In the Dark

A darkness known only to those who have set eyes on a midnight sky in Africa.  A single flame from an ordinary kerosene lamp spilled dancing, tribal-like silhouettes on the walls of my living room.  The crankshaft of the shortwave radio produced a machine-like hum, but did not interfere with the French play-by-play commentary.  Huddled around the cross-section of an oak tree turned coffee table we resembled primitive people eavesdropping on the modern world.  The smell of fresh popcorn was gone and the smattering of empty beer and juice bottles on the table was evidence that we had been there awhile.  However, I knew I couldn’t give up.

Two years earlier, I was still a Peace Corps trainee in Cameroon.  The 2004 Olympic games were abuzz and I was adapting to my new surroundings while learning a new language.  Being a trainee in Cameroon is a lot like being that holiday toy that everyone wants.  The day you meet your host family is Black Friday and everyone is anxious to play with you.  They want to hear how you speak, see how you react to the food they serve you and show you off to their friends.  The more you tried to fit in, the more you stood out.  Frankly, I was glad it was an Olympic year and hopeful that that would take some of the attention away from me. 

Our host city, Mbalmayo, had its own share of problems including a phenomenon known as “délestage”, or scheduled power outages.  These so-called power outages may have been scheduled but no one outside the person who pulled the switch seemed to know when they would occur.  They say “délestage” occurs because of an aging electrical grid, but I tend to believe financial motives were involved.  

The US Olympic team had numerous athletes with realistic gold medal hopes, contrary to Cameroon whose flag had never in Olympic history flown the highest in an individual award ceremony.  Would this year be any different?  Some may argue that for many African nations just competing in the Olympics is in it of itself a victory.  That socio-economic conditions prevent African countries from performing as well as other more developed regions of the world.  Had Françoise-Mbango Etone been present at such a debate she might have had a different opinion.

Françoise Mbango Etone was a triple jumper from Cameroon poised to change Olympic history forever.  After posting modest qualifying round jumps she was among the fifteen women participating in the final round.

Watching the Olympic games had become an afternoon ritual with my host family.  It was a great conversation starter and took some of the attention away from me.  By this stage, the US stood well atop the medal count and I had already heard The Star Spangled Banner countless times.  In fact, it began to irritate me every time an American won gold.

For the first time in my life I was beginning to feel uncomfortable with the idea of the US winning gold.  Why did the Americans have to win so much?  Certainly I wanted our athletes to perform well, but I wanted to celebrate my adopted country’s athletes as well.

So when Françoise began her steady, determined gate toward the launching block I was watching with great interest.  She had the weight of an entire country thirsty for gold on her shoulders.

Fifteen meters to go.

For those few seconds watching the Olympics was anything but habitual in that living room.

Ten meters to go.

Several pairs of eyes bearing witness to an event that could change Cameroon’s Olympic history forever.

Five meters to go.

This is it.  I’m seeing history in the making. 

Three, two, one.

Her form couldn’t have been more perfect as she soared through the air kicking up sand at the 15.30m mark earning her Cameroon’s first individual gold medal.   I was ecstatic.  I could go home now happy.  This was exactly what the Olympics were all about.  As we waited for the award ceremony, the living room was buzzing with celebration.  I couldn’t stop staring at the television.  The stage was set for one of those memorable moments Peace Corps volunteers love to tell friends and family about.

This was going to be my first Peace Corps story of any real significance.

The television camera, after a long reprieve, finally took aim at the athletes on the three-tiered podium and not before I could appreciate Françoise’s smile something happened.  This was supposed to my story just as much as it was Françoise’s.  I was supposed to sing what I could of the Cameroonian national anthem in unison with my host family.  I was supposed to see the Cameroonian flag fly highest.

Instead, “délestage” struck the neighborhood like a lightening bolt.

My eyes remained fixed on the television in disbelief.  Was this somebody’s idea of a twisted joke?  How dare anyone deprive me of Cameroon’s most monumental Olympic moment!  Noticeably irritated, I left the room.  Three days later, the American men would win Gold, Silver, AND Bronze in the 200m.

Nearly two years later, now a seasoned volunteer at my post in Nanga-Eboko, another sports spectacle took center stage, the World Cup of soccer.   Despite the fact that Cameroon disappointingly failed to qualify for the World Cup, life still revolved around soccer.  Fortunately, the US had a far more modest World Cup history than her Olympic one. I wasn’t worried about the US taking more than her fair share of glory.

In fact, I was really looking forward to the semi-final round games pitting Italy against Germany and Portugal against France.  There’s something liberating about not having ties to any of the teams.   You could watch the games without the added pressure of having to win.  The Germans had been playing brilliant soccer; hence I decided to support the Italians.  I love it when an underdog wins.  Coincidentally it was the Fourth of July and what better way to celebrate than watching World Cup soccer in a country that’s enamored with the sport with my best friends in the village.  My popcorn with maggi cube concoction was a huge success, and the beer was delicious.  The match was tight as expected.  Neither the Germans nor the Italians could take command of the match.  The first half ended and the score was still 0-0.

I don’t recall the exact moment it happened again, but it wasn’t long after the second half began.

Just as “délestage” prevented me from witnessing Cameroon’s first ever gold medal award ceremony for an individual it was now intruding on my Fourth of July festivities.

Not again, I thought.  You will not get the best of me this time!

Leaving my friends alone with their silhouettes from the kerosene lamp, I disappeared into my bedroom to retrieve a World Cup saving device – a crank-powered shortwave radio.   With the stamina of an Olympic athlete, I single handedly for over an hour cranked the Italians out of the darkness and passed the Germans in extra time.  Now that was a Fourth of July to remember!

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.