Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Games We Love

Happy Monday morning to everyone, and I hope you all had a great 4th of July! While I was sad to not be in DC, I went to a great bbq, complete with African dancers and a surprisingly good fireworks display.

I wanted to post quickly about two experiences that I had this weekend concerning sports, and the effect they have in any culture.

On Saturday, some friends and I attended the Uganda-Kenya rugby match in Kampala. On a warm, sunny day, about 5,000 people crowded around the pitch and cheered on their team. Obviously, most spectators were pulling for the home team, but Kenya traveled with quite an entourage, and there was a strong Kenyan contingent.

I was struck by the festival-like atmosphere of the occasion. Ugandans and Kenyans a like danced, sang, and cheered for their teams, but always with one arm draped around the rival's shoulder. Would Yankees and Red Sox fans cheer hard for their team, while embracing a rival fan? Not likely. And I've been to enough Duke-Maryland college basketball games to know that few friends rooting for opposing sides are made.

In the end, Kenya won the match, but not before a furious comeback from Uganda late in the game. The Kenyan players and fans - about 250 people in total - then circled the field, stopping every few meters to sing their national song, do a little dance, and get down on the ground and show the soles of their feet to the Ugandan fans. I took it as a sign of disrespect. The Ugandans around me laughed and said it was funny.

Most surprising of all, that night, I saw members of both teams in the bar I went to, drinking congenially and enjoying each other's company. Members of two rival nations, after just having played a violent and brutal rugby match, went to the same bar. On purpose. It was both surprising and inspiring to see the players, so intense on the field, act so civilly towards one another off it. Sometimes, in America, we let our rooting interests take on too much importance. Not so for the Ugandan and Kenyan rugby teams. Their perspective was pitch-perfect.

The night before, I had a wholly different experience. I went to a bar to watch the Ghana-Uruguay World Cup match. Filled with Ugandans, the atmosphere was tense throughout the game. When Ghana scored their goal right before the half, the bar exploded in a jubilation unlike I had ever seen. Ugandans and mzungus hugged and kissed. Vuvuzelas made the walls shake. It was glorious.

Of course, everyone knows what happened. Ghana's star played missed a game-winning free kick, and then Uruguay went on to win in a penalty kick shootout. I could almost feel the bar, the country, and the continent, deflate. All of Africa united around Ghana's team. For a continent short on accomplishments, a win would have been monumental. Instead, they lost in the worst, most heart-breaking, way possible.

As one friend said to me, "If the world was a good place, if there was justice, Ghana would have won." Maybe so. It was hard not to feel terrible for my Ugandan friends sitting glumly next to me after the match. Football is just a game, but it's much more than that here. Even if a single match couldn't cure any of Africa's problems, a win would have meant that for just a few hours, a continent could rejoice.

In much of Africa, such opportunities are few and far between.

Sports bring people together. In the case of the rugby match, opposing players and fans bonded over a great game on a beautiful day, a bond that lasted well into the night. An entire continent bonded over Ghana's success. And while the end result was disappointing, I was heartened to see Ugandans - and all Africans - cheering on their African counterparts. Ghana and Uganda don't have much in common; they only share their "African-ness". But Ugandans adopted Ghana's team as if it was their own. If this type of unity and togetherness can extend to arenas off the football pitch, this continent stands a much better chance of moving forward.

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