Ping Pong Diplomacy – Ethiopia

Ping Pong Diplomacy


A Friendly Game
A Friendly Game
Picture a man, barely twenty, but aging with every step he takes down a dirt road in Ethiopia. I’d tell you the name of the road, but there are no street signs in Ethiopia, you just have to know where you’re going. I did not. A hired guide named Baruch led me there, “Baruch, like Brooke Shields,” he said.

“FERENGE!!!!!” I turned to see a boy about 9-years old screaming and pointing at me. One of the few words I knew in Amharic was “ferenge,” meaning “foreigner.” Before I could give him a look that said, “Well, obviously,” the child ran away. There aren’t many 6-foot 3 inch tall white Ethiopians. I felt like a giraffe in a heard of zebras.

My sister had moved to Ethiopia six months before I arrived to work for a non-governmental organization helping war refugees. Her boyfriend joined her there to work in “disaster relief,” handing out bags of food to people in drought-ridden areas. They were there to help. They had a reason; I, on the other hand, had no connection to this land or to these people. I was there on vacation.

Ethiopia is not generally considered a vacation spot, although tourism has carved out a nice niche. There is a steady influx of visitors who drive up in their safari cars, get out and take photos in exchange for Ethiopian Burr (the local currency), get back in their cars and drive away. At first I objected to this style of travel, calling it a “people zoo,” yet soon I realized that this was one of the only ways that I could experience the country. My sister’s boyfriend, Andrew, organized the trip from Addis Ababa, which included me, my father, a Canadian, an Australian, another American, and our Ethiopian guide, Baruch.

The six of us set out, cramped in our safari car packed with supplies including marmite for the Canadian and vegemite for the Australian. On more than one occasion the two of them discussed the relative merits of both. Most of us had never met before, so we spent most of the time playing car games and talking about Hollywood movies. The paved road ended about 3 hours into the trip and for the next two weeks we traveled over dirt paths, some of which approximated roads. At one point our car got stuck deep in the mud in the middle of Mago national park, home of the tsetse fly.

The tsetse fly derives its fame from carrying the dreaded Sleeping Sickness. Although only a small percentage of the flies actually carry the disease, it can be fatal to humans. What makes the insect truly scary is the fact that it is attracted to dark objects (like clothing) and large moving objects (safari cars). These flies, about twice the size of our garden variety pests, would attach themselves to the windows of our car as it was moving, and we would point at them and scream. A few actually infiltrated our car, and I was bitten twice, through the sock, before Andrew squashed it against the side of the car.

With the Locals
With the Locals
All this trouble was endured to meet the famed Mursi tribe, deep in the Omo region. This tribe is notorious for the large ceramic disks that women stick into their lips. Some say this custom is born of the effort to make women less attractive to westerners or would-be rapists. I wouldn’t know, we just asked if the practice hurt. The men of the tribe responded with a definitive no. Easy for them to say, they don’t have to wear one. When we asked the women, unfortunately, the language barrier proved too much.

Cultural barriers can get very trying on a person; the stares and the yells of “ferenge!” alone can be enough to make one crave the United States. I felt homesick as I walked in tire tracks trying to stay out of the mud, once a dirt road reduced to slop by the previous night’s rain. Yet soon the buildings parted revealing the market place, our destination for that afternoon.

The market was set up on the side of a hill, and since it had rained the night before, it made traversing this place fairly difficult. At the bottom, people were selling livestock, mostly sheep and chickens. In the middle were mostly spices and other foods. At the top of the hill were 6 ping-pong tables. As a sporting man, I decided to try my luck.

I approached two small children about 12 years old during a game. I gestured to the table indicating my intent to play and took off my coat. Before I had a chance to feel like a big shot, the table was surrounded by a 25 to 30 people all crowding around to see the match. I flipped the paddle in my hand and when I looked up, a person of about my age but of considerably more impressive stature emerged from the crowd and began cracking his knuckles. Realizing I was outmatched, I put my hands in the air and tried to back away. Yet the crowd, now guffawing about my chances, blocked my path.

Resigned to my fate, I wiped my hand across the dew-laden table, tapped my paddle once on its surface and served the ball. Unfortunately, because of a combination of nerves and lack of skill, my serve flew high and was emphatically returned, bouncing in front of me and then flying off into the crowd behind. A large yawp emanated from the spectators as I spun around just in time to see the ball fly by. I laughed it off, and served the ball again, this time much lower. To my surprise, my opponent and I got a short volley going back and forth until, crack, the ball splashed against the dew on my side of the table, flying again into the people behind.

A Local
A Local
Eventually I came to win a point here and there, usually from sloppiness on his part, but he held the distinct advantage throughout the game. The exception came on one volley when he hit one just a little bit too high. I saw my opportunity, swung my arm back and slammed it as best I could on his side of the table, seeing my adversary spin around as the ball passed him. The silence hung momentarily, and then came some slightly impressed coos, which then degenerated back into indistinct chortling in a language I didn’t understand.

My achievement was fleeting, but important to me. My opponent went on to win the match, and I was probably forgotten less than an hour later. Yet in that one shot, I believe I bridged a gap. I connected with that crowd of people with whom I had very little in common. For one moment, I was not a ferenge, not a tourist. I was a traveler.

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