It was a tough soccer match. Tackles made with scant regard for their bare feet or the legs they connected with. The dusty, rough pitch made falling both painful and dirty. Not that they seemed to mind or even notice, those bloody-minded little tykes.
And the fact that the one team was 6-0 up did not diminish the delight with which the pint-sized goal-scorers did cartwheels, or the enthusiasm with which the losers restarted the game.
This impromptu match was being held in a village outside of Blantyre, Malawi’s second city. As in most villages on the African continent, the ball is always of interest. The beautiful game is played with a variety of balls. Kids boot around everything from a treasured regulation ball that has been repaired time and again, to a bundle of rages, and to a variety of spheres fashioned from plastic bags. I have even seen one from crafted from banana leaves.
Here, they played with a rather amazing plastic ball made of carefully heated layers of plastic formed into a ball. I think. I have not seen one like this before. It was amazingly strong, and had just the right amount of bounce and give – for a dirt pitch game.
This kind of rough and tumble game takes place across the football-mad continent. But here in south central Africa one fact made this game special – all the kids playing were orphans. Aids orphans.
They were remarkable little souls who lived in tiny sheds alongside the equally simple omes of those relatives or neighbours who had taken them in. They got up each morning, carried water from the nearby well to heat over a fire and washed thoroughly before helping each other get dressed for school. They had learnt to stick together in a harsh world.
And so when a child who was not an orphan joined in the game, there was always the chance of friction. I missed the cause of it all, but a fight began between the newcomer and a stick-thin orphan. The stick child looked cadaverous, and by all rights should have been in hospital, much less playing soccer.
By the time I got to the scene, the stick kid was writhing on the ground shrieking, and one of the other orphans had the offending non-orphan trapped in a headlock. I separated them and comforted the crying boy, or tried to. He was terribly upset, and the reactions from the circle of orphans around him ranged from giggling to sympathy tears. Eventually I picked him up and helped him sit on a rock. He finally stopped crying when I teased him by taking pictures of him. The other kids all laughed, I thought we were in the clear.
Then the offending boy suddenly fell to the ground weeping violently. Guilt and the alienation from the unified orphan kids made him inconsolable. The boy who had earlier had him in the headlock simply picked him up and carried him off the pitch, after trying to get him to stop crying.
But he would not stop. Quite a crowd had by now gathered. I tried to distract him by taking a few pictures. It should have worked, because shooting with an Ensign Commando, approximate circa 1949, is not for the faint-hearted. ‘A what?’ I hear your exclaim, as I have not previously given any hint of my furtive affair with vintage cameras.
The Commando is a British made camera from the days when that island was quite competitive in photography. The name was rather jingoistic, befitting the time – the British public’s love affair with German cameras was galling in a time of war.
Now the Commado is a folder, using 120 roll film. Folders are a phenomenon I only discovered a few years ago when my mother-in-law Joey gave me her late father’s Voightlander (more on that another day). I have rather slowly come to appreciate their simple elegance and the rather fantastic quality of the good ones.
The Commando is one such beast, though pretty heavy for a folder: 1,2 Kg with the leather case; 900 grams naked. It shoots both 6 by 6 cm, or if you close shutters in the back as I inadvertently discovered, it can shoot 6 by 4,5cm. Actually I discovered it can shoot, oooh, 6 by 5,25, I think. I had let only one of the shutters close by mistake, so I have a couple of rolls of very strange shaped negatives.
I puzzled at the drying roll films, what was that, looked almost square, but not quite. Perhaps early onset of malaria was making me see things oddly. So here you have a camera that can shoot 3 formats… Actually, apparently it was originally designed for the British army, in 1945, but that version could only expose 6 by 6.
Anyway, I really liked the negs, sharp and the exposures looked solid at all speeds. I even shot some soccer pictures with it as you can see, I am no sports photographer but that one looks pretty good.
One of the things I really fancy about the Commando is that it is a rangefinder, so I do not have to rely on zone focusing. Not that I am averse to such Ludditery, you understand, but sometimes its nice to know.
The other thing I like is that it focuses by moving the film pressure plate instead of the lens. Very elegant, and I said to make for sharper images. I do have a couple of complaints about the Commando, like its double exposure knob that I happened to enable when I wound on, and the shutter release button – tetchy little thing. Nonetheless, the Commando is a keeper.
And the kids? The camera was of no help, but the skinny boy who had been so hurt shyly made his way through the circle of village children, took his opponent by the hand and they walked off together, the tears subsiding.