He may not quite know it yet, but Ricardo Rico Kutumela will, one day soon have to beat the ladies back with a stick. Hell, he almost had to beat me back!
It’s the smile. Full. Warm. Genuine. I find myself immediately at ease, smiling myself. He seems to me the definition of cool––Jared Leto-style. The gold sneakers don’t hurt either. Neither do the excellent imitation designer jeans or the walk. Unlike the coolest kids in my high school and college though, strangers go up to Ricardo without ever fearing ridicule or rejection.
“My name is Ricardo Kutumela. I’m twenty one and have been living in Alex my whole life.” A cotton winter hat pulled down over his buzzed head, a tight, lightweight, stylish jacket zipped all the way up, Ricardo’s gold kicks make their way up towards his place on 17th avenue in Alex as we talk.
“I’ve played soccer my whole life too but I was never very serious about it, you know. Yeah. My little sister though, she’s going for trial with the under twenty national team. Yeah, it’s really cool. And you know my friend who I introduced you to the other day, Patrick. Yeah, he plays professionally in the PSL.” For the kids, Alex itself is one gigantic playground. Playing street soccer, chasing each other through alleys, immediately befriending any tourist who happens to stray into Alex for one reason or the other, they’re pulled to what’s going on like tiny magnets. They flock, now, to Ricardo as I’m filming him. Flashing a quick smile, he shoos them in Zulu and continues explaining things.
“Around the nineties, this place was filled with gangsters and drug lords. Now it’s quieted down. We don’t have any ruthless killers or whatever anymore. Because of soccer, kids can now move away from that type of life and concentrate more on the positive stuff which is what I love about sports in general in the country. They have really helped with some of the social issues we have. And hopefully they will continue helping us especially with the World Cup. Every kid is going to want to play in a World Cup now.”
Walking the streets of Alex, looking at these kids, and at Ricardo, I find myself wondering how all those who’d warned me about rampant crime in Alex could possibly know what they are talking about. For a moment, like monsters under the bed, I imagine the ruthless killers of the past still lurking somewhere in the shadows, around the next corner, ready to rob the shirt off my back or (more likely) the camera from my hand.
“Poverty causes most of the crime. The kids, mostly, don’t have food so parents go out and steal some money or a loaf of bread. We don’t have psychopaths who go out and kill people, really. It’s mostly just the poverty. We have a really big, big inequality rate. We have a lot of poor people living in one area and then just a half hour drive away you have a lot of rich people living there as well. So when you have that situation, obviously, you’re going to get a bit of conflict and a bit of crime. But we’re fixing that. Hopefully in another ten or twenty years people will be happy.”
Ricardo is very clearly already one of these people. In a township literally packed with challenges of the highest order, his optimism is as shocking as it is comforting. I spot 17th avenue, identified only by the number spray-painted on the wall of a house on the corner, and I leave him at the gate to his family’s well-kept shack.
Soccer pulses around us. Ricardo, though, hasn’t had a soccer hero since he was six. He studies to maintain the impressive full scholarship he won and in the hopes of becoming a pediatric psychiatrist. For now he works for an advertising agency. They call him up for shoots on TV ads where he undoubtably shares that smile that puts everyone at ease and helps direct their next chocolate purchase.
And ladies? You can find him on Facebook.
– Written by Nick Fitzhugh
This piece appeared initially in The New York Times.