On football, celebrities, media and Chinese soft power

Went up to the National Stadium today to watch Uganda beat Benin 2-1 in a World Cup qualifying round. Neither team stands a chance of getting through but Uganda played with enthusiasm and it was a rare treat to see the home crowd enjoy a victory. It’s been a long time since the ‘Uganda cranes’ won a match. Fans were especially jubilant because they were 0-1 down at half-time; a comeback is always elating. On the way back into town we got caught up in a crazy cavalcade of motorbike taxis bearing flag-waving and horn-blowing fans through the billowing diesel fumes and red dust of the Jinja Road at sunset. A good moment.

The National Stadium, monolithic but perfectly functional, seems to have been built with Chinese aid: there was a plaque from 1999 mentioning a Chinese official, Xu somebody, and Enrique pointed out how the decorative figures in the concrete facia were almost identical to those of the tiyuchang in Kunming, where we lived nine years ago. It’s good to have a son who notices stuff.

In China it always amazed me how many people followed the UK Premier Football Leagues. The man in our local xiaomaibu (small sales kiosk), where I used to go for beer and cigarettes, was so glued to the TV during a match that, if his wife wasn’t around to serve me, he would pass the merchandise over without taking his eyes off the set. He couldn’t fathom the fact that despite being British and male I had only a passing interest in the game. When the telly was off he would shake his head in wonder and remind me that I was a compatriot of Bei Ke Han Mu (David Beckham).

Yet Ugandan passion for the sport outstrips Chinese interest. It seems that the whole of Kampala—the people with money, that is—spends week-end afternoons drinking beer and watching the UK Premier Leagues. More social than in China too: a lot of the drinking and watching happens in bars, including some rather down-at-heel establishments where a good number of people lacking the liquidity to invest in a bottle of Nile still manage to hang around the doors and windows to catch a peek.

Coincidentally, flicking satellite TV channels after getting home tonight, I came across a (South African network) programme called ‘Footballer’s Lives.’ Now there’s a fascinating topic! We watched two minutes of a sequence on David Beckham visiting somewhere in Africa in his capacity as ‘Unicef ambassador.’ ‘How did it feel,’ chirruped the voiceover, ‘to be confronted with the starkness of Africa?’ Young David obliged—he is so obliging—with homespun pieties about how sad it is to see how some people don’t have nuffink.

How utterly sickening it must be for all those Africans who are not sitting around waiting for Unicef to save them but getting on with their lives and, if they are lucky, cracking open a beer and watching the football, to keep hearing this ‘starkness of Africa’ crap. One would think that God put Africa on this earth merely as an object for nice white people to practice their charity upon.

Uganda has its own football celebrities, whose lives are explored by a small but thriving local gutter press. For example, there is a man called David Obua who has just joined Hearts of Midlothian F.C. in Scotland after a promising start to his career in the USA and then South Africa. ‘The Onion’ newspaper (in fierce competition with the equally scurrilous ‘Red Pepper’) last week quoted him—in a banner headline—as saying that he would give his entire savings of 300 million Ugandan Shillings (USD 187,000) to ‘shaft’ Princess Komuntali (sister of the reigning king of Toro region, in Uganda’s west), who is currently studying for a law degree at Harvard. An accompanying article detailed at length various aspects of the princess’ anatomy.

These newspapers are so gross, salacious and misogynistic—a recent Red Pepper story described how a ‘ghost’ was running amok in a girl’s high school, raping students in the toilets, ‘drilling their delicate pussies’—that one almost wishes Ugandan publishing laws were less liberal. But hang on a minute. There are also a couple of stories here about people in power. One, admittedly, is about sex: an army general is humiliated by his wife who takes a toy boy lover (is this empowerment?) and then the wife is humiliated because after she has showered the toy boy with money and gifts he leaves her for a younger woman. The other is a sneer at economies that a politician has been obliged to make on his lunch expenses (in light, apparently, of the global financial crisis.) These stories may be as unreliable as they are vicious, but they do seem at least to depart from the premiss that ordinary people—who are buying avidly enough to keep both rags afloat—are entitled to know what political and social elites are up to. (A premiss that is not at all well established in, eg, China.) And it is worth remembering, too, that British journalism grew up with one foot firmly in the gutter (see my review of Arthur H. Cash’s ‘John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberties’) where it remains to this day.

Uganda, I should point out, does also have serious press and it is not bad, with both pro-government and [fairly respectful] opposition/independent publications. ‘The East African,’ a weekly based in Nairobi but available across the region, is impressive. And a gutter press is perhaps, after all, a useful foil for more sober reporting.

Back to football: I used to think it was a bit weird the way China went around the third world building sports stadia. (As I remember, Laos and Cambodia are among other beneficiaries of such largesse). But now it strikes me as rather cool. Leastwise, we need to understand ‘development’ as involving not just economic but also cultural processes; and why not provide infrastructure for cultural products where Africa has the comparative advantage of so much raw talent? My advice to the government of China would be to dole out some grants to Ugandan football clubs (as well as building some railways, of which more another time), to enable them to develop their local talent, if only the better to wow all those fans back in China’s xiaomaibu.

Nick Young
October 12, 2008, Kampala