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The wave of sentimentality surrounding Africa's first World Cup has concealed the persistence of marked gender discrimination around both how countries use public funds and conceive of organised sport, writes Salma Maoulidi. Football's popularity in countries like Tanzania and the political capital to be had by pandering to its followers, Maoulidi highlights, end up reinforcing discriminatory funding allocations and perpetuating a mismatch of opportunity along gender lines.

The BBC Swahili and Africa service on the internet is a lifeline for those of us on the move wanting to access regular national and regional news. But as I was trying to catch the news on the eve of the African World Cup, to my sheer dismay a recorded message kept playing: 'There are no programmes on this channel at present…' Had the Swahili service and the Africa service staff decided to do away with the daily current affairs programmes during the World Cup? Is football the official news of and from Africa over the next few weeks?

The slogan for the World Cup that came out from South Africa is 'Can you feel it?' And feeling it we are. A few days before the countdown an email was circulated intending to warn wives, in particular, and women in general about minimum operating standards of matrimonial and romantic relationships during the duration of the World Cup. The message is clear: Men are free to relinquish any social or family status and responsibility they may have during this period and wish to be left alone. They may as well move to Soccer City or a country called Football to actualise their nirvana.

The problem is I am not sure all men would want to be characterised as such, that is, that they would lose their mind over a game, or worse, that being male is synonymous with being a football addict or lover (and in the same vein, that being a woman means that one is indifferent to football). What is certain however is that whether I and many other indifferent folks like it or not, Africa, in the next few weeks, will be seized with football fever. Surprisingly, everybody, not just big business, is taking notice, including otherwise apathetic governments.

Decidedly, football in Africa is fast assuming a national priority status. Consider this: the national football team in Tanzania is one of the top priorities of a scandal-ridden president. Recently, according to Bwana Makengeza, for 90 minutes of play time he spent over 3 billion Tsh (Tanzanian shillings) to get the Brazilian national team to Tanzania in a pre-World Cup friendly with the Tanzania national team. In his short tenure as president, soccer academies have been started to develop little football geniuses who it is hoped will become the Tanzanian Didier Drogbas or Michael Essiens.

In Rwanda too football is a political investment. The Kagame Cup played in East Africa has advanced the cause for regional integration. It has also emphasised the need for serious investment in sports to complement Africa’s development vision. Kenya and Ethiopia led the pack in the eastern Africa region among countries using sport, and more specifically long-distance running, as a from-rags-to-riches option for its citizenry, but in this case the country only facilitates serious and promising athletes, leaving the rest to the athletes themselves or to foreign coaches who want to be associated with a rising African hopeful.

While such developments are welcome, they need to be carefully considered in light of the operating realities on the continent and in individual countries. For instance, Tanzania ranks 151 out of 182 countries in the 2009 Human Development Report. Between 1990 and 2007, Tanzania’s Human Development Index (HDI) rose by 1.15 per cent annually from 0.436 to 0.530. The Human Poverty Index (HPI-1) for Tanzania stands at 30.0 per cent, giving it a rank of 93 among 135 countries for which the index has been calculated. In 2007, 33.4 per cent of Tanzanians lived below the national poverty line, which is around US$1.1, while about 40 per cent of the population lives in abject poverty.

The average national income is estimated at US$400. Tanzania’s Gender-Related Development Index (GDI) value is at 0.527, that is, 99.4 per cent of its HDI value. Out of the 155 countries with both HDI and GDI values, 53 countries have a better ratio than Tanzania. Yet football is number one among the issues the president is keen to deliver on, and he has in fact directed substantial public resources to spruce up the sector. The national stadium has been refurbished and brought up to respectable standards at great cost. Foreign coaches have been contracted: Márcio Máximo from Brazil was the first to replace local coaches, and most recently Danish-born coach Jan Børge Poulsen will begin to teach an ever-losing national side this August. Numerous tours have been organised at great expense to different parts of the world to expose the national team to international-level football with the hope that it will improve their game.

