Field of dreams
In Kasane, a small town in Botswana near the Namibian border, Will meets Graham Johnson, the South African head of Nokya Ya Botselo school, a 70-pupil church school. The children are football crazy, and Will is swiftly appointed not only maternity cover for Graham's wife Janey, who teaches Standard One (six-year-olds), but manager of the Kasane Kudus Under-7s.
Graham told the Standard One pupils that there was nothing to worry about and that all would go smoothly. Looking at the faces of the somewhat shocked little children, I was not entirely sure that they shared his confidence. Not only was I not in any way as beautiful as Mrs Johnson, but I was considerably bigger and rather louder. Some of the little girls were blushing, and at least one was looking a bit tearful. I began to think that this might be a rather greater challenge than I had first imagined.
But after that first morning spent with Bothle, Glory, Courtney, Blessings, Olobogeng, Dolly, Happy, Kitso, Skye, Kitty, Hakim, Stella, little Chinese Hui, and Arthur, we were never to look back. The rest of the term spent in their company was to prove not only an unalloyed pleasure and a many-thousand-miled adventure, but also produced some of the most exciting footballing moments since they thought it was all over.
When the first practice session on our uneven but spacious pitch had come to an end and I staggered back into the shade of the overhanging tin roof, I could not but agree with Graham's rather unkind assessment that the children were "pretty useless" at football. Although enormously keen, the boys' and girls' only clear intention was to make contact with the ball as often as possible and boot it as far as they possibly could, regardless of the direction. Tactically, their team strategy appeared to be to chase the ball wherever it then went. Falling over was something that did, on the other hand, appear to come reasonably naturally, and although tears were few, enthusiasm waned in direct proportion to bruises gained.
Bothle was almost always the first to think about calling it a day.
Skipping over to me, clutching an injured part of his anatomy, he would look up at me beseechingly. "Mr Mango," he would say in his soft, quiet voice. "Mr Mango, I am now beginning to feel a little bit tired, so I think what I will do is I will have to go off now. I will sit under the tree and have a little rest." And without waiting for my response he would potter off into the shade and sit down with a sigh. His big round eyes blinking, he would look about for anybody who might be sympathetic to his cause. More often than not, Elizabeth (the teaching assistant), who had something of a soft spot for him, would scoop him up to her side, where within a few minutes, due to such heroic exertions, he would fall asleep.
Despite their shortcomings in footballing skill, the children were all adept in the theatrical department. Final whistles at the end of any of our short practice games would result in loud and exuberant celebrations normally reserved for the winning of an international tournament. As they trooped heavy-limbed from the dusty pitch, sadness, sometimes near despair, would be wrought on the faces of the losing side. Normally, however, they would have considerably cheered up by the time that they received their orange squash and biscuits from Elizabeth, the purveyor of all things sweet.
Fortunately, I managed to find a whistle in the Chinese shop belonging to Hui's parents, and this brought at least some order to the football proceedings... Slowly, too, some of the children began to show a natural aptitude, a real sense of what they should be doing. Little Stella turned out not only to be quite skilful, but also able to run like the wind. The boys, not really conscious of any battle of the sexes, just found it fun trying to keep up with her.
"Do you think it will be worth entering them for the competition?" Graham asked me uncertainly during one of the practice sessions.
"Yes, all the schools that have been set up by the same foundation enter a knockout competition. Gives them an opportunity to play competitive games and visit a few different countries. We never get anywhere because we're so small, but they do love it. Be good for you to visit the region too."
"Yes, it does sound like fun." I was quite enthused. "Hang on, did you say countries?"
"Yes," Graham laughed. "It's pretty international. They'll visit Namibia, Zambia, maybe even Zim depending on the political situation. And, of course, we go right across Bots - as far as Tsodilo. You heard of 'the hills'?"
I shook my head.
"Then that will be an adventure for you all!"
Graham strolled off shouting encouragement to Dolly, who had just been flattened by a rather over-exuberant tackle from Kitso, leaving me feeling invigorated by the thought of seeing more of Africa and excited by the prospect of the tournament. This was to be our Botswana Adventure.
As I daydreamed, Hui passed me the ball. Unexpectedly, and without thinking, I booted it in the direction of goalkeeper Happy. It was destined to sail into the top left-hand corner but the little boy stretched his skinny frame as far as he could and tipped it over the bar. With a giant roar of congratulation, we all ran towards him as if he had just saved the last-minute equaliser in the final of the African Cup of Nations.
