Sports and Recreation

Sraditional African cultures valued play and recreation. Africans enjoyed board games and took part in organized activities such as wrestling, dancing, and canoe racing. When Europeans introduced Western sports during the colonial era, Africans found aspects of those sports familiar. Since then Africans have incorporated Western sports into their cultures, won prizes in international sports competitions, and continued to enjoy traditional African pastimes.

Development of Sports in Africa

Europeans introduced Western sports to Africa both by playing themselves and by teaching sports to young Africans. At first, missionaries and other Europeans trained Christian converts and the upper level of African society in Westernstyle sports. By the 1920s—often in response to African demands—colonial educators and social workers encouraged investment in playing fields and equipment for the general population. Only after the African nations gained their independence in the 1960s, however, did sports facilities become more widely available.

Some young Africans became involved in sports through organized instruction in schools or youth clubs. Others learned by watching. In SOUTH AFRICA, for example, crowds watched British soldiers play soccer in their free time during the Boer War (1899–1902). Soon barefoot boys were playing the game in dusty streets, using makeshift balls of rags or paper. Teams sprang up in African townships and competed in matches. Soccer became extremely popular in the cities because it filled urban players’ and fans’ need to create new identities and social networks. Teams could represent ethnic groups, neighborhoods, religious denominations, or occupations such as railroad workers or police.

Sports and Recreation

By the 1930s, organized sports in Africa had taken on the characteristics of the games that were played around the world. Teams competed in leagues in stadiums before large, enthusiastic, sometimes uncontrollable crowds, supported by specialists such as coaches and referees. Even international sports, however, have had distinctive characteristics in Africa. One African twist is the use of magic in sporting contests.

Boxers have worn armbands containing special magical preparations to bring them victory, and soccer teams have planted charms in the middle of playing fields to cause difficulty to their opponents. Such practices still occur, and soccer teams preparing for important matches often employ team magicians in the hope of improving their chances. Another feature of organized sports in Africa is the broad role of sports clubs. Such clubs became centers of social activities, and their administrators took on the role of village elders to young players. They gave advice, collected dues, helped club members with family expenses, and assisted young men in finding jobs.

Africans in International Sports

Many African governments view sports as an opportunity to promote national unity, community among African nations, and international recognition of African achievement. The first All-African Games took place in the city of BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo, in 1965, with more than 3,000 athletes from 30 countries. African nations then established the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa. Based in CAMEROON, the council promotes and coordinates continent-wide sporting events.

Africans have enjoyed growing success in the major events of the international sports calendar. They have competed in the Olympic Games since 1908, and their participation has grown dramatically since they have gained independence. Some African customs have discouraged girls from participating in sports—such as the early age of marriage for women. However, girls and young women are increasingly active in athletic competitions and have won gold medals in track and other Olympic events. Kenyan, Ethiopian, Moroccan, and Nigerian runners have had great success around the world.

Soccer remains the most popular sport in Africa, and teams from African countries have begun to attract attention in the World Cup, the international soccer championship. Members of some African soccer teams play professionally for European clubs, which offer higher salaries than African clubs. In addition, African basketball players have had successful careers with American professional teams.

African Games

Africans have a board game called mancala or bao in which players try to capture game pieces dropped in cups or holes on a board. Mancala is ancient. People in sub-Saharan Africa were playing versions of it centuries ago, along with other strategy games similar to checkers, chess, and backgammon. Introduced to the Americas by enslaved Africans, mancala is the basis for commercially marketed board games such as Pitfall and Oh-Wah-Ree.

In earlier times mancala was more than recreation. Associated with rulers, shrines, and temples, it could be played only by kings and their relatives in some countries. In the Buganda kingdom of UGANDA, the game was kept in the court hall, where the prime minister played it while deciding court cases. In GHANA, the ASANTE kings played mancala on golden boards, and it was said that even the gods enjoyed the game.

Today people of all ages and classes play versions of mancala. Equipment varies from lines or holes dug in the ground, with stones or seeds as counters, to beautifully carved and decorated sets found in art collections. The playing ground may have two, three, or four rows with as many as 50 holes in a row, but games of two or four rows with six to eight holes per row are most common.

Other African games include KENYA’s shisima, similar to tic-tac-toe; SIERRA LEONE’s chess-like kei, which uses a board divided into squares and game pieces called black men and white men; and nigbe, a western African game of chance that uses cowrie shells as dice. When played in public, these games draw crowds of onlookers, who cheer on the players and follow each move closely—African games are generally a community affair.

Children learn counting, concentration, and the art of interacting with others through games and play, often accompanied by singing and dancing. Many Africans still consider the old games important for developing children’s mental and physical skills, and the games are sometimes included in coming-of-age ceremonies. (See also Dance, Festivals and Carnivals, Popular Culture.)