In short, doors have been opened and purses emptied by the government and private sector to give 'the boys' a chance to bring Tanzania football glory. Alas, the investments have been to no avail. Only recently Brazil thrashed the national team 5–1 on home ground in one of their pre-World Cup warm-up matches. Even Zimbabwe, which has been out of international contention due to sanctions, did not fare so badly when they played against Brazil earlier. Zimbabwe conceded three goals. But despite the poor score, Tanzania is celebrating; people are thrilled that at least Tanzania did score against Brazil. The disappointing track record of the national team or the huge investments to justify hosting Brazil in Tanzania barely come under scrutiny. At one time the Tanzanian president was rumoured to have invited Spain's Real Madrid to play and visit Tanzania on the official tab. One wonders what the political score here was.

This football craze in Africa is unsettling not so much because it promises to cause havoc to relationships but in view of its gender ramifications. Indeed, the hype that successive African governments make over the sport of football strongly suggests a tendency to favour and value a male-centred preoccupation while no similar investments are made in activities and priorities that affect women. This is the case in sports that are traditionally seen as women's sports like netball, which in most countries is in crisis due to meagre funding, as indeed is women’s football.

In Tanzania the women’s national football team, the Twiga Stars, has a far better record of performance than its male counterpart, the Taifa Stars, but neither the government nor private investors are pouring equal amounts of funds to support the female side. As a consequence they continuously have to compromise their training schedule when preparing for international meets. Also, they are psychologically affected as they constantly have to worry if sponsorship will be forthcoming to enable them to participate in key matches. The fact that they have a local coach does not help since officials see no need to prioritise the needs of a local whom they pay meagrely over those of a handsomely rewarded foreign coach.

The bias is untenable in view of the fact that women are the majority population in Tanzania. Indeed, the population in Tanzania is relatively youthful, the median age being 18 years old (the male is 17.8 years, while the female is 18.3 years). The population structure according to 2009 estimates is: 0–14 years: 43 per cent (male 8,853,529; female 8,805,810); 15–64 years: 54.1 per cent (male 10,956,133; female 11,255,868); and 65 years and over: 2.9 per cent (male 513,959; female 663,233). Although more boys are born in Tanzania, women outnumber men from adolescence to old age. In fact, there are more female youths and young adults than there are males. This then does not justify more resources being allocated to sports that benefit male youths while the interests of the majority population are neglected.

It is, however, not just the financial allocations that are problematic but the overall ideological framework by which African countries justify their investment in their 'boys' rather than in their 'girls'. Only recently the Nigerian team was sent a chartered replacement flight after its airplane met with technical problems in London while en route to South Africa for the World Cup. Imagine the costs of chartering a plane for countries whose economies are in turmoil after facilitating the same national team to train in one of the most expensive cities in Europe.

Similar decisions were made in this year's African Cup of Nations in Angola when great fuss was made over the decision of the Togolese team not flying to Angola, but after the unfortunate attack on the national team the government did not hesitate to send a plane to airlift the team from Angola. These decisions are seemingly made without effort and with little consideration as to the impact on the national till. For African nations to arrive at this point where a nation backs its national players at any cost is welcome, but I have serious reservations around the inherent sexist message such political decisions convey.

In 2003, 28-year-old Marc-Vivien Foé from Cameroon died after collapsing during a Confederations Cup semi-final against Colombia. The public emotion that followed this death is remarkable. Cameroon declared days of national mourning and granted the player a funeral only dedicated to national dignitaries and heroes of the liberation struggle. A similar gesture was advanced towards the Zambian national football team when the military plane carrying the team to Senegal for a 1994 World Cup qualification match almost a decade earlier crashed over Gabon in the late evening of 27 April 1993.

