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(Humorous) Lessons of Life from Tee Offs to Fairways

I’m not a lover of golf; at best a friend, and these days a mere acquaintance. Up until 2000, however, I played maybe once a month, and that, because it was my dad’s game of choice. When I began the over clichéd doctoral life of “poorer by degree,” a minimum $40 green fee and six hours of play commitment inevitably weighed too negatively against my family’s need.

Still, in fairness to the leisure sport, my life has benefited in a number of ways from the game, and it’s my hope that a few of my yesteryears’ recollections might be of at least humorous benefit to some.

Earliest golf memory? Infancy post-colonial Kenya, specifically Nyeri (near Mount Kenya).

Through a memory glass faded I see my first or second grade self: hot, thirsty, exhausted, then swinging, no, hacking at a dimpled, small, white ball, with a much-too-long-for-a-young-boy adult 3-iron.

The typical result of all my early swing effort? Well, let’s just say this . . . I now understand only too well the humor of my South African mentor’s telling of how the Zulus of southeast Africa came to name certain European sports unfamiliar to them. Since in isiZulu a noun is frequently prefaced by an “i” (pronounced “ee”), the Zulus, for instance, gave to soccer the name “i-football,” and to cricket “i-cricket,” but with golf they were in a conundrum. Therefore, they decided to give it the name they all-too-frequently heard on the course—”i-dammit.”

No lesson learned, save maybe one. Interested in introducing a child to the sport? Invest in a junior set of clubs, and sacrifice $100 for a video taped one-hour local pro lesson—to establish the basics of grip, stance and swing.

The next golf memory originates from Nyanza Club in Kisumu, a city nestled up against Lake Victoria, purportedly the second largest fresh water lake in the world, where I spent my fourth to sixth grades.

My golf skills evidently didn’t increase much, because my older siblings grumbled each time my dad allowed me to accompany “the men,” presumably because the pace of play suffered. One new entertainment addition to the game, though, were spectators! By this I mean local Luo teenagers and young men, who would gather en mass at all water hazards waiting and watching for errant golf balls.

By water I mean mostly the murky, foul-smelling variety. On one particular Back Nine, par three hole, you had to hit over a snaky looking, sewer tainted waterway. In case you’re unfamiliar with the game of golf, players with the highest score each hole hit last at the next hole. Of course, that was always me! As I teed my ball up I heard the usual excited chatter and rustling of feet as all our caddies hastily repositioned themselves, one against the other, so as to be nearest the projected flight path of my almost always miss hit ball.

On that occasion I fooled them all, however. After completing my customary pre-hit swing routine, much like baseball batters nervously do when they spit and tweak their cap, shirt, cleats and private parts prior to the ball being pitched, I finally followed through with a full swing.

Well, I have no recollection of my golf ball’s arc—if it even made it off the tee—but what I do remember is the panic I felt when I saw my 3-wood flying through the air in the direction of the waterway! Ka plump, into the water! Let’s just say that the usual ball finder’s fee went up a few shillings on the particular day.

Lesson learned: Someone is always ready and willing to do someone else’s shitty, dirty work. Do not think of them as less than yourself, for most certainly so too were your forebears in earlier times—and, in this era of globalization, so might you, too, one day.

I laugh as I wrote this remembrance because the incident reminded me of another, unrelated to golf incident that occurred during boarding years at high school—also in Kenya. My dad, best friend (also Scott) and I were bass fishing near a reed bed off a boat in Lake Naivasha, a lake with a healthy population of hippos, when all of a sudden I heard a huge splash. It caused my heart to skip a few beats, not knowing whether a hippo had broken the surface near our boat. LMAO (Facebook lingo), but if it wasn’t Scott jumping in to the lake to quickly retrieve his fishing reel, which had somehow detached from his rod!

From Kenya my family moved to Tanzania, specifically, Moshi, a town at the near base of Mount Kilimanjaro. Golf at Moshi Club was a combination experience: like a pristine and prestigious country club in terms of prime and scenic location, yet pasture and scrubland like in terms of playability—it wasn’t uncommon to have to play around grazing cows and goats.

This course is memorable for two reasons (apart from visible Mount Kilimanjaro). First, it was a newlywed shared experience during a six-month stint between undergraduate and graduate studies, when I was able to introduce my new bride to Africa. And, secondly, for the horrendous play my dad exhibited on one particular par-four hole.

