Proverbial wisdom | Elephants uphold reputation as peace workers

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Copyright © 2003 Gary Frier. Link to AP article on Ivory Coast.Cairo | The Pharaohs triumphed on penalties in the African Cup of Nations today, yet both Egypt and Ivory Coast could point to the final’s cultural signifiers. Football has been credited in the past, sometimes erroneously, with sparking international hostility or bringing peace. The Elephants’ advance in this tournament lays claim to the latter, with southern and northern factions in an ongoing civil war pointing to the soccer team as a unifier. The following proverb, related to the footballers, is also invoked as a call to senses:

Wapiganapo tembo nyasi huumia. (Swahili)
When elephants fight the grass (reeds) gets hurt.

Cynics might speculate that the soccer team’s success grants political cover to President Laurent Gbagbo, who has seized on the team as a symbol of reconciliation: “[T]he country is mobilized behind them, … the whole country awaits their victory, … the entire country is waiting for their return to have a little bit of happiness.” Featured on the website African Proverb of the Month, the saying often is used to refer to leaders in positions such as Gbagbo’s. Rev. Joseph G. Healey of Tanzania writes:

The proverb is used regularly to describe local officials and leaders whose disputes and divisions end up hurting innocent and powerless people. Village leaders can manipulate and exploit the local people in the name of government policy or ethnic group customs. A related proverb is That which eats you up is your clothes [or the thing nearest to you]. Various practices in the local community itself, such as the practice of witchcraft and the invocation of evil spirits and curses, oppress the people. (November 2001)

Egypt, meanwhile, now a five-time Cup of Nations champion and founding member of the Confederation Africain de Football (CAF), has been looking to the presence of women at the matches as a counter to stereotypes about a conservative Islamic society. TV cameras have been focusing on the women, some of whom have been face painting. Some credit the relatively expensive match tickets with luring a more middle-class audience, thus creating a comfort zone. “I used to be scared to go to the stadium to watch matches for fear of being jeered at and mocked at by men. But I am glad they have come to realize that we are an integral part of the game,” Veronique, an Egyptian supporter, told the Cameroon Tribune.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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