Football made in Nigeria | A short story by Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Editor’s note

Uzoatu

Obi Nwakanma in a Vanguard essay in 2008 notes the achievement of Chinua Achebe‘s Things Fall Apart. Achebe, according to Nwakanma, a Nigerian poet born in 1966—eight years after publication of a novel since translated into 50 languages—helped a continent claim its memories and helped restore a people. Achebe’s father was an early agent of the Church Missionary Society, founded in London in 1799. He was, in Nwakanma’s words, a “native informer.”

In the short story below, published in English for the first time, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu sketches the culture clash between colonialist and colonized, between mission worker and missionized, in football terms. The story was translated into French as part of the 2010 collection Enfants de la balle (JC Lattès).

Uzoatu details the football-immersion project of an outsider, Coach Clemence, whose zeal resembles that of Charles Tennyson in Victorian times. Of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes and fellow agents of empire, Tennyson said, “They taught the world to play.” Scholar Wiebe Boer, himself a child of missionary parents and a product of Nigeria’s secondary schools, observes that “none of Nigeria’s major indigenous have precolonial words for the game of football.”

The Western obsession with institutionalized play causes historians to record the day of the first organized game in the country, 15 Jun 1904, when students from Hope Waddell Training Institute in Calabar played sailors from HMS Thistle. Uzoatu assumes a native origin—that Nigerians, in fact, played the game before it became “sport.” “It entailed any number of men or women running about kicking any roundish object,” he begins. With an offhand mention of female players, Uzoatu posits how organized football may have pushed indigenous tradition backward. Boer in his research finds that Nigerian football administrators followed English colonial policy of preventing women’s access to association grounds or referees.

Uzoatu in this gently comic fiction suggests a more nuanced understanding than that of missionaries and railroad workers and other sporting evangelicals “bringing” a game to the uninitiated. To be sure, “sports were as important as guns and the Bible in British colonial rule in Asia and Africa,” Nancy Fix Anderson concludes in The Sporting Life: Victorian Sports and Games (2010). But Africa and Africans have claimed their own narratives. In terms that Nwakanma uses of Achebe, Uzoatu helps “restore to the African world the ornaments taken off her waist from those who have robbed her.”

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