I was standing on the main street in a small town in Ethiopia, a few hours south of the capital Addis Ababa, studying a noticeboard outside a bar. It listed the times of what I imagined were football matches, probably the English Premier League. At 1.30 it seemed, the bar would be showing “squiggle” versus “squiggle”.
The problem was that the names of the teams were written in Ethiopia’s main language, which (like its Semitic cousins Hebrew and Arabic) doesn’t use the Latin alphabet. What I took to be the team names were written on the board in this strange script and, without some instruction, it all looks like nothing so much as a great collection of squiggles.
I knew a little bit of this strange alphabet and how its characters represented syllables and I was scrutinising the first fixture when a young boy, maybe nine years old, appeared. He asked me in English if I needed help deciphering the noticeboard. I replied, somewhat defiantly, that I was getting on fine, thank you very much. “Look”, I proudly announced, “the first team listed is . . . Cheh-luh-see – Chelsea!”
The young boy looked at me. Then he looked at the board. Then he looked at me again. His world seemed to tilt slightly on its axis. “How did you do that?” he asked, “You’re a farengi!” (you’re a white foreigner). “Well”, as I sought to explain this kink in his universe to him, “I’m learning – like when you’re at school.”
Quickly though, he saw that there was fun to be had. If I was so good, what about this team, playing in the second fixture? “Ar-suh-nah-luh…Arsenal!” I announced. This delighted him, and two other young boys who’d since arrived. Although when I failed to decipher the name of Hull City, they were equally pleased. For the next while they stood at the board, like some kind of collective muinteoir, pointing to team names, with huge grins, demanding to see if I could leap through their linguistic hoops.
Vuh-Ruh…This, I thought, must be Vuh-Ruh…Pool? – Liverpool? No! Delight again on the three small faces. It’s Vuh-Ruh…Ton – Everton! Yes. Of course. I recovered by getting Man-che-ster and wasn’t pressed as to which Manchester side. They had to reveal to me that Sunderland were involved in one game. I managed to read Suh-Tee…City, but I couldn’t identify the “Norwich” that preceded it. Did these young Ethiopian boys even know where Sunderland was? Or Norwich? Did it, indeed, matter? For them the city’s physical location, the team’s provenance, was entirely irrelevant.
And once they’d exhausted the list, they ran off, thoroughly satisfied. This, it seemed, was the most fun they’d had in ages.
Later that evening I looked in on one of the rebroadcast matches – the sound of English commentators rang through the bar compound, presumably via a major international sports channel. I peered into the room where the game was being shown and the doorman reacted with “Fife birr! Fife birr!” Five birr, about 15 cents, the price of admission – as if I was seeking entrance to some old-time piece of risqué vaudeville or was looking for a few rounds of Russian roulette.
A dozen men are watching the game. Some of them are wearing rushes fashioned into a kind of crown as a nod to the Easter weekend. Outside the TV room, halfway down the stairs, the barman is perched, peering in under a fence, watching for free. Like some kind of one-man news agency, he’s reporting down in whispers to the waiter, who’s at the bottom of the stairs.
I leave the real fans to it and take off. English football remains a common currency across the region, in buses, bars and markets. Hearing the foreign commentary in this rural Ethiopian bar, I could imagine other sports being beamed in from Europe.
Was this then what the GAA had in mind when they announced their deal with Sky, justifying it with plans of increased global coverage for our national games? I didn’t think so.
But you never know… I was amused, imagining the young boys at the noticeboard in years to come, explaining to visitors that Waw-ter-fuh-ruh-duh would be playing Tih-puh-ray-ree.
Wherever that is.