“Africa’s Heartbreak”? A Report From Malawi

July 3, 2010
By | 3 Comments

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.


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3 Responses to “ “Africa’s Heartbreak”? A Report From Malawi ”

  1. Jonah on July 3, 2010 at 1:37 PM

    “semantic and semiotic trick (making all of Africa a single unit)”

    How is this a “trick” any more than any other large-group identity (national, regional, whatever)? And why should it necessarily have to do with “subjugation”? Would you say the same of an European identity (which is likewise assumed and denied depending on context)?

    Whatever the limitations of various pan-African projects over the years, it’s rather stunning to hear the idea of African unity dismissed as a “discursive trap.” Especially when a “vigorous” nationalism is approved in its stead. Remember that Malawi is the legacy of a series of British protectorates, and thus no less a colonial invention than “Africa.” Not that it should matter at this juncture.

    • Jonathan Gray on July 4, 2010 at 6:35 AM

      Thanks for the comment, and I hope the length of my reply below doesn’t come off as aggressive/defensive. I’m just trying to explain my concern more clearly.

      My concern is that “Africa” is constantly used by those who don’t see themselves as part of the unit out of laziness for any of the distinctions that exist within the continent. There are, of course, solid reasons to use the term at times, but when it’s repeatedly used to avoid caring about distinctions, or, worse yet, to not even acknowledge that any distinctions might exist between, say, Algeria and Namibia, there are problems. I can’t tell you how many people, for instance, warned me before coming to Malawi, to “watch out” because “Africa is a dangerous place” — in such constructions, the speaker doesn’t want to/can’t/won’t see distinctions, so anything they’ve read or seen about any country in Africa is attached to the continent as a meaningful overarching term that supposedly explains it all.

      Yes, I agree completely that the nations of Africa are their own remnant of colonialism, so let me be clear / revise and say that it’s not that I want Malawi to hunker down and accept the borders that were given to it as natural, thereby turning to nationalism; rather, I’d like to see more reflection on the various identities that exist (whether those be “Malawian,” “Yao,” “Tumbuka,” or so forth). I realize, as I express in the post, that there are various very good reasons for those within the continent to engage in pan-Africanism, but I’d like to see more effort by media systems outside the continent to parse out distinctions, so that other, finer identity constructions and markers can also be adopted with pride.

      Sure, we at times see the same with other continents (especially South America — or “Latin America” if the desire is to include everything south of the US border [while oddly excluding Belize and a few other non-Spanish/Portugese colonies]), but with nowhere near the frequency with which “Africa” is clumsily reduced to being a singular entity. And that’s where the “subjugated” comes in, since the term is so often used in constructions that belittle the continent’s billion people (“Africa is just a messed up place,” “Africans aren’t a rational people,” “Africa can’t get its act together,” etc.), and not just from everyday folk, but as part of institutions of power and supposed mouthpieces of Knowledge. Classic Orientalism, in other words.

      The “trick,” then, is in clumsily creating a term that lumps a bunch of people into a group for one’s own convenience, and then using it enough that it takes on saliency for those in the newly constructed group. Creating identity for others, rather than letting them self-construct. I realize it’s not that simple, and the constraints of a blog post make it hard to tease out all the complexities, since I also realize that some “Africans” are now indeed self-constructing. Perhaps I missed it, though, but I see next to no examples in the American press of those self-constructions being privileged over the journalists’ or commentators’ own lazy, uninformed assumptions about what the game meant to “Africans.”

  2. Dan on July 7, 2010 at 10:22 PM

    Although I am bothered by the singularity of Africa in the western media, I can tell you that from Accra, Ghana, It was pretty amazing to feel all of Africa together (yes, we could feel in here too) for one single cause. Maybe Pres. Nkrumah was on to something with this unification of Africa?