Sports studies in Africa

Millions of people in Africa follow sports and especially football. They invest time, energy and scarce resources in it, they hope to gain for- tunes from it, rejoice and despair over it, argue and feel a commonality with others through it. Yet, until recently the social sciences have paid very little attention to sports in general and football in particular on the continent. This article will attempt to demonstrate the usefulness of considering sports in Africa as a topic for academic research. My argument is that exploring sporting practices can provide insights into social, cultural, political and historical processes, which go beyond the sporting arena. However, for such an endeavor to be successful sports have to be both thoroughly contextualized in the social realities of a given society and their importance to the people studied


Needs to be taken seriously. The article will start with a brief general over- view of the evolution of Anglophone (and to a lesser extent Francophone) academic writing on sports and then it will hone in on the African literature on the subject concluding that sports have been neglected by Africans. I will also delineate some of the reasons why this might be so and why sports nonetheless deserve our attention. I argue that the neglect can in part be explained by some of the shortcomings of the sports literature. In part, however, it is due to academic perceptions of both sports and of Africa as well as of the problems the continent faces. In the second half of the article I will analyze one particular case, that of the Cameroonian government’s handling of three World Cups and the Cameroonian population’s varying responses to it with the intention of showing the possible fruitfulness of studying sports in Africa. Although football is the most popular sport on the continent by far, in the first section of the paper I will refer to sport or sports rather than to football exclusively because the relevance of what I am trying to say goes beyond the con- fines of a single sport.


Sports studies and African studies

Sports studies, a relatively new field of academic research, have been an interdisciplinary endeavor since its beginnings in the 1960s. Other than sociology and perhaps history no other social science discipline has a well-defined and even mildly institutionalized sub-specialty dealing with sports. I myself am an anthropologist, however, in what follows, I wish to get away from narrow disciplinary boxes because the study of sports can offer useful insights for other social science disciplines concerned with the continent too. Sports studies in general were a rather meager field until the 1980s when they got a new impetus from British cultural studies. At least at the beginning, most of these studies concentrated on the development of modern sports and the sports ethic in England (cf. Brailsford 1991, Hargreaves [Jennifer] 1982, Hargreaves [John] 1982, 1986). Only later did they turn their attention to the diffusion of sports to other continents usually along the lines of colonial contact and conquest (Arbena 1988, Mangan 1994, Stoddart 1988).


This new focus in British sports studies was a great improvement over earlier works on sports, which had usually stopped at celebrating human achievement through sports and generally took sports propaganda at its face value without questioning its ideological underpinnings. What is more, they had kept sport apart from the larger society in which it was embedded thus making it rather thin and irrelevant for an understanding of social processes. The newer sports studies have consciously set out to overcome this shortcoming and have yielded some interesting and exciting insights. Most importantly they showed that sports cannot be divorced from larger social practices and that in more ways than one they are political. They often serve to control the time and the body of the working class as well as their use of space. Sports may at the same time serve as expressions of privilege or be used to keep people in their place as well as to teach them moral values (cf. Bourdieu 1972). Since the mid-1990s there has been a sharp increase in the number of works on sports. Unfortunately, not all such studies have been successful, often they yield predictable results, which are rather thin ethnographically and show little theoretical sophistication. Part of the reason for this has to be the narrow focus on sports where the social context is invoked almost ritualistically but depth is lacking on the social, cultural, political and historical aspects of the area in question.


Paradoxically, perhaps the best studies of sport tend to be the ones that were written as a byproduct of research that was bent on elucidating some- thing other than sport. To name some of the most famous ones, Geertz’s (1973) essay on the Balinese cockfight uses the cockfight to understand Bali- nese society and personality. Appadurai’s (1995) article on cricket also has another agenda than the mere understanding of the sport for its own sake. Rather he is interested in how cricket has been ‘vernacularized’ and thus de- colonized by Indians and therefore serves different goals than those originally intended by the colonizers. Unlike the sports studies discussed above these works are using sports to throw light upon larger social phenomena of wider relevance than the sport itself.


There are, of course, some studies of sports that succeed as ethnographically informed analyses, which have sport as the direct focus of their inquiry. However, they are convincing for the same reason as the works cited above, namely, that they embed the sport they examine in a wider social framework and integrate what happens in the ring, in the arena or on the pitch with social, political and cultural processes taking place in the larger society. Some examples of such work from other continents are Brownell’s Training the Body for China (1995) on the place of sports in Chinese nationalism, Wacquant’s Body and Soul (2005) on the practice and meaning of boxing in a Chicago ghetto, Joseph S. Alter’s (1995) work on wrestling in India and of course Azoy’s (1982) classic monograph on the buzkashi in Afghanistan as well as Bromberger’s and his collaborators’ (1995) study of football in Marseilles and Turin. What distinguishes these works from others is their ethnographic groundedness and theoretical sophistication. Thanks to the extensive field- work on which they are based they escape the facile generalizations and superficiality characteristic of much of sports writing.


