Learning the Game As I Go

On my third day here, after baking with the neighborhood kids, I was recruited for a backyard game. I didn’t know what I was getting in to, but I was just thankful to have not been the last one picked on the team. (Petunia and I were the oldest ones playing by at least 20 years). The game involved bouncing a tennis ball to hit the opposing players, stacking tin cans on top of paint buckets (in descending size order), saying a magic word, hopping on one foot, knocking the tin cans down, running around, and of course celebrating when your team won a point.

I had no idea what was going on most of the time, so I tried to stand on the side and look “inconspicuous” (ha!), hoping they wouldn’t try to nab me with the ball. As I saw my teammates moving in one direction, I moved that way. If I saw them hopping on one foot or skipping to dodge the ball, I tried to follow suit. A few times, I somehow managed to be the last one standing on my team and wild chaos ensued as the kids delighted at watching me attempt to survive the game. I tried to watch and learn, but it seemed the rules changed often. And, I think there was a winner?

I was tired and didn’t know which direction to run, but my heart felt joy when the kids noticed me and urged me to make the next right move, especially when the team’s fate depended on it. They saw me as part of the team, even when I was confused about the game.

I was reminded of this scene today as I reflected on my first two weeks in Soshanguve, and my challenges & struggles to learn to live and adapt in the culture. I have been thrown into the game, without fully knowing the rules or the magic words. My neighbors (and strangers on the street) are delighted to see my attempts to play along, whether I utter a shy “Dumela” or eat their food, even when I don’t know what I’m doing. Actually, maybe that fact delights them even more!

I try to observe & follow—using words that they use, picking up on the direction of conversation, but I realize that sometimes I’m standing on the side trying to go unnoticed. In this game, people are moving fast and when you’re the only one who doesn’t know the rules, there isn’t much time or space to stop and ask questions. There have been a few people, like my teammates in that backyard game, who have kept their eye on me to guide me or give me an enthusiastic nudge to remind me it’s my turn to hand my fare to the taxi driver.

If I stand back and just watch, most of what’s happening makes no sense at all…but then I remember that my frame of reference for what makes sense is very limited. I’ve never played this game before, so its sheer newness excites & overwhelms me! I can see clearly that someone is leading the game, and they aren’t looking to me for direction.

But I am included, and that is the most humbling, joyful part. I am out of breath most of the time, but glad to be in the game.

~Emily Rhodes
South Africa