I decided that instead of “Book Review: Author, Title,” I’d adopt an actual title for all future book reviews, starting with this one. Today’s book review is Africa United by Steve Bloomfield. This copy has been traveling with me ever since I bought it at a Half-Price Books in Houston, and it’s been through about ten states and at least two plane rides, waiting for me to open it. I finished it last night just before drifting off to sleep.
In Africa United, Steve Bloomfield, a Kenya-based news correspondent, travels around Africa in search of connections between the continent of Africa and the world’s (except for the USA) favorite sport. The impetus for this book came about upon the announcement of South Africa as the host nation of the FIFA World Cup in 2010. After narrowly losing the bid for 2006, South Africa rallied to become the first African nation to host the World Cup, a feat for a continent which has yet to host a major international sporting event, such as the Olympics. This sparked a movement across South Africa and the rest of the continent as a “unified Africa,” fueling an already fervent love for the sport among Africans.
Steve Bloomfield starts from Egypt in his journey down the continent, through some of the “best and worst” teams in Africa – Sudan, Chad, Somalia, Kenya, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Cote D’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Zimbabwe – before arriving in South Africa at the beginning of the World Cup. Bloomfield notes that he couldn’t cover all the countries of Africa in his introduction, but oddly enough, his “best and worst” happened to omit three of the six African teams who qualified for the World Cup; Cameroon, Algeria, and Ghana, leaving me to question his judgment of “best and worst” – aren’t these three countries among the “best,” who qualified in the same way that Cote D’Ivoire and Nigeria did?
Despite this, Africa United takes no prisoners; as Bloomfield wends his way through the countries, he also gives us some insight into their history, geography, and politics in addition to their individual relationships with soccer. What I enjoyed the most were the chapters through nations we don’t see very often in literature, like Chad and Somalia. Somalia, in particular, poses quite the pickle regarding international team sports; its status as a failed state with no government leads to very little in the way of facilities and amenities, not to mention safety. Ergo, all their matches – even “home” matches – are played outside the country. Another factor that can lead African teams astray are due to politics and money; the chapter on DR Congo was enlightening in that respect, with prime minister vying for dominance via a bunch of guys just kicking around a ball. Local politics also play a part, establishing unification or establishment of difference. In Liberia, George Weah took his sport to the next level, running for president in his country’s first democratic election. Despite his popularity on the pitch, he lost out – but it would have been interesting to a sportsman of his caliber (who is also a college student in the USA) become the leader of an entire country. In Cote D’Ivoire, soccer filters down to the level of education, with some parents taking the money they would have spent on textbooks and school supplies for their sons and putting it towards expensive soccer clubs, thinking that their son will one day be as famous and wealthy as Didier Drogba, a footballer who made it in Europe and has become a cultural and national icon. The Zimbabwe chapter is by far the saddest, recapping a country once known as the “breadbasket of Africa” on its downfall to a dictator-led state with the world’s worst economy. Age fabrication is rampant, showing the even further lengths some countries will go to for just for the win. Some nations import players from Europe who were born or have ancestry in their countries; sometimes they arrive and change things, but more often they end up disappointing people, or not showing up at all. On the flip side, some countries’ entire teams skip town, as Bloomfield mentions in his epilogue of the Eritrean national team, who were no-shows for their return flight from a match against Kenya, opting instead to decamp in Nairobi and seek asylum there.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. In the chapter on Nigeria, Bloomfield talks about how its national team and its purpose-built capital city of Abuja seemed to ease tensions and increase cooperation between the northern Muslim parts of the country and the Christians to the south. Whereas in Cote D’Ivoire, the provenance of players provided some much-needed kinship with its former enemy neighbor, Burkina Faso, where blurred geographic lines and movement resulted in some Burkina Faso players being Ivorian, and vice versa, leading both countries with someone to cheer for on either team.
Overall, I mostly enjoyed the book. Some of the transitions are a bit clunky, or as Julian Hall puts it in his review “jumpy yet urgent” of the author, imploring him to further express “a little more passion in his reportage” (Hall). Bloomfield has a habit of switching rapidly from fun sports to refugees and genocide, but I guess that’s part of the greater story of Africa, that pride comes through pain, and that sports and games have a habit of doing just what they were made to do: create distractions, rivalries, and fun.
I’m not so big on the whole sports thing, except rooting for the Orioles, the Ravens, and briefly pausing on the Olympics when flipping channels. So this book taught me something. In fact, while the World Cup was going on, all I knew was that if I tuned in, my ears would immediately be assaulted by the dreaded horn known as the vuvuzela, which has now been added to the dictionary. Oh, and the theme song for the games, which had a music video in which this happened:
Entitled “Waka Waka,” it was a good beat to dance to, but drew some criticism. First, its lyrics are kinda vapid and stupid. Second, it wasn’t even performed by an African – despite including some words in an African language, deriving from a Cameroonian tune, and backed by the South African band Freshlyground – it was non-African pop singer Shakira who got to take the lead vocals. This only contributed to “Americanized” feeling of the opening ceremony’s featured entertainment – a sentiment expressed by many South Africans who were disappointed at the lack of local performers – as she performed in a roster that included Alicia Keys and John Legend. For the record, Shakira isn’t even American; despite her success and popularity in the USA that doesn’t change the fact that she’s from Colombia. On the song’s Wikipedia page, Shakira declared the song “multinational,” using African, South American, and Afro-Caribbean rhythms to create the song. Again, the lyrics and the insipid chorus leave something to be desired, owing to English not being Shakira’s first language. She probably hasn’t gained much of a fan base in Africa, but since’s she’s an otherwise beautiful, successful, fabulously awkward and delightfully Hispanic singer who gets away with doing things with her voice that would cause most other peoples’ vocal chords to explode, she’d probably give her haters something like this:
Even though Shakira does acknowledge Africa in her song, addressing some of the cultural appropriation that it utilized, she completely and woefully ignores the culture of the real coiner of the catchphrase that made her song famous:
Tsamina mina zangalewa: no love for Fozzie Bear.
Bloomfield, Steve. Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics and the First World Cup in Africa.” New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
Hall, Julian. “Africa United: How Football Explains Africa, By Steve Bloomfield.” The Independent. 6 June 2010. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/africa-united-how-football-explains-africa-by-steve-bloomfield-1989567.html