NAIROBI, KENYA — In Meru district, about 300 kilometres from here on the northern slopes of Mount Kenya, a magistrate recently fined two men for fighting and disturbing public order. One was a supporter of Manchester United, the other of Chelsea. Imposing the fine, the magistrate added wryly, “Now ask Manchester United and Chelsea to come and pay your fine!” The intense commercialisation of football has invaded remote corners of Africa too. On the morning of the opening ceremony of the World Cup thousands of people reported to work early so that they could leave in time for the event on television that afternoon.
What is new to Africa is not football but the overpowering commercialisation of the sport which fills all the media outlets, more so at weekends, and especially during the last few years. Young men, and not so young, turn to the sports pages of the daily newspaper to check the matches in the British and European leagues. That, for them, is the news of the day.
Sport here was always a communal event. The seasons when there was less farm work, such as immediately after the harvest, would be dedicated to sport. In African languages the modern connotation of commercialised sport has no translation. In Kiswahili the word michezo, which literally means “games”, suggests playing for enjoyment: one’s own and that of the spectators. The sports ball, as we now know it, did not exist before it was introduced from outside. Football players would take a carefully tied bundle of banana leaves and kick it around. In one community where there was an abundance of rainfall and crops young men used a round fruit such as the orange; in another the severed head of a goat!
Still today in the poorer districts of the cities, boys take a small bundle of paper or rags and try to imitate Ronaldinho, until the “ball” can be used no longer. As modern equipment was not to be found, sports were limited to those which called for natural strength, quick reactions and a sharp mind.
Wrestling was very popular once a man had reached his physical maturity; the modern version on television is widely watched, but because people laugh at the grotesque antics of the combatants. The pastoral peoples, such as the Masai and Kalenjin of eastern Africa are natural athletes, owing to the nature of their physique –- long legs and thighs, tough slim bodies — and the nature of their work: walking hundreds of miles every week herding their cattle or chasing rustlers. Competitive running and even an equivalent of the pole vault were common in some communities. The sport of archery reached Africa a few years ago, but bows and arrows tipped with a dash of poison, were doing very good service, either for food or protection or combat for centuries. Other games for adults were bao or ajua, a game similar to chess or draughts, but with pebbles or seeds, using the cut out parts of a wooden board or tree trunk.
A mild form of bull-fighting exists in some parts of Africa, but without the bull-fighter. The bulls are pitted against each other until they tire or get injured. But the use of animals for sport is otherwise unknown in Africa. Animals were for food or to help cultivate the land. Horse racing, and more recently, ostrich and camel racing are tourist attractions and have no root here. The Masai hunt birds and put a feather for each bird they kill into their elaborate head-dress. Killing a lion was also practiced by the Masai, not as sport but as part of the initiation of the moran, the young warrior.
Another important aspect of sport in traditional Africa, which underscores its function as enjoyment, was the lack of standard rules. Participants would decide the rules on the spot, or spend some time debating them beforehand. This creativity and spontaneity was all part of the fun.
In the last few years, sport has been seen as a way of making a living. Large numbers of promising young soccer players, basketball players and athletes have invaded more developed countries, adding quality to well-established sports teams, or winning medals and big money prizes, to bring back home, and help develop their family or their home area. So, gradually sport becomes associated with the money culture and loses its intrinsic character of personal prowess, physical improvement and community enjoyment.
One result of the commercialisation of sports is the development of women’s sports in Africa. Games such as netball, hockey and tennis were introduced by the colonial governments for women. Nowadays women take part in practically every sport: soccer, basketball, rugby and even boxing. As women have become more educated and more exposed to Western ideas and recreational activities, and since feminism has had some impact –- not all of it negative — more urban African women are starting to ask: Why can’t we do what men do? Girls’ soccer teams are now quite widespread, especially in the slums; they even have leagues and national teams. A girl who lives in a very disadvantaged neighbourhood and plays in a soccer team is helped to keep clear of social and moral evils and may find a way of earning an honest living.
Commercialisation of sports is not very widespread here yet because there is little money available, and Africa is probably the last market the big sponsors in the developed countries look to, precisely because we are poor and largely conservative in our habits, and have little time and money for the non-essentials. Nevertheless, the culture of “bread and circus”, and money as the ultimate value, are slowly making inroads.
Whether out of idleness or lack of imagination or lack of resources, many people, particularly young people, do not know how to use their free time, and settle for what demands the least effort. International soccer helps fill that gap. It is easily available, is easy to discuss and the players provide a type of “role model” for the youth. It is not an unwelcome “cultural invader”, provided it keeps its place and exercises a moderate influence. It is much less harmful than rap music, soap operas and pirated videos and DVDs. Certainly everyday life in Africa goes ahead normally even during the World Cup. It is not the holiday season and the children are all at school. But, more than all else, it is a sign of the immense impact of the communications media and the latest marketing techniques and, whether we approve or not, nowhere on our planet is free from that.
Martyn Drakard is a Kenyan of British origin, a teacher for many years and now Director of the Community Outreach Programme in Strathmore University, Nairobi. He is a regular columnist on social issues for local publications.