Mary Walker: Cheering for a team with 'kali' at World Cup

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Editor’s note: Clark resident Mary Walker volunteers at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002 and provides a safehouse for Maasai girls who have escaped or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. Walker’s updates appear periodically in the Steamboat Today.

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Mary Walker

It is a truly unique experience to be in Kenya right now during the World Cup. No matter that Kenya did not field a team, everybody here is committed, proud and intensely focused on the performance of the African teams that are competing.

I, myself, had little interest in soccer prior to this, particularly men’s soccer. Yes, my husband and I went to the finals of the Women’s World Cup in 1999 for that seminal sporting event and Title IX success. Have you ever noticed that all sporting events and leagues are presumed to be male — e.g., the World Cup, the NBA and the NFL? If women are participating, there is the added qualifier “women’s,” if only to remind us that there is sport, and then there is women’s sport. The Women’s World Cup, the WNBA and the WNFL. The implication, of course, being that one is pure, the other is somehow remedial, ancillary, even vestigial.

But I digress. Earlier this week, Cameroon lost to Denmark, dashing Africa’s best chance for the World Cup to be won by an African team for the first time in history. South Africa beat France on Tuesday but still became the first host team in history to fail to make it to the second round. Nigeria’s team is apparently so corrupt — having been chosen because of political considerations instead of the skills of its players — that it has no chance. Indeed, it was eliminated from the tournament when it tied South Korea, 2-2, this week. Ghana is the only African team thus far to qualify for the second round of the tournament.

To a novice’s eyes, running might seem to be the primary skill needed for soccer. Given the African teams’ performances so far, obviously there is more to it. In discussing why African teams don’t perform better at soccer (each time I say “soccer” I have to retract and say “football” here in Kenya) there is general derision for wazungus’ (non-Africans) ability to run. But as a friend said, “Mary, you people have clever legs.” So we may not be the best runners in the world (far from it), but we wazungus have good training, coaching and tactics.

Even nutrition factors into these things as young kids develop their skills. Here in Kenya, the premier world-class runners are of the Kalengin tribe — but get this, the staple of their diet is ugali (maize flour and water cooked to the consistency of stiff polenta) and you see a fair share of them running barefoot. So much for nutrition and high-tech shoes being the only elements of athletic success.

It is sad to me that so much money will be spent by African countries on their football teams while the vast majority of their people are suffering beyond our imagination to find clean water, food and medical care. Boys in these countries can dream of becoming football players. Girls and women in Africa can’t even fathom the fame, wealth and, therefore, the security that comes with being a World Cup football player. Yes, many African women runners have achieved some measure of financial security, but nowhere near that of their male counterparts. Instead, African girls are routinely denied their right to go to school and are instead married off against their will even as young children.

Meanwhile, from the media coverage, I wonder just how much the average American viewer is learning about the real South Africa, not to mention the continent of Africa. How many even know that South Africa is a country, not a region? That the electricity needs of this event are causing millions of South Africans to do without? Good for South Africa, it has the largest tourist visitation of the continent — doesn’t that, in fairness, argue that some other country here be the venue for such an amazing advertising opportunity? Throughout Africa, because of overwhelming poverty, starvation and disease, and huge disparities between the haves and the have-nots, there is animosity between countries, within countries in the form of stunning ethnic or tribal violence, and simmering resentment (though it often can look like admiration) toward perceived beacons of gluttonous wealth and security such as the United States.

But tonight, all of this will be put aside, and everybody who has a TV or a radio or can find a shop where they can stand will be watching. They will cheer for the teams that are “kali” (Swahili for brave, tough, courageous, strong, even bitter, stubborn), even if they are wazungus. From what I’ve been hearing from my Kenyan friends, Brazil, Paraguay and even the United States meet this “kali” criteria.

But mostly there will be a lot of praying that African men represent with fierceness the wonderfully proud people of this entire continent.

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