An anthropologist named Clifford Geertz was studying the tradition of cockfighting in Bali. The cockfights, although illegal, were deeply ingrained within Balinese culture, and Geertz describes a time early in his study where the police raided one of the fights.
Participants and observers alike panicked and ran, splitting off in all directions. Geertz had two paths he could take. Either he stay and announce himself as an observer, an outsider looking in on a foreign event, or he runs. He chose to run.
Before this event, Geertz struggled to be accepted by the Balinese locals but his act of unity with the locals shifted his status from ‘out’ to ‘in’. He was now accepted.
Encounters with the police while I volunteered in Uganda were minimal, but the idea of participation as a route to acceptance is something I experienced.
I was part of a group of Restless Development volunteers whose aim was to teach about issues affecting the locals’ livelihoods and support communities to bring about lasting change themselves.
Initially we struggled to reach Out of School youth, and we worried both about reaching our targets and making our trip worthwhile.
That’s where football came in.
Early in my trip, Benjamin (a volunteer from Uganda and friend) and I started playing football with some of the locals after our work was finished. It usually started with a game similar to piggy in the middle, followed by either a match or a possession game.
Benjamin comes from a village nearby so had a lot in common with the locals we were playing with. Not knowing a word of the local language, I could only communicate with my feet.
‘I am Didier Drogba’
As time progressed so did my relationship with them, I had learnt their names and had picked up a few local words so communication had become easier. Soon they asked me if I wanted to play for their team, Bwanalira FC.
Trying to not sound too excited I agreed and asked a player known as ‘Thirty’ when it was and what position they would like me to play.
‘Tomorrow, you can play no 9!’.
I played centre back throughout my school football career but always fancied myself as an exciting playmaker/goal scorer, something close to Didier Drogba. My skill levels were far off the powers of Drogba, or even the locals who were all very good, but I couldn’t miss the chance to play.
As soon as I arrived the opposition saw me warming up and chucked some banter my way.
‘Hey muzungu (white man), I am Messi!’ one of them shouted.
‘Then I am Didier Drogba!’ I replied. I got a laugh.
The matched kicked off and the opposition got an early goal. After embarrassingly tripping over myself with enthusiasm, I managed to thread the ball through to Ivan, my second striker, who blasted the ball past the opposition keeper. 1-1. My first half was decent enough, but at halftime both Ivan and I were subbed for two fresh strikers. We ended up losing 2-1, but there was still a positive feeling among the team.
These games started really as a way to keep fit and to satisfy my craving for football but turned into something much more.
Throughout my time in Uganda I created a close friendship with the football team, and I believe this helped us to become accepted by the village.
We reached out to the football players and asked them for advice about how to find more people to teach and whether they would like to attend some lessons themselves. They were keen.
We distributed lots of condoms and gave condom demonstrations to the football players from my team and other local teams. We also taught lessons on HIV, sanitation, menstruation and gender rights.
And as a group we organised two football tournaments. The local team tournament was coupled with HIV testing and we managed to test around 100 people, whilst a school tournament was an opportunity to give lectures on livelihoods.
One of the beauties of football is its ability to bring people together. It creates an environment where background, social standing and race are unimportant – the one constant is a shared love for the game. As a white man from England teaching western concepts there was always going to be some opposition to my presence in the village of Bwanalira. Playing football and engaging with the villagers on a human level was vital in gaining their acceptance.
It’s not a cliche – football really is a universal language.