Popular Culture as Critical Process in Colonial Africa: A Study of Brazzaville Football

Popular Culture as Critical Process in Colonial Africa: A Study of Brazzaville Football

Jay Straker


Liberal Arts and International Studies
The Colorado School of Mines




A prominent strand of recent football scholarship has stressed the sport’s links with anticolonial, nationalist, international, and, most recently, post-civil war political processes to the point where individual and collective experiences of the game’s cultural enchantments are largely ignored.  Contributors to the recent edited volume on Football in Africa tend to approach the sport’s history in organizational and institutional terms, using it as an inroad to more complete understandings of various colonial and postcolonial political dramas.[1]   The problem with this tendency is that it yokes the significance of all cultural sentiments and actions within a given geographical setting to meta-narratives focusing on the emergence, development, and/or decline of the contemporary African nation-state.

Such scholarship may enrich certain strands of political science, but it generally does little to further knowledge of lived experiences of social change, continuity, and struggle in specific African communities.[2]   Studies of football as a window on national and international political conflicts must continue to be accompanied by detailed descriptions of the affective life of the game among subjects invested in struggles and pleasures that may have little to do with the consolidation or fragmentation of state governance or the nation as “imagined community.”[3]  This latter type of work foregrounding individual and community experiences and sensibilities is also represented in recent football scholarship, most notably in Peter Alegi’s richly textured and evocative Laduma![4]  While not entering into the kind of penetrating psychosocial depth of Alegi’s book, the study of Brazzaville football and popular culture conducted here is guided by similar interpretive perspectives and critical aims.  It seeks to elucidate and analyze local observations and adaptations of football amidst an array of profound material and ideological transformations spurred by early and mid-twentieth century European imperial expansion and exploitation.  In doing so, it helps to “underscore the limitations inherent in reading [football’s] history primarily in terms of cultural imperialism and colonial capitalist exigencies.”[5]

Because of its complex history as a colonial capital and the rich socio-historical research that has been conducted there for several decades, Brazzaville provides an ideal place for revisiting, and perhaps slightly rethinking, football’s career as a profoundly important domain of African cultural experience and social imagination across the twentieth century.  As in a host of other emergent African urban settings, popular cultural processes in colonial Brazzaville were complex and varied.  Distinct forms of cultural activity—such as sports, dance, and film viewing—had their sources in and gave rise to very distinct social phenomena.  Certain forms were better equipped than others to express particular kinds and intensities of individual and collective experience.  There was no question of one form superseding the rest.  This article investigates the expressive and critical capacities of football in relation to the socioeconomic dynamics of colonial Brazzaville, focusing on the final decades of French rule.  It addresses aspects of the sport that most attracted the passionate investment of African interests.  It argues that some of these local interests and their concrete expressions were extrinsic to the game’s structure, the result of the politico-historical environment in which it was taken up, while others were intrinsic to the formal elements of football, emanating directly from the rules, equipment, and other objective aspects of match play.  Those familiar with Laduma! and other work stressing the affective life, or rather lives, of the game, will see many parallels in the “vernacularizations” of football in Brazzaville and those occurring in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent.  These trans-regional parallels in football’s local cultural histories are remarkable, given both the range of colonialist social and economic “development” schemes, and the sheer plurality and diversity of pre-colonial indigenous cultural traditions.

Grasping football’s meanings among Brazzavillois can only occur after studying some more general features of the emerging urban culture of Brazzaville, itself a city “born of colonialism,” whose population rose from just 6,000 in 1914 to 75,000 in 1951.[6]   While the best Anglophone source on local rise of football is American historian Phyllis Martin’s Leisure and Society in Colonial Brazzaville, the most comprehensive sources on the late-colonial period are French anthropologist’s George Balandier’s Sociologie des Brazzavilles NoiresThe Sociology of Black Africa, and Ambiguous Africa.[7]   A critical reading of Leisure and Society allows one to tease out certain crucial questions surrounding the local reception and sociocultural utility of football that are only tangentially addressed within the limits of the text.  The ongoing dialog with Balandier throughout this article is more complex.  Balandier’s extensive post-war fieldwork in both of Brazzaville’s African townships—Bacongo and Poto-Poto—make him an invaluable source for anyone interested in the economic and sociocultural life of the colonial city.  Yet, as productive as it is to follow Balandier’s findings, it is equally productive to interrogate some of his judgments regarding the meanings of cultural practices emerging within the young city.

