A few months after I arrived in Liberia my colleague Emmanuel told me that in the 1980s he was somewhat of a formidable ping pong player. Having dabbled in some ping pong myself, and having no respect for the 1980s, I steeled my gaze and steered the conversation in a more serious direction. Emmanuel, I will destroy you at ping pong.
The Liberian National Table Tennis Association is a one-room building on Broad Street. Outside, market women sell tomatoes and onions, children sit by wheelbarrows full of random goods, and countless others lean against the walls with nothing else to do. Inside, Liberia’s best ping pong players ply their game on three less-than-superb tables in a large, dusty, dimly lit room. The instant I first entered, I was in love.
The National Table Tennis Association is both chaos and order. When you enter, it’s unclear how you go about requesting a table to play. People playing on one table will be shouting at people playing on another table. Paddles are swapped back and forth. If a match is being played for money, as the game wears on there is invariably a dispute over a point and the whole room gets tense. But, as you observe more, there’s an undeniable order to everything: if the match is important, the players call dibs on the best paddles; the shouting is largely for show; the better players can dictate who gets which table. Children can play on the worst table, unless the older players need ball boys. Above all, there’s an understanding that everyone is there to play ping pong – all the shouting, cutting jokes, and teasing are not taken to heart.
Emmanuel is a formidable ping pong player. But, he’s rusty. His strokes look textbook and flow, but few of his shots hit the table. He gets frustrated. My ping pong game, which is basically tennis on a smaller scale replete with a massive, inappropriate forehand stroke that takes me off the ground, is starting to get to Emmanuel. I toss in a couple double-handed backhand shots (the room laughs), win a point, and have psychologically defeated Emmanuel. This is key, because if we were to play longer, Emmanuel would easily beat me. As it turns out, we play longer and Emmanuel easily beats me.
A family of six lives in one small room behind the National Table Tennis Association. All four of the boys are phenomenal ping pong players. Mohammed and Yao stand less than a foot above the table, play barefoot, and routinely kick my ass. Tossing in a random double-handed backhand doesn’t throw them off guard, make them laugh or second-guess their strategy.
After Emmanuel’s introduction, I returned regularly on Saturdays with my friends Carly and Barnaby. We receive lessons from Abu. Abu is energetic and gives yoda-like advice. When a shot goes long, Abu yells, “On the board!”; when a shot stuns an opponent, Abu yells, “Shot!”; when the ball hits the net, Abu yells, “Over the net!” If the room gets too loud, Abu drops his paddle and starts screaming, “The noise! The noise! The noise!” until the noise stops. He peppers his conversation with “No, Shan!” and “Yes, Cahly!” We play for an hour or two, then retire to a rooftop bar on Sniper Hill and watch the bats come out at dusk. It is probably the best way to spend a Saturday.
A few months after I first went to the National Table Tennis Association my summer housemate Courtney told me that she was somewhat of a formidable ping pong player. Having dabbled in some ping pong myself, and having no respect for her story about beating a tall Russian who had his own velvet ping pong sleeve, I steeled my gaze and steered the conversation in a more serious direction. Courtney, I will destroy you at ping pong.
The National Table Tennis Association was created in 1985 by three aficionados. Now, they have sponsorship from Lonestar cell phone company, travel the region to compete (even the children travel), receive support from the Chinese embassy, and have participated in the world championships. What this means in selfish terms is that I have been beaten mercilessly by the best Liberian ping pong player who, in turn, has been beaten mercilessly by the best ping pong player in the world. That’s two degrees of separation between my double-handed backhand shenanigans and the pingest ponger on the planet.
Courtney has told her family about our upcoming ping pong show-down. Through a series of e-mails, her family places a bet on the match. Courtney has her mother mail her special ping pong paddle. I inform Courtney at each step how she is already losing before we even play. This places more pressure on her. Before we even step foot in the National Table Tennis Association to compete in Thrillerovia in Monrovia, Courtney has lost. (In fact checking for this blog post, Courtney would like it noted that she ‘whumped’ me before she left Liberia)
The best tennis players in the country hang out at the tennis courts by SKD stadium. Charles Taylor used to sponsor tennis tournaments, so there are a lot of good players. They are nice guys, but always ask for money; after nine in the morning it is too hot to play tennis. The best squash players in the country hang out at the only squash court in town. They know that they are good and don’t offer to play for free with lesser mortals.
A year after I first went to the National Table Tennis Association I tell Abu that I am now a formidable ping pong player. Having dabbled in some ping pong himself, and having no respect for my trash talking, Abu steels his gaze and steers the conversation in a more serious direction. Sean, I will beat you.
The National Table Tennis Association has a similar vibe to Cheers. When you walk in, everyone says hello. Patrick will pull you aside to recount a particular point he played earlier in the day. When it came time for Carly to leave Liberia, association members requested that she put on a tournament, the Carly Cup, for all the children. Family members came to watch, even the older players stayed to root on the kids. They weren’t as neutral as I thought they’d be – after Mohammed beat Yao in an early match, Abu and some older players declared Mohammed the de facto victor. “No one can beat him now, there’s no point.” But they played on, all participants receiving school supplies.
Abu’s demeanor becomes serious. Though we practice at a similar level, he has more tricks up his sleeve for match play and I over-think my shots. I have one shot in my tennis-on-a-small-scale repertoire that Abu can’t handle: If he sends a ball crosscourt (crosstable?) at my backhand, I can take a step back and to the left of the table and crack a crosstable backhand, forcing a sharper angle that pulls Abu three to four feet away from the table. Early in the match, I pull this shot out and Abu falls over scrambling for the ball. The room laughs at Abu. I am leading by three points. Instead of becoming tentative and letting me run away with the match, Abu pulls some ridiculous forehands and levels. Learning, he does not hit crosstable to my backhand anymore. Four quick points later, Abu has won.
I’ve found few things in Monrovia that bring as much joy as the National Table Tennis Association. It is part of the community, it is authentic, it has no frills, it has passion, and it has eight-year olds endowed with super powers. Shot!