From tee to green he seemed happy playing in the extreme rough (thick grass). Typically he’s a very respectable player, skills wise, but on that occasion he must have swung at and hit the ball ten to fifteen times, each time the ball traveling no more than a few meters forwards—or sideways, it seemed. I don’t think I’ve ever heard my dad curse, but on that occasion he kept mentioning two individuals’ names called Pete and crying-out-loud, as in, “Oh, for Pete’s sake!” and “Oh, for crying out loud!” Anyway, I recall suggesting to him, “Why don’t you just pick your ball up and either play on the green or from the next hole?” His reply: “No, I know it’s (his game) eventually going to get better.”

Lesson learned: There is a sun shining above and behind most dark and dreary clouds. Keep slogging, while simultaneously striving to be conscious and thankful of the gift of life, beauty and relationships that are most certainly around and about you during that difficult period of life.

One final golf remembrance, a links course called Prince’s Grant, situated alongside the Indian Ocean, 70km north of Durban, South Africa, and within minutes of the town of Stanger, where my family and I lived for four years. It’s my understanding that Hugh Baiocchi, a South African professional golfer and winner of twenty-plus U.S./international tournaments, together with his dad, also a golfer of some renown, developed and were part owners of Prince’s Grant.

One sunshine December day my older brother and I were teeing off a stunningly picturesque first hole, a par 4. My brother hit first, and regrettably, from my perspective as contender, split the fairway in half—a very good first shot, given our relative body stiffness that morning. As I teed my ball up and went through the pre-hit motions that attempted to assure any would-be club house guest that I was a competent golfer, I sensed a foreboding presence at my back. Turning, I saw Hugh Baiocchi standing with his arms crossed against his chest on the retaining wall located almost within arm’s reach of our tee. Worse, he was standing and staring at me.

“Never mind, I’ll show him,” I thought to myself—after all I was at that time a relatively self-confident early 30s male! I swung, felt nothing, but looked forward anyway down the fairway path to see where my ball went. Seeing nothing I looked back down at my tee, where the ball was lying inches away on the grass. I had whiffed the ball (hit air). Catching my pride, I quickly turned to Baiocchi and with a smile on my face asked, “Do you give golf lessons?” He replied in his English accent, “You don’t need lessons. You have a good swing, you just need to keep your head down and your eyes on the ball!”

Lesson learned: So many lessons to choose from this experience! Only one, though . . . When you’re young and overconfident it’s easy to think you’re invincible, and that you can contribute to solving many of the world’s problems. And, in each and every place of work you find yourself, there will always be relationships in conflict, with each side clamoring for your input or participation. DON’T!  FLY ABOVE the bickering, backbiting, and baiting. FOCUS: keep your head down and your eyes on your own work responsibilities, and on relating to and treating others as you yourself would appreciate being treated.

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Filed under Africa, Family, Golf, Leadership, Life, Memories, Mentor, Pedagogy, Perspective, Relationships

Fly Fishing for Sheep and Slingshotting for “Ndeges”

Lake_VictoriaMap

Kisumu lies in the northeast corner of the lake

Growing up I always enjoyed anything outdoorsy, including fishing.  From fourth to sixth grade I lived in Kisumu (“kiss-a-moo” as my grandmother pronounced it), Kenya, within walking distance of Lake Victoria – the largest tropical lake in the world at 26,600 square miles, as well as the second largest in the world, after Lake Superior.

I had a group of five to seven Luo “boy friends,” who were my constant and daily companions after school hours.  We were always outside playing.  Anything from walking through adjacent scrub brush shooting slingshots, to hanging out on the weekends near the lakeside picnic area in hope of Indian picnickers, from whom my friends would beg for yummy spicy Indian food leftovers.  All the while and unbeknownst to the picnickers was a young white boy hiding behind a retainer wall eagerly waiting his share of the begged loot.

slingshot

A similar “sling” to what we made.

The slingshots we made from purchased strips of inner tube obtained at the local open market.  Each strip had to be hand selected according to its springy, rapid elasticity, which, of course, would equate to a much quicker catapulted small stone or pebble.  A prized rubber was red versus black. We were always on the lookout during our walkabouts in the “bush” for a prized forked stick, which we would cut to perfect hand and slingshot size, strip off its bark so as to allow it to sun dry and harden.

Since my knowledge of Luo was basic at best, and theirs of English the same, we would speak  to each other in simple words and hand gestures.  I grimace remembering some phrases, including “ndege with the long tail.”  It wasn’t enough to simply say the words (ndege is Kiswahili for bird, and, well, you know what “with the long tail” means), one also had to act them out.