I–Balandier’s Brazzaville

In his highly influential study of the African colonial state, Citizen and Subject, Mahmood Mamdani frames the socio-political position of Africa’s urban population thus:

Between the rights-bearing colons and the subject peasantry was a third group: urban-based natives, mainly middle and working-class persons, who were exempt from the lash of customary law, but not from modern, racially discriminating civil legislation.  Neither subject to custom nor exalted as rights-bearing citizens, they languished in a juridical limbo.[8]

Mamdani’s portrayal of the “languishing” urban African corresponds directly with many of the findings of Balandier’s research in late-colonial Brazzaville.  Balandier stresses that the exigencies of wage labor provided the prism through which Africans grasped “the law” in the post-war period.  For most Brazzavillois, who experienced little direct contact or confrontation with official legal institutions, the true law of the city was “the constraint and the regularity dictated by wage labor, the fact of submission to the rules of the workplace.”[9]   Urban law was thus experienced as a function of the spatial and temporal conditions in which one labored to survive.  Balandier underscores the radical, generally unpleasant, novelty of urban working conditions for the great majority of African Brazzavillois, and workers’ feelings of powerlessness to alter such conditions.  Work in the colonial city was deeply alienating at multiple levels.  From Balandier’s vantage, one of the primary functions of contemporary popular culture was to reclaim the relative social-symbolic richness of former rural life, a richness that was in the process of being erased by the modes of accumulation Africans were obliged to pursue in the city.  In his concluding chapter to Sociologie des Brazzavilles Noires, Balandier offers a synoptic sketch of “the” urban worker’s cultural practices:

[S]ubjected to the rigors of the workplace and deprived of collective social spectacles sustained in rural zones, he reacts vigorously at a physical level.  The unleashing of dances, noise, and agitation that give the city its Saturday night and Sunday ambiance seems very revealing.  It is an explosion, a fleeting return to a more exultant life.[10]

     Balandier posits a mutually exclusive (non-)relation between the knowledge and competencies developed in rural societies and those that are required to forge a very different life in the city.  He maps out a standard week divided into two autonomous spheres of being.  In one the African Brazzavillois is very much a subordinate homo oeconomicus, dependent on the work possibilities generated by the colonial economy, acting always in response to exigencies produced by external forces.  In the other sphere, this same subject strives to leap beyond the constraints of the city, returning fleetingly to the richness of traditional, village-based social life.
Many of the other contemporary sociological data amassed by Balandier however seem to subvert the bifurcated vision of African urban experience sketched above.  His studies of Brazzavillois’ engagements with imported cultural goods provide a case in point.  Even if one were to credit the possible accuracy of Balandier’s framing of communal dance as a collective “unleashing” from urban socio-economic constrains, one is forced to acknowledge that such activities in no way exhausted the cultural dimension of urban African life.  Balandier’s own research efforts eloquently demonstrate this fact.  Fifty-six percent of African respondents to a questionnaire on leisure designed and circulated by him indicated that they considered it a significant part of their lives.  Seventy percent of these individuals regularly attended the cinema.[11]  In his analysis of local appraisals of imported films, Balandier elucidates a process wherein African viewers actively drew connections between cinematic themes and icons and the morals and heroic traits celebrated in their own cultural traditions.  Following examination of Brazzavillois’ preference for “les westerns,” Balandier writes:  “The African finds in them literary structures both heroic and extraordinary that are not so remote from his own literatures:  he is ready to welcome Tarzan and Zorro beside the heroes that nourished his childhood.  For our informants, these latter figures were symbols of ‘energetic power’ and ‘courage.’”[12]

