Marta Coelho at the Friendship Games


Marta Coelho at the Friendship Games
Jul 6, 2017

Eilat Israel –Here, in a region defined as much by border disputes as it is by its sanctity to Western religions, Marta Coelho can offer her life as an exercise in cultural coexistence.

Coelho, who played for the ASA Israeli team during the 12th annual Friendship Games in Eilat, Israel, stood out from the more than 150 others participants not only by her rich, brown skin, or eloquent English and Portuguese tongue, but also by calling five different countries (on three continents) home during her 18 years.

The week-long Games served as both a basketball tournament and a forum for cross-cultural exposure and interaction. That’s been what Coelho, 18, has experienced for nearly her entire life.

Coelho, the daughter of a diplomat and a doctor from Angola, has lived with her aunt, a financier for the Angolan government for nearly half of her life. She has lived in Israel home for three years and now attends Tel Aviv University. She previously lived in Hong Kong, the Netherlands and Portugal.

Ask her “Where are you from?” and she thinks carefully before answering.

“I don’t know,” she says with hesitation. “The place where I stayed the longest was Hong Kong so I consider that my home, that’s where I [went through] puberty and grades five through ten and you know the whole shift. I think Hong Kong, but then I don’t know, I think Angola as well.”

As she recounts her upbringing, she subconsciously says “home” whenever it fits the moment or story. Coelho said it bothers her not have a consistent answer

“I try not to think about it as much, I mean, because [things] happen,” she said. “We just go wherever the wind brings us.”

Her aunt’s job typically requires a new assignment every few years, which meant Coelho routinely had to learn a new set of landmarks and language, develop a taste for different foods and music, and make new friends.

It sounds exciting, but a jet-setting childhood comes with a burden.

When Coelho was seven months old, she and her older sister moved with her father, Silva, to Portugal, while her mother, a gynecologist, remained in Angola. That stays lasted through kindergarten, before they moved to Holland in the Netherlands.

Her first day of first grade remains an early memory.

“My dad left me in class,” she said, “and I was crying because I didn’t know anyone there and I didn’t know English either. I went to class that whole year and the teacher would say stuff in English and I’m just there not understanding anything.”

This constant need to adjust – often unprepared, and sometimes on her own – became the norm in Coelho’s childhood. She said it taught her how to cope with trauma and disappointment, and benefit from struggles.

“That’s how I learned English,” she said triumphantly, perhaps counterintuitively. “You need to be put into that environment, at least for me …

“But,” adding with chuckle, “I also failed everything from grades one to two.”

At 10, Coelho was on the move again. This time, Hong Kong was the destination. Her father was headed to Germany. Silva decided Coelho and her sister would move to Hong Kong with his sister (their aunt) so that they wouldn’t fall behind in school.

Nearly 7,000 miles from Angola, Coelho’s aunt tried to maintain a native presence by tuning into local television channels and preparing traditional dishes like fufu (comparable to grits). However, adjusting and thriving still meant lots of English and learning Mandarin.

After six years, Coelho was on the move again – to Israel. Here, the focus of her self-consciousness is less on language or nationality, but rather her brown skin. While it isn’t as admired for its distinctiveness as it was in Hong Kong, Coelho finds herself fielding comments about “blackness.”

“When I come here (to Israel),” she said, “some of them are like ‘Wow, you’re so white.’ Like you’re not black”

Even though she has only played basketball for three years (her last two in Hong Kong, and, after two years away from the game, the past year leading up to the Friendship Games) Coelho has experienced the racial stereotypes brought on by basketball.

“When I go to a tournament,” she said, “I’m the only black person there and they expect me to play basketball like some NBA player.”

Fortunately, Coelho said, the Friendship Games have been a refreshing change in perception for her.

“I thought she was just an Israeli girl,” Ira Volk, a German native and one of Coelho’s teammates during the Friendship Games. “We are all mixed here, we’re different, so when she told me about her story that’s when I recognized. It’s cool, it’s super interesting, she’s a nice girl and she has a very interesting story.”

Coelho would like that story to end in Angola, where she hopes to return and eventually settle. In the meantime, she felt her peripatetic childhood made her presence at the Friendship Games a fitting embodiment of the event’s spirit.

“I am from everywhere,” she said. “All corners of the world.”

The event’s organizers sponsored student coverage of the Friendship Games. Editorial control of the coverage and content remained with the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

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