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Those with Nothing?

So I was busy admiring the photographs taken by Jessica Hilltout in the NYTimes that are part of her book, Amen, where she explores “grassroots soccer” where “the beautiful game exists in its purest form” when something about the article that accompanied the images bothered me.

At first, I was like there you go again you sensitive African…the book does after all capture the ingenuity of young kids who come up with beautiful soccer balls from the most improbable materials.

…and then via (the-fantastic-blog-you-all-should-read) Africa is a Country, I read Jessica’s introduction to the book:

Africa is a world like no other. The people have simple needs and huge hearts. They accept their lot in life with a supreme calmness. […] Africa is a land where the superfluous and superficial seem stripped away, a place where the fundamentals shine through. What makes it so special is that this vast continent accepts its fate with elegance and grace, head held high. Here, I was constantly amazed at the strength of humankind. Here, nothing is a problem, despite money always being one. Yes, Africans may be poor, but poverty does not bring misery. A state of mind alone can bring happiness.

Oh boy.

So what bothered me was a missed opportunity to frame the images purely as look how creative these young kids are, without the “they-are-so-simple-and-happy-in-their-poverty” BS.

See e.g. Anand Giridharadas writing recently about the jugaad spirit in India.

Yes the kids photographed made their balls from scrap, but so I suspect do kids in many other parts of the world and I suspect it’s much more complex then being about “accepting your lot in life.”

When (and where I grew up), most kids in my neighbourhood didn’t have toys…the philosophy our parents had was pretty much go outside and figure something out with the rest of the other kids. And so we did. And it was fun. And it was complex.

For instance, we could all pretty much put together scrap for soccer balls or typically for girls “kati” (a version of dodgeball), but every neighborhood had “the” boy or girl who made the best ball…who knew how to tie the string just right, who knew that every good ball started with wet newspapers balled up in the middle, who knew how to ensure longevity. And that earned them street cred in the neighbourhood and currency to negotiate other favours…no one wanted to piss off the maker of the best balls.

The same went for other games we played, there was always someone who was the expert at making the best cooking stove out of a tin can, at making the best cars for mock car rallies, at putting the blada together ( a complex game that starts off with pieces of rubber tyre tied together), at collecting the best bottle tops for kati, at figuring out the best hiding places for hide and seek etc.

The way I read this now as an adult was that all this was not just about making do with nothing, but about each child bringing something to the table (or rather community playground), there was an expectation that for us to have the best time playing and for you to get in to that best time playing, you had to figure out a particular skill that makes you valuable to the community of neighbourhood kids. Extra bonus points for you being the most creative. The seeds of ingenuity and the importance of making a contribution to the community were being nurtured at an early age…we just didn’t know it.

And now I look at the world my kids are growing up in…where they will certainly almost never make their own toys, where they struggle to occupy themselves without props, where games and toys prop the individual, where it’s about who has the latest Xbox and Wii…and I can’t help but wonder what they are missing out on.

So my point is (I did have one) is that this I wish Jessica Hilltout’s book (or the editorializing accompanying the images) was not framed in the language of Africans accepting their fate…it seems to me that we are constantly challenging it.

178 comments to Those with Nothing?

  • You’ve made a good point. As long as it is left to a New York Times journalist to capture the essence of football in Africa, there’s always going to be problems. The amount of times i’ve seen some manhattan yuppie offload their romanticisms about a life in the ghetto as one that is unbound by the pursuit for wealth is a complete cop-out and a cheap card to pull.

    It’s just a shame that she had the chance to explore the complex and fascinating social implications of football (as you’ve highlighted) and opted for another volume of dribble aimed at making americans feel better about themselves.

  • I couldn’t agree more. I was brought up the same way. My first toy/teddy, I got when I was 12. It wasn’t that my parents couldn’t afford the toys, I actually didn’t want the toys. It was about community. It was about getting together with the kids in the neighborhood (well off to not so well off) to frolick with what nature and innate creativity provided us. Mud, paperbags, string, mitungis, sticks, the list goes on, there was never a dull moment. To ignore all that and shove it into the “make-do-with-your-lot-in-life” corner… not cool.. oh dear, semi blogpost, oops! Great post 😀

  • Hi Ory,

    I watched the 1/2 hour interview with you this weekend on CNN International “African Voices”. It was a pleasure to listen to you talk about your life growing up in Kenya, your undying love for your father, how you got involved with blogging and activism, and the birth of Ushahidi. It made me extremely proud to say (quietly to myself) “Hey, I know that woman!” albeit only through your wonderful work online back in the early days of the blogosphere. It was an excellent interview and you did a great job in expressing yourself to CNN viewers worldwide. Congratulations and all the best to you down in ZA.


  • Ory Okolloh

    Thanks Bill! :-)

  • Just finished watching you on CNN’s African Voices. Kudos. Like Bill it was nice to say to my hubby “I know her” albeit in a blogsville kinda way.