This passage is crucial in signaling an alternative scenario to the one in which the African subject passes “brutally” between irreconcilably opposed customary and non-customary cultural systems where one system undercuts the other without any dialectic interplay or synthetic possibilities.  Appraisals of “les westerns” imply a cross-cultural dialogical process in which meanings and values combine and multiply rather than cancel each other out.  Tarzan and Zorro are added to the list of indigenous heroes without necessarily diminishing the stature of the latter.
Balandier’s analysis of names and naming in Brazzaville’s African townships provides us with another portrait of creative syntheses that drew upon both Western and traditional interpretive and expressive schemas.  This branch of his research also provides a useful point of transition into the study of Brazzaville football.  Balandier offers a rich account of the astonishment that greeted colonial administrators who set out to register the names of Poto-Poto residents.[13] Some individuals designated themselves in terms more or less directly translated from indigenous naming principles, according to day of birth (Lundi/Monday) or certain personal qualities:  (Parfait/Perfect, Juste/True, Le Joyeux/The Happy One).  Many chose the names of authors that provided the names for many of Brazzaville’s streets:  Racine, De la Fontaine, De Balzac, Hugo, Beaumarchais, Baudelaire, Corneille.  Others preferred names reflecting physical skills and talents:  Rapide/Fast, Brise-Fer/Iron-Breaker, De la Danse/About Dancing, Amor/Love, Clef d’Amor/Love’s Secret.  Another set of names was chosen simply out ironic insolence:  Divan/Couch, Godasse, Ration, Dada, Livre Gâté/Ruined Book.  Finally, many crafted names they considered “euphonic”:  Percebois de Jerusalem, Marie-Jolydon, Damoiseau.  Among the “veritable verbal creations,” Balandier adds:  Pètre de la Tétras, Argobast, Viraviror.[14]
Balandier cites the earlier research of P. Van Wing to explain the relationship of name and person among the Ba-Kongo and other ethnic groups of the Congo region:

The name is not a simple label.  Constitutive element of personhood, it is a characteristic and individualizing symbol.  When the person changes, the name too must change: and the new name relates to new conditions.  Since the new conditions do not erase former ones, former names continue to survive.  A Kongo man can thus carry many names.[15]

The range of names reported by Balandier can be read as signaling emergent perceptions of changing personalities and social environments in the colonial city.  In all their variety they reflect the cotemporaneous presence of attachments to social traditions, a sense of urban distinctiveness, an awareness of new intellectual and physical possibilities, a sense of the absurdity of colonial administrative procedures, and a spirit of aesthetic jouissance.  The names delineate the contours of an expanding communicative field where diverse forms of self-fashioning were possible.

The naming of Brazzaville football stars provides us with another window on the synthetic and critical dynamics of the emerging urban society.  By 1931 celebrated footballers’ nicknames had become household words.  Among these were d’Artagnan, Mikado (name of the most powerful locomotive on the Congo-Ocean line), Momongo “Show-Off,” and Makosso “Hammer.”  In 1951 stars’ names included Elastic, Dr. Fu-Manchu, Dancer, Phantom, Steamboat, Technician, Magician, Double, and The Law.[16]

Four sets of contemporary sociological dynamics can be discerned amid these names.  First, there are names that underscore symbolic commerce with imported cultural figures:  d’Artagnan and Dr. Fu-Manchu.  (One recalls the local appraisal of film heroes studied by Balandier, and the resultant cross-cultural valorizations.)

A second set of names might be categorized “industrial-instrumental”:  Mikado (the locomotive), Hammer, Steamboat, Technician, and The Law.  These names lay claim to elements of power and technology capacitating colonial rule and exploitation.  One notes an assertion of power at the symbolic level denied to the African worker as a subordinate figure in the urban economy.  Football opened up opportunities of transformative action denied at the level of routine quotidian experience.  At the latter level it is the French who orchestrate the construction and govern the railroad, supply the technicians, and design and impose the law.  The nicknames artfully transfer these powers to local footballers.  On the field, African athletes could be seen to embody some of the potency of the locomotive, the dexterity of the technician, and the executive force of colonial law.  The power and production-centered emphasis we observe in these names is consistent with core tenets of the contemporary Ba-Kongo Messianism also studied by Balandier.  The anthropologist reports:

Some of the “letters to the Faithful” written at the beginning of 1941 [announce] that a new reign is imminent… “The Blacks will go into the workshops and factories of this new king to learn how to make all the things that we see in shops but only possess with our eyes.”…The Congolese wanted modern technology and the goods it can produce, which had hitherto been unavailable to them; and not only did they aspire to a higher standard of living but, even more important, they recognized that any possibility of social and political progress depended upon the possession of material power.[17]

The third category of names highlights individual abilities not entangled within labor processes:  Dancer and Magician.  This set foregrounds and celebrates cultural skills neither exploited nor depleted by the urban economy, talents whose meanings and values lie beyond colonialist powers and profit-seeking schemes.

