This story originally appeared in Ilanga: Newsletter of the African Studies Center.
“Ayyy Ballack!” the cries rang out as the ball arrived at my feet. I didn’t quite see the resemblance between myself and the hulking, six-foot-four star of the German national soccer team, but I figured it was an improvement over my first designation upon joining the pickup game: “White guy.” We played on the cricket field at Wits University in Johannesburg, the adjacent soccer stadium hosting a training session for South Africa’s Bafana Bafana as they prepared for the World Cup. Between the two sets of players on campus that evening there was a total of two white guys—me and Matt Booth, the towering center-back over on the next field.
I was at Wits for the last two weeks of May, nominally to do research for my history thesis, but I travel few places without finding a game. Usually, my initial effort to communicate my intentions involves some awkward combination of hand signals and disjointed, loudly-spoken English phrases—something along the lines of, “Me…Play…With you?” In South Africa, normal English did the job just fine, although I soon became lost amid the lightning-paced chorus of Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, English and a few other local languages. Only when I got the ball and an open teammate belted out “Ballaaack!!”did I momentarily understand the message.
It seems to me that there are two surefire ways to make yourself at home in a new culture. You can be extremely proactive about getting to know people. Or you can play soccer. Not being the biggest extrovert, I tend to rely on the latter approach. After my first game in South Africa, one of my teammates studied me for a second before observing, with evident surprise, “You’re a good player, Ballack.” I wasn’t sure if his surprise owed to my being a white person playing what remains in South Africa an overwhelmingly black sport or my appearance that night from seemingly nowhere. Either way, I was greeted enthusiastically the next day by cries of, “Hey Ballack, what’s up brother?”
In the two weeks that followed, I played almost every night and quickly became friends with the other players. They ranged from university students to street kids from the local neighborhood, who’d moved to Jo’burg from Limpopo for a shot at playing pro, but they all welcomed me with open arms. They wanted to know how I liked South Africa and how it compared to America. They told me where to go and where not to go; how they felt about politics, race relations and the upcoming World Cup; and perhaps most importantly, how to shake hands like a cool South African young person.
I met a lot of extraordinary people during my too-brief stay, but when I heard TV commentators during the World Cup marvel at the spirit and hospitality of their South African hosts, I thought first back to those guys on the cricket field, who for two weeks in May took a kid called Ballack and made him a full-fledged member of their nightly ritual.