Sylva Nze Ifedigbo - Ninety Minutes
Though a number of illegally war-ravaged countries would disagree, the act of waging war, to most people from the West, has become so subdued in an individual's life as to scarcely exist. In America, cameras are not allowed to film the coffins returning home, even though, thus far, the combined total (US) deaths for Iraq and Afghanistan is, as of January 3, 2011, five thousand eight hundred and seventy-six. I wrote the number in full on purpose, for our minds tend to skim over numbers. Think about it a moment, and then move on. That's what everyone else does.
At any rate, for better or worse, war touches most middle-class Western people very little. Our nationalistic pride becomes caught up in, then, the back and forth of a sporting match. When the Australian International cricket team loses a Test Match, it's a tragedy not just for them but for all Australia; equally, the English people are able to bask in the glory of their long-desired win. We can “hate” the English for winning, we can “love” the Australians when they, a year or so from now, win in turn. For the duration of the match, the fortunes of Australia seem to rise and fall with the fortunes of the cricket game. Or consider a football game, or the Olympics, or – or a soccer match.
In 1969, war was declared between El Salvador and Honduras. The kindling was many things, as always, but the spark was a soccer match. The nationalistic feelings, brewing for so long, spilled over during a match between the two nations. Roughly three thousand people died, many of them civilians. The great Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuściński, wrote of the war (for he was there) in the excellent, The Soccer War. He makes a point that the war was not, of course, purely concerned with the outcome of a soccer match. But just as important, the intensity of feeling that comes from a sporting event between separate nations, should not be discounted.
All this matters when we read Sylva Nze Ifedigbo's short story, Ninety Minutes, which roughly outlines the back and forth of a soccer game between Nigeria and Cameroon:
The new Stadium in Abuja was built two years ago for the All Africa Games. I had driven past it several times, admiring the perfect oval shape in the day and the bright white lights that formed a halo over it, at night. It looked smaller from outside though. Now inside it looks so massive. I take time first to look around, my eyes going from the top cover which shielded spectators from the sun and the rain, to the giant electronic board which bears the reason why we had all gathered; Nigeria Vs Cameroon.
In the story, a somewhat fastidious, seemingly overly educated young man attends the match, bearing witness to what unfolds. He observes the crowds exult with every crash, crunch, success and failure, recognising that these games are of course political, that the people from two charged nations are able to, yes, use the game as a cathartic measure, a release, an easing of pressure. But they might also intensify feelings, the cramped, closed-in nature of the stadium, the roaring sounds of each side, the channeling of hope to the tiny individuals on the field, the maelstrom of desire for a win coupled with fear that the team might lose. A man, sitting at home watching television, might drown the sorrow he feels from his team losing in a beer, a cigarette, and perhaps a few harsh words to his wife and children. He might kick his dog. A man, sitting at home watching television while his team wins may take his wife in his arms and kiss her once, twice, passionate and happy in victory. And the dog won't be kicked, and will instead receive a bone. But a crowd? A massive, heaving, panting, shifting mass of humanity? Each person is a powder keg, and there are so many matches.
The game begins calmly enough. The narrator finds a seat near a few enthusiasts (so: any seat, really). They discuss the game in pidgin, familiar with the teams, familiar with the strategies, waiting to see if the players and coaches 'agree' or not with their own best-laid plans.
“Shebi I tell you sey stadium go full?” Tall Guy says his head making patterns in the air as he scanned various sections of the stadium.
“omo eh, no be small thing o,” Sleeveless replies turning to scan the section behind him as if he needed to confirm Tall Guys assertion. Our eyes meet briefly. I notice that the white of his eye is now red and immediately I imagine that the stench that had arrived with them wasn’t just that of ordinary cigarette.
“Para still dey catch me shaa” Sleeveless says after satisfying himself that indeed the stadium was full.
Ifedigbo unspools the match carefully. In the beginning, the narrator scatters details of himself over the text. Nothing is happening in the game, really, so Ifedigbo has the luxury to 'waste' our time with extraneous detail. The effect of this is to lull us into the match, to ease us into the game. The most intense aspect of the story, thus far, involves whether or not the fans near the narrator are taking drugs. But then:
The noise in the stadium suddenly reaches a crescendo. Many spectators are up on their feet cheering. The blast of the vuvuzela is deafening. I rise too, clapping and making the woo sound in my mouth. The Players all clad in the traditional green are holding hands and walking into the pitch like a colony of ants migrating in the dry season. I am happy they are wearing green. I remember Ikot’s assurance that as long as the team played with Green jersey, they would do well.
I tilt my head a little to the right to have a clearer view of the team. Tall Guys head is getting in the way. I notice that he is not only tall. His skull also projected out, giving him the look of a popular newspaper cartoon character. I ignore the head and concentrate on the players in the pitch. The President wearing an oversized tracksuit and the AFA President are now shaking hands with the players. The AFA President is a Cameroonian. I remember a comment in one of the papers warning the Super Eagles to be wary of partial officiating.
Political themes intrude, and the use of violent metaphors and language increases. The match continues, and the superfluous detail vanishes. Ifedigbo lifts the narration above the protagonist, in that the narrator's perspective suddenly becomes omniscient, instead of remaining tethered to our fastidious friend. The game is intensifying, and with it the language of the story. Witness the following paragraph, in which much of the language is weaponised, militaristic:
There is an incident around the Nigerian eighteen yard box. The advancing Cameroonian striker collapses to the ground, writhing from right to left in supposed paid. The Nigerian defender has both hands raised to indicate his innocence. The referee rushes to the scene his right hand in his small breast pocket. My heart skips a beat. The stadium is suddenly silent. A yellow card slices through the air as the referee withdraws his hand. He then points to the penalty spot. Three Nigerian players rush towards him complaining. Their faces are few inches away from his but they don’t touch him. On the other side, the Cameroonian players hug and congratulate each other. The stadium is silent.
From here, the mood shifts. We exult with the narrator, and then we commiserate. We are encouraged, and then our hopes are dashed. We want Nigeria to win – the narrator informs us that he has been told God is a Nigerian – but will they? Can they? Ifedigbo plays with our feelings as the game plays with the feelings of the spectators, but then soon it seems all is lost, and the crush of defeat hits the stomach. Or does it?
The Booing pattern changes. A Nigerian player gets the ball and they cheer. The ball gets to a Cameroonian and they boo. The sudden change of allegiance amazes me. A song breaks out; All we are saying, give us more Goals. Everyone is chanting in unison. Policemen and spectators. Christians and Muslims. Bachelors and Married women. Igbos and Kanuris. Yoruba and Hausas. Employed and unemployed. Rich and the poor. The song is the same; All we are saying, give us more Goals.
The story ends calm once more, with the narrator thinking of dinner. And so for us, at the end of a match, our mind heightened by what has happened, but always with the awareness that the stakes are illusory. Our warlike feelings exhausted, our bellies take over. Dinner, then. It's all so much easier this way. But how true is it, really?
Other works by Sylva Nze Ifedigbo under review:
---Death on Gimbiya Street
---The Hundredth Friend
---The Lunch on Good Friday
Nzesylva's Weblog - Author website