KIGALI, Rwanda -- There's a daffy little game available to any aimless, formless, harmless American nomad -- or to any American traveling abroad. Maybe you have played it, even fleetingly. Maybe you have played without realizing you're playing.
We 318 million, hailing from an isolated land full of isolated sports, have the chance to wander around noticing which American sports team gear has managed to traverse oceans, and to find its way onto the backs (or beds!) of people who almost certainly have no idea what it means. If you see a woman balancing a Liverpool soccer bag on her head as she walks down the road (I did), that doesn't count. If you see a teenager in a Fabio Cannavaro shirt (I did), that doesn't count.
That's soccer, a very very common world game.
We game players seek far-flung artifacts from our oddball American games.
Then the game does have a hilt: Can we, in our trivial noting of trivial T-shirts, find one that's inaccurate -- you know, one of those that got made for a team that eventually lost a Super Bowl or something?
That would be the ultimate.
The game almost always pops up unexpectedly and delightfully. One morning in April, I rode in a taxi to the airport in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, gawking at the people walking to work until, way over on the right across the boulevard, there strode a man in a gold T-shirt with a maroon eagle on the back alongside the words: "We Are BC." The chances are very strong that this man did not attend Boston College, does not follow Boston College, has never been to Boston and did not have an orgasm when Doug Flutie threw to Gerard Phelan. That's among the beauties of the game.
Then a plane took off and landed, a car left and airport, and soon I sat in thick, smoggy Nairobi (Kenya) traffic when suddenly, over to the right, aboard a bus, a real relic: a passenger in the left-side front seat, wearing a No. 8 jersey from the lone Miami Dolphins season of one Daunte Culpepper or, as I used to refer to him back in the day, "Cousin Daunte."
How in the world...
The game does brim with levels of absurdity. Fishing through a bin of bargain T-shirts once in Abu Dhabi, hoping to find something local and (to me) exotic, I yanked out this orange thing, turned it around and gasped as it read, "Texas Longhorns." (Jeez.) Across a street in Amman, Jordan, I saw (and could not get to) an Arab man in a well-preserved Jets "CHREBET" jersey. (My.) Near the soccer stadium in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I spoke to an Ethiopian man in an RGIII jersey -- he was proud to have visited Washington -- but also to a 12-year-old boy in a Packers T.
I said, "Packers!"
He clearly didn't know what that meant.
The game makes you wish these T-shirts (and bedspreads) could tell stories -- of ships and markets and border patrols. Arriving in this Rwandan capital in late May, walking through this clean city which has recovered astonishingly from being the worst place on Earth 20 years ago, I walked past a procession of women headed home on a Friday. Early in the procession, the purple T of the lady at the end of it caught my eye. Then came that familiar flicker of wondering: Could it be the Vikings? Could it be Northwestern? Could it be blank?
Then there she was, and there it was, beaming out in gold: A big "L," a big "S," and a big "U."
On a continent with tigers running free, I thought suddenly of exiting Tiger Stadium one night in dark stillness, seeing that Louisiana tiger (Mike) in the cage.
A remarkable man who has adopted so many orphans that he doesn't know the count off-hand gave me a tour of the house he shares with his wife and 16 children (including, as it turns out, 14 orphans). It's a wonderful house, bought for him by African Road, an Oregon-based nonprofit aiming to help widows and orphans toward self-sufficiency. As we went from room to room, my host explained the sleeping arrangements when, in the last bedroom we saw, there came a gem.
The b-b-b-b-bedspread. I could not believe the bedspread.
"American football!" I said.
Nobody had said that before, of course, in a world containing both a third-largest nation that obsesses over the NFL and 195 other countries that overwhelmingly ignore it.
Oh, but it wasn't just a green blanket with squares of the logos of the various NFL teams. It was a green blanket with the logos of the various NFL teams including "Los Angeles Rams" and "Houston Oilers." Even though the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995 and the Oilers to Nashville in 1997, the spread still looked sleek. Tatters hadn't even begun to invade. If only that bedspread could talk, tell stories, maybe appear on NPR...
The game can turn up amid the heartbreaking. A well-kept Catholic orphanage in Kigali is the kind of searing place that can make you vacillate: There's no God. There might be a God. There can't be a God when there's this. There might be a God in the presence of the women who run this place.
From room to room to room, it goes, until there's a bright, chirpy room with five children aged maybe 8 to 10, sitting around a dining table, having lunch. They note the "mzungu" (white person) who has entered. They wave and grin. Then the jersey on one of them widens an American eye. There it is, shouting from the back of the shirt, a proper noun that means nothing all around the planet but in my homeland means one thing, and another thing, and one thing, and another thing:
And then the game turns up amid the sublime. There can't be any walk on Earth any better than the 45 minutes on a dirt road in rural Rwanda near Gasogi Village and Munini, maybe an hour outside Kigali. To the right is Rwanda's rolling countryside, a stunner in general but here in particular. To the left and right are banana trees, glorious beings. It's an area of people who might live a whole life without ever going even to Kigali, and all around are people walking, because in Africa, you always see people walking, people on roadsides walking, people walking gaping distances to reach jobs or schools or homes. And all around are children, in front of houses, even little children fairly new at talking, beaming at the visitor with delight, exclaiming, "Mzungu! Mzungu!"
Sometimes, they run right up and hug your legs.
Then, from the not-too-distant distance, here it comes, a blue T-shirt. What might it be? We walk along. The woman wearing nears us. Suddenly, there it is, in view: INDIANAPOLIS COLTS SUPER BOWL XLI CHAMPIONS.
That garment had come all the way here, deep into this continent, well outside the capital city of a smallish country of 12 million, onto someone who wouldn't even know the meaning of "Peyton Manning," let alone "Marvin Harrison." I marveled again at the game.
The next day, a friend who barely follows the NFL asked of the shirt, "Was it accurate?"
If only it had read, CHICAGO BEARS SUPER BOWL XLI CHAMPIONS. That would have been the hilt.