“Africa’s Heartbreak”? A Report From Malawi
The disappointment was palpable. A room that should probably have held no more than 50 but that instead held 150 filed out quickly, quietly, dejected. Friday night in Liwonde, Malawi, few were happy, as Ghana, “the Black Stars of Africa,” had been sent out of the World Cup. I had come to watch the game in one of the town’s “video shows,” small rooms that play films all day long on a tiny television for a few cents entrance fee, but that double as palaces of football reverie. The night began well, with Ghana’s fantastic strike just ten seconds shy of half-time, and the room erupted, benches kicked over, jumping and cheering rehearsed anew with each replay. But it ended painfully.
Let’s back up a bit first, though, to discuss why a room full of Malawians cared so very much that Ghana, a country that is almost 2800 miles away, would win against the seemingly innocuous “villains” of Uruguay.
I want to start by backing up to my frustrations of watching several first round games in the US. Not only is ABC and ESPN’s announcing shockingly bad, but I found that it often walked straight into nasty racist tropes of treating “Africa” as a singular entity. The stats bothered me in particular – I was often told by the screen that “no African team had ever won a game it was losing at the first half,” or so forth. The stats seemed as eager as the announcers to consign “Africa” to being a single unit, either a blameworthy one (as if to say, “damn Africa, why can’t you win a game after the first half? What’s wrong with you?”) or a pitiable one. ABC and ESPN’s treatment of “Africa,” therefore, fit too easily into a centuries-old hackneyed and sloppy racism that can’t see differences within Africa, that frequently treats Africa as a single nation, and that either scorns that nation’s dysfunctionality or pities it and hopes for its small victories as a parent might laugh and clap at an infant saying a funny word for the first time.
And yet I’d seen at Euro 2008, staged during my previous visit to Malawi, how much Africanness matters. Many Malawians I spoke to then had supported France, due to the large number of players from African countries; when France spluttered out of the tournament early on, most shifted allegiances quickly to Spain, and many explained that this was because Spain had several Arsenal players, and Arsenal had several Africans. Eto’o jerseys abounded.
Here in 2010, again Africanness mattered. Earlier, I’d watched The Netherlands play Brazil, and the room had a decidedly lighter feel to it than when Ghana took the stage. Tension gripped the room, and “Ghana moto!” (“Ghana fire!” or “go Ghana!”) yells interchanged with “Africa moto!” The South African channel’s announcers, led by Nelson Mandela’s example earlier in the week, had embraced Ghana whole-heartedly as “our” team. And the celebration following the Ghanaian goal was like no goal celebration I’d seen; earlier in the day, The Netherlands was the room’s clear favorite, but cheers at their goals were tepid by comparison.
From all of this, I want to draw two conclusions.
One is to reiterate the perhaps banal point that when a subjugated group is discursively constructed, members of that group are bound to make what was a semantic and semiotic trick (making all of Africa a single unit) something of a reality through identifying with their fellows in subjugation. Malawians could and perhaps should vigorously assert their individuality – and at other times, of course they do – but if on one hand nobody bothers to listen when they do, and on the other hand there are pleasures in the strategic essentialism of “being African,” one can understand why it happens.
Two is to encourage readers not to fall headlong into the generalizations themselves by seeing this as “Africa’s heartbreak.” Sure, it would have been nice if Ghana won. But the ills that have been delivered across Africa by centuries of Euro-American aggression and exploitation were hardly going to be redressed by Ghana winning a football match or three, nor has the continent felt this as a shattering blow to the heart. Today, business is back to usual, and I saw way more day-after depression when Canada crashed out of Olympic hockey in Gretzky’s last year than I see here today. If “Africa” exists, it is only in brief moments anyways, so to pity Africa and feel sorry for “its” loss is to fall into the discursive trap of giving the term “Africa” – complete with its significant colonial baggage – more mileage than it deserves.