Will is referee when the Kasane Kudus visit an Afrikaner farmstead in Pandamatenga in the Kalahari.
Everything seemed to be pretty evenly matched for the first 10 minutes, but just before half-time, Dolly, who had been busy giving Bothle a lesson in how to tie his laces, took her eye off the ball. As a stalwart of our flat back four she was supposed to be following every move of the opposition attack. Instead, she was sitting on the halfway line with Bothle repeating patiently, "Now over and under, and then a bow, and then another and pull.
Indeed, she was unaware of the goal that drifted from deep on the left into the top of the net seemingly several hundred feet above the head of the diminutive Hakim, our goalkeeper, until the crowd roared their approval.
Grafting a smile on to my face, I lifted the leaden whistle to my lips.
Half-time was spent rather disconsolately in our goal-mouth, Hakim smacking himself on the head with frustration, and Dolly chiding the nonplussed Bothle for having distracted her. Still, some slices of fresh mango and cups of the much loved orange squash revived spirits, and I was pleased to see the children trotting quite cheerfully back out onto the field.
Hardly had I pulled up my socks and blown to start the second half than Stella, who really was extraordinarily swift, skipped and bounded over outstretched legs and, using the outside of her plimsoll, managed to push the black and white ball under the body of the sprawling goalkeeper.
Leaping over him, she followed the ball into the net, lifted it above her head and ran back to the centre spot to the adulation of her team-mates. It took all of my self-control not to hurl my whistle over my shoulder and join the celebrations.
Fortunately, from then on the Kasane Kudus had the upper hand. Only a few minutes later, Arthur, his face bursting with pride, came rushing back from the penalty spot having sweetly struck a free kick which had been awarded for a particularly high tackle on little Hui. (There had been a small time-out period after this incident during which I had had to pursue Hui as he pursued his assailant around the pitch administering stinging karate chops.) Once the score had moved to 2-1 we never looked back, and I eventually blew the final whistle with a flourish that I hope was not too triumphalist.
By the time of the first knockout fixture, Graham has joined his family in Cape Town, leaving Will as head for the second half of the autumn term.
Despite the children's high spirits on our arrival in the small village of Shikawe, a collection of fairly desultory mud huts, I secretly feared the worst. I had, in my mind's eye, been transformed into a football manager of international stature. We had, after all, toured Namibia. No longer was the Old Queen Mum a charabanc - it was the team bus. Elizabeth had, with my little first-aid kit and a plastic wristwatch pinned to her chest, become the team physiotherapist. Gabamukuni the groundsman, who seemed to be having a good week and had pleaded with me to let him come along, was assistant coach. He needed a reasonably important role as he was the only person who had any football boots. At one stage, I had thought about giving the two of them one of the camp beds to bring onto the pitch should there be a bad injury, but decided this would be tempting fate.
Water bottles and oranges from one of the large fruit farms outside Kasane and linesmen's flags stitched by Elizabeth had all been stored in the bus, and we even had a huge net of new footballs that Graham had brought back from his headmasters' trip to Maun. Of course, I was the guv'nor, He Who Must Be Obeyed, the tactical brains, the inspirational symbol, the carrot and the stick, the best friend, the father, the purveyor of glory, the man without whom these players would be nowhere, nothing. It was just a shame it was too hot to wear a sheepskin coat.
Anyway, we got absolutely thrashed. After the full 40 minutes, 20 minutes each way, and the final whistle, we had nothing to show for all our efforts but a couple of skinned knees and in Bothle's case a split pair of shorts.
Our hosts were friendly, gracious in victory and very, very pleased when Kitso presented them with two new footballs. The only one they owned looked like a large, muddy, badly inflated potato. They invited us for a delicious tea which we enjoyed in the shade of their assembly hall, while poor little Bothle, bursting with embarrassment, sat on the bonnet of the Old Queen Mum and refused to move... No, we had not won, we agreed as we drove back over the border (the quickest route from Kasane to Shikawe is via Namibia) and I filled in, with practised ease, the pile of white slips at passport control. Still, 5-0 wasn't so bad and it had been great fun on the river.
