Hearing (African) Voices: The Twenty Ten Project

Much of what we read about this World Cup comes from a sanitized McWorld that represents one side of globalization: the stadiums, hotels, shopping malls, media hospitality suites, and articles of South Africa are often only slightly different from the same anywhere in the world at any other modern mega-event.  In places such as Johannesburg and Cape Town it is easy to stay in familiar worlds, and sometimes hard to experience anything else: writers at this World Cup for outlets such as Sports Illustrated have to, apparently, sneak away from their “security task force” in order to leave the “compound” for something as simple as a haircut.  The consequent perspectives offer little that an imaginative writer could not produce with a fast internet connection from any airport Hilton.

The other side of globalization, however, is the possibility that hyper-connectivity and piqued curiosity can create opportunities for diverse voices to propagate.  The possibility of stumbling on African perspectives that enlarge and enrich the conversation about soccer and society should be one of the great opportunities of this World Cup.

And while the sanitized big media version of the World Cup (and of globalization) seems to have maintained its hegemony in recent weeks, there are hints of the alternative possibility.  I’ve been interested, for example, to follow dispatches from well-known African writers and intellectuals dispersed across the continent during the World Cup for a project called Pilgrimages, or to read stories from aspiring writers in South Africa exploring the realities of their daily lives through Global Girl Media (as discussed by The People’s Game).  In addition, during my final few days in South Africa last week I was lucky enough to stumble upon “Twenty Ten: African Media on the Road to 2010 (and beyond).”

Described as a joint initiative by World Press Photo, Free Voice, Africa Media Online and lokaalmondiaal, with funding from the Nationale Postcode Loterij in the Netherlands,

“The Twenty Ten project focuses on strengthening the journalistic skills of African reporters in the fields of the printed word, photography, radio, internet and television.  The intentions are to encourage these media professionals to creatively produce reports about football in Africa and to help sell their products throughout the world.  Twenty Ten also aims to create an opportunity for the results of the project to have lasting effects on African journalism far beyond the World Cup.”

I was tipped off to the project by a fellow Oregonian now living in Amsterdam and working as the web editor for Twenty Ten.  She introduced me to some of the young African journalists and senior media professionals being sponsored to work in South Africa during the World Cup, and offered me a copy of the book that makes up one part of their work (a book with selections from pre-World Cup journalism workshops around the continent, available from KIT Publishers in Amsterdam).  They explained that in addition to the book they’ve been working collaboratively to produce journalism available on the web for reading or for purchase by larger media outlets.  While the original intention was to focus on presenting positive visions of Africa, something they do well in many pieces, the reality of South Africa 2010 has also led them to offer local perspectives on critical issues such as FIFA’s treatment of low-level workers and unemployment in South Africa.

The value of having young and promising African journalists engage with this World Cup is evident in the alternative lenses work from the Twenty Ten project offers on familiar issues.  On the diversity of Bafana Bafana, for example, Ugandan journalist Joseph Opio moves beyond the familiar and artificial black/white dichotomy to consider the integration of South Africa’s large population of Indian descent.  Or on prostitution, for another example, Nikki Rixon offers “A day in the life of a sex worker” as a powerful and humanizing photo-essay.

Likewise, the book (fully titled Africa United: The Road to Twenty Ten) offers intriguing local perspectives on stories that would likely be somewhat familiar to followers of African soccer: the role of Didier Drogba and the Cote D’Ivoire national team in national reconciliation (by Selay Marius Kouassi), the tragic plane crash that killed most of the Zambian national team on its way to a World Cup qualifier in 1993 (by Kennedy Gondwe), the inspiration provided by George Weah to war-torn Liberia (by Emmanuel Geeza Williams).  But particularly when the stories are told by journalists from the country at hand (which is not always the case in the book), the pieces offer rich local insights: on Cote D’Ivoire we hear from observers as diverse as Drogba’s mother and government ministers, on Zambia we get the contemporary story of widows struggling to support their families since promises of endowments in tribute to the crash victims have been unfulfilled, from Liberia we learn what it was like to listen to Cameroon’s legendary 1990 World Cup victories on the radio while living in a refugee camp.

There are also stories of African soccer I hadn’t heard before; I particularly enjoyed reading Joe Opio on how Idi Amin, for all the problems he caused in Uganda, managed to convince Pelé to make a three day visit in 1976 that enthralled the nation:

“The Pelé visit is remembered as a landmark event by every Ugandan with a passing interest in football.   But it isn’t the sole reason Amin, despite such an infamous contribution to humanity, holds a treasured place in the hearts of football lovers in Uganda.  Come to think of it, it isn’t even the crowning legacy of Amin’s patronage of local football.  In a success-starved nation, Amin’s reign, for all its faults, is remembered among fans as a golden era of sorts.”

Who knew?

The book is also particularly strong in its photojournalism.  The series by Joseph Moura, for example, on ‘Mother Malou,’ identified as “the first woman referee from Congo to make it to the international level,” makes for a fascinating picture of a parallel Congo where strong women dictate male worlds.  Similarly,  the series by Simone Scholtz titled “Transformations,” showing Ghanaian fans before and after painting themselves with national colors and a black star, offers evocative images of fandom as simultaneously exotic and familiar.

The work does have its limitations—the journalists are often young professionals and they start with many different languages—but the project as a whole strikes me as the type of thing we should hope for more of from this first World Cup on African soil.  “Just imagine,” suggest the book’s editors Stefan Verwer, Marc Broere and Chris de Bode, “what it would mean to the people in Africa if an African team won the World Cup.”  On the field, unfortunately, all we can do for now is to just imagine.  Off the field, hopefully, amidst the limitations and possibilities of globalization we can learn to expect more.

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