For example, when we saw a group of mouse birds, or mousies as we affectionately called them, fly into a nearby bush or tree, we would excitedly whisper-shout to each other “ndege with the long tail,” while simultaneously pulling an imaginary long quill out of our rear with one hand, while with the other quickly unslinging slingshots from around our necks, where, incidentally, we coolly kept them before this became the fashion in Milan.   mousebird

Being boys, we also liked to play cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers.  This is where I was able to showcase my expertise in Luo (or Dholuo).  So, when half my Luo friends went to hide and the remainder of us were counting to whatever arbitrary number, I would call out “wathe?”, which communicated to those in hiding “ready?”  If they weren’t quite ready then they responded “podi” or “not yet.”

Back to Lake Victoria and fishing, before moving on to fly fishing for sheep on the West Rand.

I bought a small gill net at a local fishing supply store in Kisumu, maybe 15 to 20 yards in length, which resembled a tennis net, except fitted with cork floats on top and weights on the bottom.  My friends and I would walk to a small and narrow inlet of the lake not far from the Nyanza Club, toting our net, sandwiches, water thermos, plus a reed basket, which was used to transport home our tilapia.  After arriving my friends would strip down to either their knickers or nothings, while I, out of an instilled fear of contracting bilharzia, remained fully clothed on the bank, keeping an eye out on our belongings, as well as snakes, which occasionally would make a water crossing near our extended net.

Fisherman and gill net, in an inlet much like what ours looked like

Fisherman and net in an inlet much like what ours looked like

Once the net was strung across the narrow inlet, my friends would then disperse themselves in the water 20 to 40 yards further up, and walk slowly back toward the net continuously slapping the water with sticks or their two outstretched hands.  “We” then lifted the net to examine whether “our” attempt at herding fish was successful or not.  I have only warm memories of those days, including taking our tilapia home, batter frying them, and eating fish with homemade chapatis (Indian flat bread).

Turkana

Lake Turkana, northern Kenya

Although while on the topic of fishing I could share two more erstwhile stories, both of which relate to my dad’s apparent jinx with boat motors (One, an encounter with a threatening hippo on Lake Naivasha, while my dad was desperately trying to restart a temperamental motor.  The other, the death of one of two outboard engines on a small fishing boat with seven adults, on our return from fishing at Central Island, miles from shore on a stormy Lake Turkana – a place purported to have the highest density of Nile crocodile anywhere in the world), I prefer to tell, what to me, is the most comical: fly fishing for sheep.

A former South African friend of mine is an avid fly fisherman, so much so that I’m certain he would live in a floating tube chair if wife and work allowed.  He has taught the basics of fly fishing to many a person, including myself, and on this particular story occasion, my teenage son.  We drove across Johannesburg to a section of the West Rand that is populated with small holdings and wedding venues.  This fishing hole, as it were, had three or four quite small pools stocked with rainbow trout and bass.  To keep the surrounding grass and brush cleared with minimal human effort, the owner kept a number of “free range” livestock – a pony or two, sheep, maybe geese.  We fishermen (and a fisherwoman or two) were individually scattered across the few acres.

As best I can remember, I was fishing at the end of the larger pool, while my son was fishing the same pool at mid-center.  Suddenly I heard my son shout in a panicked voice, something to the effect of, “Pa!  Come quickly!  Help me!”  Upon hearing his stricken voice, my heart immediately skipped a beat or three, and I dropped my own rod and turned to race toward him.  What I saw as I turned doubled me over with laughter.

On one of his many back strokes, which are a necessary and finessed aspect of fly fishing, he was unaware that a ewe was feeding directly behind him.  His small fly embedded itself in the ewe’s wool, and upon my son’s forward cast the sudden forceful tug startled the ewe.  She bolted in an angled direction toward, yet away from me.  My son, not wanting to lose his fishing equipment, ran after her with his rod bending in an extreme doubled arc, as if he had just hooked a Great White.  I was laughing so hard – and all the while trying desperately to remove my digital Canon camera from a buttoned cargo pocket – that I was of no help.  Eventually, of course, the ewe’s pull and my son’s resistance resulted in a broken line.

My son (left) with his instructor (center) on the West Rand

My son (left) with his instructor (center) on the West Rand

So . . . should you have bought a sheep skin in the Gauteng region anytime between 2006-2007, and discovered through a painful laying down on it experience that it contained a small hooked fly, you now, more than likely, know the origin of that fly!

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