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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.

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