Monday, July 17, 2006

Like little David beat the giant Goliath…..

I am crestfallen. My sisters have gone to bed early, and the brief attempts at making light-hearted jokes has died.
After all of our prayers (Catholic church, Presbyterian church, Assemblies of God church, Baptist church, and while it was not properly announced at the mosque, I’m pretty sure it was a recurrent thought there as well…), all of our rallying cries, after each house – not only in Ghana, oh no! – in probably most of Africa watched and listened with bated breath tonight…..
….. we have lost, the Black Stars have lost, and what’s more lost 2 – 0, to Italy.

I’m thinking back to the last World Cup I remember with clarity, 1996 or 1998… elementary school anyway, where it was Italy vs. Brazil and all of Winnipeg was polarized for this event; cars draped with Italian flags (especially on our street, and down Corydon) and everyone else supporting Brazil.. And I’m bitterly hoping its not the same right now, with Italy fans all down Corydon rejoicing.. That would only make our defeat more devastating, knowing that they are celebrating back home.

Let me tell you a little something about football here; it has become far more than football, in fact, around 2 or 3 this afternoon, I became convinced that if Ghana began winning international football matches, we could surely have the drive and resolve to kick out poverty. I won’t say football is religion here – far from it, but religion has certainly embraced football! This is not just the World Cup – this is Ghana’s chance, its “God’s way,” (to paraphrase the Presby pastor – “my” church here in Salaga…) “of showing us that we can do it.”. Wow. Momentuous words for a small nylon latex black and white object being kicked around a field. But don’t get me as cynical – I have bought into football fervour hook, line and sinker.

There is something about football that is…just, not the hockey I’m used to. Its graceful, its powerful, and best of all its inclusive. There is the gracious way players greet each other before they begin, the way even the smallest trip, the smallest push is a yellow card (compared to the out and out acts of repugnant violence required to get a penalty in hockey..); the exchange of jerseys at the end – its how a game should be. I like how football can transcend culture and language and integrate itself deep into a national ethos; I love the way I stride into villages, ever the ‘obruni’ or ‘baturia’ or “foreigner/white lady”, and weird power dynamics come into play, but I stride onto a football field here, with my skirt weighted with safety pins (I can still hear Mme. Janet’s voice “Apoorva! Get some shorts! People will see your under and you will be ashamed! Next market day I will get you some shorts!!”), and I become a footballer. Can you kick? Can you run? Can you defend? You have become one of us.
That inclusiveness, that way my sisters repeatedly pulled at my sleeves excitedly – “Look! A black man on the Portugal team! A black man! How?!” – something that portends of how international cooperation in all aspects should be; Can you play? Are you in? We don’t care who you are.

And then there is the universal access of football. Do you want to play tennis? Do you want to play cricket or hockey or swim competitively or even play American football? All those things require equipment. They require fancy nets and pools and bats and sticks and padding. But football? You will see every small village in East Gonja district, and I will extrapolate to say – in Ghana, or perhaps even in West Africa, will have a wide cleared patch, rectangular of course, with “goal posts” – roughly hewn tree trunks hammered together. And they will pool together one football, and if it is flat, they will patch it with shoe glue and inflate it with bicycle pumps, and everyone will play. Barefoot, in falling off shorts, and the little ones that can just run, they will join too – in their underwear no less. You ask any boy under the age of 15 what he wants to “be” or “do” when he grows up – footballer, just like Steven Appiah, captain of the Black Stars. Or Michael Essien, or Suleimana Muntari – the star of the north. Even the women’s football movement is gaining power, with the Black Queens, Ghana’s ladies’ team.

And now, for the first time ever, we have made it into the World Cup! We have fought long and hard and finally – a ha! With the five African teams (Ghana, Togo, Cote D’Ivoire, Angola and Tunisia) in the cup with Ghana at its helm, we have made it.
But…. Defeat. Cote D’Ivoire in a bitter match with Argentina, losing 2 –1, Angola vs. Portugal, again, losing, and now – this. Of course, even the commentator (the one we’re hearing anyway, a pretty funny British guy) is on our side, saying we played tremendously (and we did!) but – we’ve lost!