    Your post has brought back memories of kati, bladaa and shake. I have sworn that my kids will at least learn how to play shake, that was one hell of a game

  • Tonee Ndungu

    The CNN interviews were simply fantastic. You have a simple story..and that’s the power in it. It’s because we all do somehow, so we [ people who grew up under the same environment and circumstances world over] relate, appreciate and feel you are championing it. As for the New York reporter, not everyone who writes well listens well…and some things, they can only be lived not learnt. Good one young lady. You are making it work!

  • Ory Okolloh

    Asante sana @mrembo and congrats on baby number 2!

  • That was soo creative!Good analysis and summary,Ory Thanks for sharing it with us. i love that point you bring out there,its pretty clear creativity is what makes us Heroes Out of Zeroes, we love you work.i was really amazed to see you on CNN! mind visit
    my blog

  • wambui

    I was really impressed by watching you on CNN in African Voices, kudos. As a former blada and kati player back in the day, it’s a shame that kids now are watching more TV instead of cultivating those social and creative skills.

  • without doubt Jessica was spot on about the nature and character of the African people, we are blessed in so many ways,but more than that your review adds beauty to the piece “Africans are adaptable ,aggressive and persevering”.Our story resounds with success amidst formidable odds.Thanks for the article and may i add my congratulations on the CNN African Voices interview …you represented our voice in a magnificent way!Kudos

  • 支持一下博主,网站不错哦

  • The interviews were very good. Your strory brings me back 50 years to my childhood where I actually also made most of the toys I played with. If only my children were content as I was with a cardboard box, a stick and some tin cans…

  • Sandra

    I had the CNN interview in my dvr and only just now watched it and immediately looked up your blog. So many reactions – first, that a person from one country speaks in general terms about “Africans”. Second, the use of imagination in toy-making (manufactured versus “flawed” home-made). Third, developing a sense of one’s place in the world through understanding of what one brings to the table. Fourth – those outside of “Africa” thinking that they can reflect an understanding of those inside. Love your thoughtful writings. I’m now a follower.

  • Ory you get and express the feeling of Africans everywhere, why does everyone want to talk for us, over us and do not want listen to us?
    We learnt that to eat lunch we have to fetch water, firewood,and make it from scratch. To play we must figure out the game and make the toys. We know that fixing an broken economy is not microwaveable. So our kids make balls from scratch….. :)
    We just have to keep pushing, keep working at it Mama

  • Soapbox Mulee

    Africans are probably not very smart. Just look at the frequency at which they repeat mistakes. Why is it the African more than any other group on earth is willing to take little to slave his people rather than delay the gratification for a more substantial and lasting reward down the line ? Just look at the current rush of public infrastructure projects handed to the Chinese without any gain to local labour or businesses, the millions of hectares of land being transferred to foreigners at cost of millions being evicted and at times less than $100/ha ?

    The new movement against people who pity Africans is by cadre elitist writers who more often than not were raised in wealth and are blind to the suffering of the other 98%. It is this class of people that get 1% of billion dollar deals that are given to foreign nations. Maybe the Europeans cannot help but patronize since we seem to be unable to master basic concepts that they had nailed 300 years

    Colonialism has returned and Africans are cheering it on as ‘investment’. Wealth is being transferred in raw materials like never before. The African (politician) gets a few perishable shiny toys like roads and a mirage of economic growth at 3%. Little happens to ensure transition from extractive economies into value adding – I doubt China would like this at all- instead the people are encouraged to continue in blissful peasantry and those at the top jump the gun and launch towards the gimmick economies of America & Europe where money is made through financial engineering.

    Africa is a very poor place and no amount of protest will change that fact. Too many Africans are proud of how hard they work my suggestion is maybe you should be proud of how smart you work. Also ask why you are so eager to fight over small plots land that another tribe gets while caring little when another nation gets 100,000 acres for free or when you complain of madoadoa but when acting does not mind the immigration of lakhs Chinese welders and fish friers into our nations.

    Its 2010 and we are making same mistakes we made in 1910 but now we chalk them not under losses but on gains. I did not mean to jump all over the place but cannot help it.

    A few things need to be upgraded 1. Our identity – only groups that are clearly defined and proud of the label will be willing to work with the group toward advancement. But too many of us are ashamed and are constantly trying to show that they should not be confused with the shameful. With concrete ID the welfare of the nation will automatically feature when making decisions rather than simple ‘whats my cut’ – your 1% cut of Anglo-Leasing becomes too little when a whole nation of people that you care about have to be considered. Instead most Africans cannot seem to decide what identity should take precedence to rest. In any random group of 5 Kenyans there is the (primarily) christian vs raised city vs raised rich vs likes hiphop vs and the always disgusting Arsenal/ManU fan.
    2. Morality. If you are not a murderous rapist that takes advantage of homeless people then nor should your MP, senator, governor , president etc.
    3. values. Stop pretending as if money is not the only reason any and all of us does it. Ukijua nataka pesa na pia najua uko hapa kwa madhumuni yayo hayo then it’ll make for a very favorable economic climate.

    Is that enough preaching for you ?

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