looked at me in horror, turned around, and walked away. Safe to say he didn’t appreciate my Beninese French and mannerisms. Well, I didn’t appreciate his sense of humor. I couldn’t stop laughing.
That night I danced for about eight hours and paid for it with massive blisters on my feet. But it was worth it. I also got to eat a piece of real red velvet cake (cut by sabre) and it was delicious. And although I didn’t start an international love affair, I ended up with a good story. What more can you ask for?