"And there is one thing you don't know, you boys and girls! Shall I tell you what it is?" I asked as we bounced our way home down the rough ruts of an unmetalled road.
"Yes, Mr Mango, come on please!" Pandemonium broke out in the back and two or three small, smooth arms were thrown around my neck, which caused the Old Queen Mum to swerve and jump out of the tracks before finding her feet again.
"Guess what the coach of the Shikawe side said to me just before we were leaving?" Noisily, very noisily, with Gabamukuni and Elizabeth joining in, they told me that they couldn't possibly guess and that I should tell them immediately. As we bounded along, red-headed guinea fowl gliding away in all directions in panic, trying to keep the excitement out of my own voice, I told them.
"Because their Christmas holidays are starting early and many of the children are going off to their cattle stations for their holidays, and also because it is very far and they have a transport problem - do you know what they can't do?"
"Tell us, tell us! Quickly, Mr Mango!"
"Well they have decided that they will not be playing Victoria Falls Primary School after all, and that means that we will!"
"Shaaarp!" opined Gabamukuni.
"Au!" squealed Elizabeth, using that excellent Setswana word to express astonishment or great surprise.
"Hurray!" chorused the children.
I received a prim printed note from Victoria Falls Primary School explaining what time they would be arriving, that they would not be "requiring" tea, and hoping that we would be providing adequate changing and medical facilities. I gripped my whistle with determination and took the children out for an extra training session even though the pitch had been temporarily occupied by a tribe of mongeese. On the arrival of the commanding figure of Bothle, ball tucked under his arm, they disappeared into the bush like a mini wriggling magic carpet. Brows, hitherto smooth with lack of worry, now furrowed as defenders, midfielders and forwards alike bent themselves to honing their skills in readiness for the big match with a series of most professional-looking drills. Piggy-in-the-middle practices were now particularly impressive and Dolly's dummy over the free-kick ball, followed by Kitso's strike from just outside the 18-yard box would have confounded many a league flat back four. So much had the children increased in self-assurance over the past few months, I was actually rather looking forward to the final match, and started to count down the days with my classteam and the rather bewildered clientele of The Old House... "Only eight days to go till we give them an absolute hiding! Yup, should thrash them," I would bellow bellicosely above the hubbub of the bar and the sweet, swinging BoJazz - a peculiar hybrid of jazz born in Botswana - at a rather mystified punter.
"Is it?" he would reply before gazing down the bar in the hope of spotting a spare seat to which he might safely move.
If I was feeling bullish about the football match, I was anything but confident about the return of Mma Mokwena, the school inspector. She alone, seemingly operating in a worryingly autonomous fashion, had decided that she would inspect the progress made by my class in both writing and arithmetic herself.
"I think that the Friday of the week before Christmas would be a most convenient moment to test the children," she announced to me one afternoon after they had gone out to play and she was sitting at my desk. I was sitting opposite her on Hui's chair, a position from which I most sincerely doubted I would ever be able to rise.
"Oh, I see," I answered, frowning as my stubble scratched one of my kneecaps. "That is of course the last day of term and we do, you know, we do have our last football match just after lunch. Do you think..."
"Yes, I do. I think that that will be the perfect day. We will do a spelling and tables test in the morning. You will agree that this is a little more important than football." Naturally I nodded hard. "Good. First thing in the morning on Friday, and then I will be able to give my verdict."
And sentence, I thought, but said nothing. Instead, I nodded again vigorously, which was actually as much in agreement as it was just a subtle effort to return to the vertical. After she had finally left, with a snap of her glasses, a poke in a few cupboards and a spin of sedan wheels, I rallied the troops and dispensed new spelling lists and times tables.
Packing copies for myself, I hurried home for a practice.
Copyright ) 2005 Will Randall, extracted from Botswana Time, published by Abacus, a division of Time Warner Book Group UK @ pound;10.99. TES readers can buy the book for the special price of pound;8.79 plus pound;0.99 pp from the Times Books First, tel 0870 160 8080. Will Randall taught modern languages in the West Country for 10 years before helping set up a sustainable development project in the Solomon Islands; this led to his first book, Solomon Time, published in 2000. He combines writing, travel and supply teaching with talking to schools and sixth forms about travelling and gap years. If you would like him to visit your school in September-October 2005, contact Kirsteen Brace on 0207 911 8059 or firstname.lastname@example.org