Big game day
Later on, I’ll wonder at what exact point the sheep became attuned to its fate. I’ll decide that it’s probably around now, when the blade is being rubbed back and forth along the soft wool of its neck, in the routine manner of a cricketer making practice strokes. When it comes, the end isn’t quite as quick as I’d imagined and it’s probably a good 20 or 30 seconds before the writhing stops. This is the second sacrifice of the day to take place in the screened-off area of Vuli and Julia’s garden, a forbidden place for women but populated by the men and boys of the family – some of whom have only just arrived from the Eastern Cape to participate in this weekend’s ceremonies and celebrations.
The sheep is skinned and disembowelled expertly – “I’ve done this three or four thousand times in my life”, remarks the man entrusted with the entire action while others secure the ex-animal’s limbs – before its various parts are, in the blink of an eye, either hung up or washed ready for consumption. It goes from running around in its pen to the dinner plate in, we calculate, just under three hours. There is no outward emotion in the process, no prayer and no special solemnity. Another eight sheep, and a cow, will meet identical fates between now and Sunday; the ritual comes across as a simple fact, as something that happens, that is done and that needs to be done in order to complete the blessing of the house. The night before, the Anglican Bishop Joe Seoka of Pretoria conducted a Christian ceremony, leading a group of around 25 (ourselves included) through the sprawling property and its outbuildings, scattering water to safeguard each room. Tomorrow, a traditional African blessing will take place as the trickle of arriving relatives from distant tribal surrounds becomes a throng – with Sunday’s 400-strong party the culmination of everything we have witnessed and participated in. The grounds of this gentle, humble millionaire, who has made his fortune in telecoms from a background of nothing, play host to one of the most curious marriages of worlds, cultures and modes of performativity that I have ever seen. It is managed with humbling, fascinating success and tact.
The bonds between these people are real, sensitive, strong yet subtle. Watching the interactions of adults and children alike reveals this perfectly; there is a care, a gentleness and a watchfulness about everybody that runs as a current beneath every action, solemn or frivolous. The kids themselves are about a dozen in number and aged between six and sixteen; they tease each other, they run amok, they participate in breathless games of football with Dave, Andy and I, but not a cross or unwarranted word is heard between them.
And so, two nourishing and surprising days sans World Cup football passed rapidly, leaving a strong impression yet to be entirely digested. We got out and about a little, too – on Wednesday, we travelled to the Sterkfontein Caves, central to the ‘Cradle of Humankind’ World Heritage Site and location of some of the world’s oldest hominid remains, and related fossils. The group taken on an hour-long tour includes two foreign journalists who had either struck lucky the night before or couldn’t bear a day’s break – their FIFA accreditation lanyards were still slung prominently around their necks. This excursion completed, we moved on to a nearby game reserve as the sun began to drop low – a somewhat whistle-stop circuit of its dusty tracks yielding sightings of rhino, wildebeest and hippo among others. Not quite as ‘in situ’ as what we’ll see in Botswana next week – all had been coralled into certain corners of the reserve – but good viewing nonetheless.
Back into the fray today, then. After the torment of Paraguay v Japan – and then a chaotic night spent in Sandton’s perplexing, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory-style Montecasino entertainment complex – a break has served us well and we’re good to go. Via a visit to the Apartheid Museum, we’ll watch Germany v Argentina in a fan park before heading back to Soccer City for Ghana v Uruguay. That’s very hard to call, and will be tight – but Ghana’s method of play is assertive and vigorous, which should ensure that we’re in for no repeat of Tuesday. Uruguay should receive an invitation or two to create chances, and you’d expect Forlan and Suarez – who, thankfully, have both looked the part since that unpromising beginning against France – to capitalise. The African fervour towards Ghana is formidable though. Alex Song told me at the end of the domestic season that if Cameroon couldn’t win the World Cup then success for another African side would be nearly as good. It’s a sentiment that I know Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure, to name two, have also long shared. This continent’s path to assertion means that everybody is pulling for one another. I wonder how many in England, bar those who appreciate good football, will be plumping for Germany this afternoon?
My quick take on that game – Argentina to win, their midfield doing a decisive job in tracking Germany’s runners from deep. Their back four is also hard to pull out of position even if there are reservations about a couple of individuals. It should, though, be enthralling.
Black Stars paraphernalia at the ready, we’re heading off now. Wouldn’t Ghana v Brazil be an outstanding semi-final? The fact that this was the World Under-20 final last year wouldn’t be too much of a coincidence, either. It could be a long night – we’ve not made it back from either of our 8.30 games in Johannesburg before 1am – but it could be a very significant one, too.