A recent photo essay titled Joy is Round in NG (Feb 2013) displayed some of the amazing homemade soccer balls that are ubiquitous in Africa. The wonderful photographs are by Jessica Hilltout and the short accompanying written piece is by Jeremy Berlin. The article starts out: “On fields throughout Africa, plastic bags, old clothes, and shredded tires transform into magic orbs–soccer balls.”
In my travels in Africa–principally in Uganda–I’ve seen children and young adults everywhere playing soccer with homemade balls. In Africa, soccer is king. According to Berlin:
Playing fields are arid, lush, weedy, sandy–any flattish space will do. Goalposts might be made of gathered driftwood. Some feet are bare, others shod in fraying sneakers, boots, rubber sandals. Yet children kick and chase handmade lopsided balls with skill and abandon, competing for pride and joy–for the sheer pleasure of playing.
The story of soccer in Africa is a long one, says Peter Alegi, author and history professor at Michigan State University. In 1862, a year before the game’s international rules were codified in London, matches were played in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. The game vined its way across the continent via European colonialism, spread by soldiers and traders, railway lines and missionary schools. Locals quickly adopted it, then imprinted it with their own regional playing styles. It has flourished here ever since. “If anything can be salvages from the harsh and unequal encounter between Western and African cultures,” writes soccer historian David Boldblatt, “the list must include the arrival of football.”
[According to] Abubakari Abdul-Ganiyu, a teacher who oversees youth clubs in Tamale, Ghana, “[Soccer] is the passion of everyone here. It pleases us and unifies us. The moment there is a match, we throw away all our quarrels.” He adds: “Most clubs don’t allow boys to play if they don’t go to school. We’re trying our best to mold young people and make them responsible in society. Sor for us, soccer is also a tool for hope.”
[According to photographer] Hilltout, “The people I met do so much with so little. It’s easy to look at a tattered ball and feel sadness. My aim was to make you look at the ball and feel unlifted.”
Hilltout’s work can be seen at jessicahilltout.com and in her book, Amen: Grassroots Football.