The world is a mixed-up place. Although humankind attempts to impose structure and certainty, manmade order is inherently fragile. Calendars; national borders; and the hierarchies of wealth, rank and status can dissolve abruptly, and individuals are left exposed.
You don’t recognize that feeling? You haven’t played table tennis in Ethiopia.
My sense of displacement began the moment I arrived in Addis Ababa. I wound my watch forward three hours from GMT, taking mental note of a greater time shift. Ethiopia abides by the Ge’ez calendar, which lags seven years and nine months behind our Gregorian calendar. We are in 2013; Ethiopia is in 2006.
When I headed north to Lalibela, the adjustment was not in hours or years, but in centuries. At every turn, I witnessed scenes that were practically biblical. I saw men wrapped in ancient robes gathered in front of rock-hewn churches. I saw mules carrying heavy loads on mountain trails. I saw women sitting cross-legged beside wood fires, stirring aromatic concoctions that bubbled in earthenware pots.
But as I strolled a backstreet, I heard a familiar sound that seemed out of context. I was instantly transported back to boarding school and to a sporting diversion that provided a reliable antidote to weekend boredom. Ping, pong, ping, pong.
The sport of Ping-Pong — more commonly known, for copyright reasons, as table tennis — had noble beginnings. In the late 19th century, the English aristocracy often gathered in country houses. When after-dinner conversation petered out, the gentlemen retired to the library, where a line of books would be positioned across a suitable table. With a Champagne cork for a ball, and books for bats, a game of table tennis would ensue.
In subsequent decades, games manufacturers formalized the equipment, supplying dedicated tables, nets, rubber-coated bats to replace the books, and hollow white balls made from celluloid as a substitute for corks. And thus, neatly packaged, with official rules of play, table tennis spread beyond country house libraries to Asia, to the Americas and to a narrow alley in Lalibela.
Two boys were playing, 20 more were watching. Everything stopped when I appeared. After an awkward silence, one of the spectators explained they were engaged in the “African Union Championships.” Then he asked, “Where are you from?”
“England.” There was a collective sigh of disappointment. I added, “But I grew up in Kenya.”
“Kenya!” I was welcomed to the table. My hand was shaken. My back was slapped. A bat was thrust into my hand, and a crude Kenyan flag was hastily drawn in chalk alongside a dozen Ethiopian flags on the wall adjacent to the table.
Table tennis is passionately played in every Ethiopian town and village, often with improvised equipment. In that respect, it is true to its country house roots. Though when outsiders participate, a new ingredient is invariably added: nationalistic fervor.
There was a long squabble about who should represent Ethiopia against me, Kenya. Finally a lanky lad took up the bat opposite me, and I was informed for the first time of the stakes: a dollar a game, paid by the loser.
Kenya lost. Not once, not twice. Many times. Years of practice at school counted for nothing. My self-esteem went the same way as my money.
Yet when you are set adrift in a beguiling country, surrounded by people with whom you have nothing else in common, sport can transcend all else. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are or when. It’s all about the here and now. It’s all about the game.
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