The players who perished in the flight were considered national heroes, as were the players assembled to replace them in qualifiers and the subsequent tournament. The Zambian team continues to be associated with this air tragedy and almost two decades later their exploits are measured against how they have been able to recover in the game. During the 2010 African Nations Cup, Zambia reached the quarter-finals stage and lost on a penalty shootout to Nigeria, a decision that prompted the Zambian president to award the team cash prizes and a heroes' welcome.

It is common for African presidents, perhaps in a quest for popularity, to promise hefty sums of money to already pampered players, especially those playing aboard. The further a national team is able to advance in a tournament, the higher the stakes for being awarded for their exploits. And the monetary gifts given to players are mostly in US dollars and quite generous, while in actual fact members of the national team are but fulfilling their obligation to their countries as citizens. Essentially, they should be honoured to be called to perform an honourable duty on behalf of their country, as it is far better than serving in the military. What baffles me even more is why these players should be singled out and praised for doing what most already do for a living?

As a politically conscious woman, I am distressed by the blatant sexist and discriminatory messages that the World Cup and football generally convey. Largely, it is about stroking the egos of young African men who have made their rags-to-riches stories and developed an attitude to go with it. These already well-paid players are fussed over as if the lives of Africans depended on it. And for those who have not yet made it to European or Gulf clubs, it is an opportunity to rub shoulders with their role models and possibly dream big while in their company. There have been initiatives, mainly by private foundations and organisations, to encourage the participation of young girls in football in the run-up to the World Cup in Africa, but such initiatives are low-scale and often appear as an afterthought to include a 'feminine' component to a purportedly national or global affair.

The undue attention on 'the boys' further conflates male egos on and off the pitch as football assumes greater importance as the next and only salvation for underprivileged young men. It is thus not uncommon for young boys and young men to be excused from family and social responsibility because they play football. In Zanzibar, for instance, between the mid-afternoon prayer and the evening prayer – between 4pm to 6pm – the beach or other grounds are replete with young men playing football. It is thus not uncommon for the few open spaces in neighbourhoods to be monopolised by young boys and men playing soccer. Any discussion about the use of open or public space in most communities invariably prioritises access to men and young boys who want to play soccer. Women are markedly absent from these spaces.

Likewise, the male presence is felt at public spaces like hotels, restaurants and bars, not only at this time but also during other prestigious football tournaments. It is not uncommon for these locations to boast expensive flat screens, to the delight of their male clientele who have no qualms spending more for the joy of hanging around a football-friendly ambiance. Even at the hotel where I stay, which has thus far resisted having a TV, the owner has given in to the World Cup frenzy and temporarily hired a screen to entertain his guests.

But perhaps my greatest dissatisfaction lies in the reality that African governments do not show similar emphasis on the needs of reproductive health and rights of women. The maternal mortality rate in Tanzania is one of the highest in the world. Women die daily and needlessly because they cannot be evacuated on-time for emergency interventions. While it is women who bring the next generation of football players and leaders into the world they do so in deplorable and dehumanising conditions. Maternal health facilities and, more particularly, labour facilities are in a dismal state in most African countries. It is not uncommon for many pregnant and new mothers to share beds. In some cases each mother has to also sleep with her baby because there are no cots for them.

Do the countries not think that women too need to be treated as (s)heroes for the personal sacrifices they make towards nation-building by giving birth to the new generation of Africans who can aspire to become the great footballers and states people of tomorrow? Women’s participation in global or regional events is limited to entertaining the men as prostitutes or trafficked persons and as cheerleaders on the sidelines. Can women not expect to have a more pivotal role in whatever sports events are organised in the country and in the continent? Can there not be greater parity in investments into healthy living for men and women around the continent?


* Salma Maoulidi is a member of the Gender and Education Office of the International Council of Adult Education, a member of FEMNET, a pan-African women’s advocacy network, and member of the Sahiba Sisters Foundation, a community of women learners operating in 13 regions of Tanzania.
* © Salma Maoulidi 2010.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.