Sports, like culture, should be building blocks for nation-building

Maina Kiai by Maina Kiai
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What a World Cup that was! It was brilliantly organised, with wonderful moments of pure joy, excitement and disappointment. We saw individual creative genius on the field, but what really impressed were the teams that played as one, covering for the weaknesses of each player and making others better.

It was a month of virtual escapism during which even many non-fans tuned in and followed, with the more avid fans shifting their lives around when the games would be played.

But as much as football is a game and the World Cup its crowning moment, it is also about politics and sociology which is what perhaps makes even non-fans tune in. 

It is a time when all Africans become one — but with our affinities clear. Thus sub-Sahara Africa was furiously supportive of Senegal and Nigeria first, before supporting Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia. This affinity is as political as it is geographical, reflecting the shared histories of repression through the ages, as well as the fact that the more Arab states of Africa often treat black Africans with disdain and outright racism.

But when these states go into the field against non-African states, we support them, understanding that they too are marginalised in the global scheme of things, and that it takes super-normal efforts for their players to be as recognised as European players. For we also understand, given the state of our football associations in Africa, that their achievements are gargantuan.

Many Africans also strongly supported France and Belgium as the tournament progressed. So much so, that social media was awash with comments about France being Africa’s sixth team with its preponderance of players with African roots.

And again, it is also because we realise what it took for these players to get to the top given their disadvantaged backgrounds and the institutional and structural racism that pervades much of Europe.

Interestingly, many of us had a complicated relationship with the England team. Fed week upon week with the Premier League, we know the players better than we know our own Kenyan players.

And we were thrilled that this English team had more black players than expected many of whom played a critical role. So we supported the players but were not so keen on England -- which may be an oxymoron--given how much the UK has hurt Africa, past and present.

Bottom of the pile

Let me be clear; the support of African teams, or those with many Africans is not because of race or colour. It is actually an affirmation of support for underdogs, and an understanding of just how difficult it is for black people, or people of color to succeed in this globalised world that has us at the bottom of the pile.

The support is a statement of solidarity for the continuing oppression that attends the lives of every poor and ordinary black person anywhere in the world. And in a world where we are reminded expressly that we are not wanted in Europe or America there is a glee when it is people like us who bring out the best out of European teams.

That also explains why there was significant support for Croatia, a team whose members have witnessed atrocities and violence against family members but rose up despite these challenges. The fact that it is a country of only 4 million people and without a proper functioning football association also contributed to its underdog status.

It would be naïve to think that the support that the Belgium and French teams enlisted from their citizens means that racism and xenophobia will magically end in these countries or in Europe. That is a longer-term process that demands huge political and economic will from the governments.

But the unity, and the successes of the teams can be a basis to build on, showcasing that being European does not mean one must be white and Christian.

And it is the same for us here in Kenya. I recall being amazed and confused when I first encountered a white South African colleague at Harvard Law School, who identified herself as African. Like many across the world, being African was about a race of black people, and who had a history of discrimination and oppression.

But thinking again, of course anyone can be African, whether with black, Arab, Asian or European antecedents, just as anyone can be American, Asian, European or Indian. It just requires a mind shift, tolerance and acceptance of others.

Perhaps the greatest lesson for us—beyond the fact that our football and political authorities really need to step up so that we can showcase the immense talents that we have in Kenya in football—is that sports, like culture, history, and the arts can and should be building blocks in the process of nation-building.

But that will mean getting rid of our corruption culture across Kenya, and increasing our inclusivity, and recognition of all Kenyans, including Asians, whites, Somalis and the western bloc of communities. That requires leadership from the front, and that requires accepting and unveiling our failures, shortcomings and thefts—including election thefts—that define us.

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