Some of the ills of sports studies are also evident in African studies, but in general the problem here is simply that there are very few works of any depth on the subject. Until about the late 1990s there was practically no attention paid to the practice, politics, significance or meaning of sports on the continent with any kind of serious social analysis in mind. Scotch’s (1961) brief note on the use of magic and sorcery in Zulu football and the work of Clignet and Stark (1974) on Cameroon in the mid-70s on football as a modernizing agent constituted exceptions. More than a decade later an edited volume appeared on the subject in which eight out of twelve chapters dealt with the history of the spread and of the practice of sports and sport-like activities on the continent (Baker/Mangan 1987). Besides these, we encounter works which are either journalistic and impressionistic accounts of the state of sports in Africa or are satisfied with giving a purely descriptive account of the institutional framework and organization of sports in various countries with- out any real attempt at social analysis (see for example Melik-Chakhnazarov 1970, Mignon 1994, Versi 1988, Wagner 1990).


Although there were sport-like physical activities on the continent prior to colonial contact, their meaning and social significance as well as form differed greatly from modern Western achievement sport. Among other elements they could form part of socialization into adult activities, initiation ceremonies or the maintenance of social control and, depending on the con- text, the same activity may have had different meanings (cf. Blacking 1987). Modern sports were introduced into Africa with colonialism with the purpose of satisfying colonial ideas of and needs for order and discipline among the dominated populations. Colonial representatives attempted to inculcate Western ideals and attitudes in Africans, which were thought to be especially well represented in the practice of sports (cf. Bale/Sang 1996, Guttmann 1994, Mangan 1987, Stoddart 1988). In most places these activities were enthusiastically adopted and adapted by Africans, especially in the case of football, within a relatively short time.

The first discipline to pay more than fleeting attention to sports in Africa was history. The historian Terence Ranger was among the first to investigate sport and popular pastimes of a sport-like nature. His pioneering Dance and Society in Eastern Africa (1975) was one of the first sustained efforts to subject a sport-like practice in Africa to academic scrutiny. Ranger also gives a few brief mentions to sport as part of colonial life and education in his contribution to the celebrated volume, The Invention of Tradition (1983: 216-219, 222, 235, 238). His chapter in the Baker and Mangan volume discussed above provided a fine-grained analysis of the appropriation by urban Rhodesians of boxing and its re-appropriation by the colonial government by imposing White colonial control over the practice (Ranger 1987).


The historians Phyllis Martin (1995) and Laura Fair (2001) followed in his footsteps, when they used football as a window on understanding urban colonial life in Brazzaville and Zanzibar, respectively. They demonstrate the contestation of and resistance to colonialism by the local population over the issues of the control of their leisure time in the colonial urban context. Significantly both authors couple the study of football with other social practices to round out the picture of urban life for the dominated population, thus ensuring that sports are anchored in the larger context of colonial life. Martin also is interested in leisure activities to show how Africans in Brazzaville adapted to urban circumstances and made their lives livable under the harsh circumstances of colonial rule. Besides football she includes fashion, nightlife, music and dance in her discussion. Fair’s study on Zanzibar is concerned with questions of identity. She devotes her attention to clothing, music, urban land tenure and football to draw a nuanced picture of how urban residents of Zanzibar tried to refashion their lives and identities after the abolition of slavery on the island and to position themselves often at odds with the colonial government.

South African apartheid occasioned another strain in the literature on sports in Africa. This is not surprising, as sports became one of the prominent battlegrounds for the anti-apartheid struggle. A spate of journalistic and academic writing documented the effects of apartheid on South African sports and society and the struggle for non-racial sports in the country. Among academics, historians again dominate the field, carefully documenting the facts and effects of apartheid and the resistance it gave rise to (a far from exhaustive list would include: Alegi 2004, Archer/Bouillon 1982, Badenhorst 2003, Black/Nauright 1998, Couzens 1983, Grundlingh 1994, Odendaal 2003). Thus with the exception of South Africa and to a lesser extent the colonial era, sports have barely been touched upon by Africans. In the next subsection I will make some suggestions as to why this is so and will follow up with out- lining some of the areas where studying sports can be especially fruitful, pointing out the existence of some of the already existing works.


to be continue………

Case study by: Bea Vidacs



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