What does this mean for us? In the shortest term, it means we’re playing the Czech Republic on Saturday (and damn! The Czechs! They just whopped USA 3 – 0 today… what luck..). It means we will need a miracle to beat them. Hopefully we will, but even if we don’t (likely – if we lose, please let it be with some dignity!), we will push on. There will be other World Cups, there will be more chances; now that the first has arrived, the time of African football has come. And with football, everything else.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being facetious here; what Ghana needs, alongside many other fancy schmancy development things like policy change and civil society making government accountable and competitive markets and value added outputs, is a good dose of self confidence. Ghana needs to get rid of the signs everywhere that say HiPC (Highly Indebted Poor Country), and realise that with our strong culture that we have retained even through the scourge of colonialism, with our fierce pride, our gentle humour and wonderful nationalism – we too can compete on the world stage. We have arrived; truly, we are still at the door of the Big Kahunas, hesitantly wiping our cheap, brightly coloured flip flops and wondering what to do with the coat rack and why the air conditioning is so damn cold (and I digress here, but the commentator kept mentioning how it’s a “Hot night in Hanover – TWENTY FIVE DEGREES!!” while Mme. Janet and my sisters marvelled – at 25 degrees here, they break out the hot water, and sweaters and socks..).
It has been so drilled into the Ghanaian mindset that “poverty plagues Ghana” that even when big strides are being made, even when powerful possibilities and grand accomplishments are taking place, there is no notice given to them. We are too rooted in our ‘poverty’. They are so busy bemoaning how the “Ghanaian economy no good!” that there is no one sticking it to it for the economy. Its like trying to make jello harden, outside, in the Ghanaian heat. Where is the fridge? Why are our efforts not being nurtured and supported?

I’m not sure who to blame. I’m not sure if its colonialism, or the “aid” games being played since independence; I’m not sure if it’s the big NGOs that come here (some of them craptacular!) and inform the people of their ‘destitute status’, or the fact that international publicity just bites and all we hear about (even in Africa) is African Poverty and Disease, and how the west is just awesome – actually, as usual, I’m pretty sure it’s a rich combination of all of those things that result in Ghana believing not only that it’s the underdog, but that it has no right to even dream of success. It comes a surprise to most people here that there is poverty, or even crime in Canada and the west – hell, people here keep telling me they want to go “India or China” because they are some kind of economic promised land. So much is needed to change here, but without the crucial support and sustainability push from Ghanaians, it won’t happen!
But we will leave blame for a moment and look back onto football. And why is football the subject of my three page dissertation here? Because football has achieved, in a small amount of time, something many NGOs, GOs, social scientists and church groups have taken years at not achieving – it has achieved ownership. It has taken Ghanaian pride, diversity, unity, integration and complexity and translated it into the Black Stars, in Germany, with the rest of the world and Europe, holding it down (well, losing to Italy, but still!). In football, we can begin to believe we have arrived, something I’ve seen little of in other sectors. And if we can translate some of this fierce nationalism and determination, if we can pray with such tenacity regarding all of our other initiatives, and if these things will fall into place, then Ghana can remove the brightly coloured flip-flops, greet the coat rack fondly, and stride in, albeit a little shyly, into the house of the big players. Soon there will be room for all of the world here….. As they say in Gonja, Insh’Allah, God willing..

Tonight, when heads of Ghanaian churches submitted their “good luck” prayers to the Black Stars before the game, one of the archbishops or somebodies mentioned that “like the little David beating the giant Goliath, we shall triumph”. And if for a moment we forget all the other implications of that story, the violence etc., we will remember that David did not spend hours a day commenting on his littleness. He just took to Goliath and said, “Hot damn! I’ll just giv’r and see…”. Who won? Yep. If Ghana would just giv’r…

- Apoorva, who will be sitting anxiously, with the rest of Salaga, East Gonja, Northern Region, Ghana, West Africa, and probably the rest of Africa too watching on Saturday, watching the Black Stars WHOOP those Czech Republic dudes! (Hopefully).

[Edited to add – June 25th, 2006 – that Ghana not only kicked the Czech Republic’s behind, 2 – 0 to boot, but we also devoured the USA 2 –1, and are now in the top 16. We will be playing Brazil for a spot in the quarter finals on Tuesday. The possibility of winning is small, but anything can happen.]

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