The remaining names are Elastic, Double, Phantom, and Show-Off.  One can guess that the foremost was the name of a goalkeeper, a title perfectly matching the physical requirements of his position.  “Double” must have belonged to a defender with excellent marking skills.  “Phantom,” with its suggestion of speed, likely belonged to a wing or a striker, and “Show-Off” perhaps to a midfielder with dribbling expertise.  Still, the functional aptness of these names in terms of on-field action need not exhaust their semantic potentials.  “Elastic” does not break.  It invokes a resiliency required to endure stressful times and could thus bear positive meanings for Africans laboring and surviving in precarious conditions.  “Double” is rife with potential connotations.  It suggests mimicry that may border on, or pass directly into, mockery.  Is the local footballer that marks very well mirroring European or other Africans’ techniques, or is he rather commenting critically upon them, demonstrating their flaws through the rigor and effectiveness of his play?  “Phantom” could bear positive meanings in an environment where, whether due to the anger of an employer, administrator, landlord, or neighbor, one must be on the fly.  “Show-Off” underscores the fact of vividly distinct individual talents within a socioeconomic juncture that reduced thousands of Brazzavillois to an anonymous daily struggle to acquire and maintain material conditions adequate to survival, often with little energy to spare.[18]
This interpretation of nicknames’ significance remains very conjectural.[19]  The interpretive criteria deployed here are certainly open to question.  Nevertheless, the names are obviously “good to think.”  To borrow from Claude Lévi-Strauss, they encapsulate and articulate “ideas and relations conceived by speculative thought on the basis of empirical observation.”[20] Strikingly, none of the names represents natural phenomena, at least in any unmediated sense.  They can be seen to register, evaluate, and reconfigure ideas and relations specific to African experiences of the emerging colonial city.  If the names were indeed “good to think” within a specific urban colonial context, the next analytical challenge to address in greater detail is how football itself responded—or was made to respond–to the concrete experiences and critical concerns of Brazzaville’s African population.

II—Brazzaville football

Through critically engaging Balandier’s ethnographic work, one can elucidate the creative instability, openness and synthetic experimentalism of certain aspects of cultural activity in Brazzaville.  Before proceeding to an examination of football as a cultural form responsive to the cultural demands of the middle and late-colonial period, it is important to examine the game’s initial entry into local society.  Phyllis Martin’s Leisure and Society offers a rich account of football’s career in the colonial capital.  In 1928, a youth club leader reported that it was “the game in richest demand.”[21]   As early as 1914, however, African Brazzavillois were admiring the play of European clubs newly formed from the white populations of Brazzaville and Léopoldville.  The motivation to introduce organized competitive play in Brazzaville arose from football’s superior development on the other side of Stanley Pool.  Martin demonstrates that Léopoldville’s sociocultural vibrancy profoundly affected the reception and reproduction of a wide range of cultural forms in Brazzaville, football among them.

Addressing the almost spontaneous positive appraisal of football in the Pool region, Martin writes:

Western sports were new in their structure, in their plethora of rules, and their time frame which reflected the industrial society in which they were born.  Sport as physical, organized, and competitive exercise was not completely foreign to the young workers who watched Europeans play football, however.  Certain values such as courage, endurance and individual skill were also qualities admired in village recreational activities.[22]

The view that football resonated with pre-colonial physical activities seems indisputable.  Martin even documents the existence of a “kind of football” among the Ba-Kongo before the introduction of the modern game:  “The lemon, or ‘ball,’ was placed on a line drawn on the boundary between two villages.  The object was to kick the lemon past the guard of the other team.  If the opponents succeeded in stopping the ‘ball,’ they would take turns kicking it toward the opposite team.”[23]   Diverse African cultures probably saw in the demands and skills of football certain parallels with “techniques of the body” valorized in wrestling and other games, dance, and perhaps labor activities.[24]

While it is possible to trace continuities between traditional leisure and ritual activities and modern football, one should refrain from over-emphasizing quasi-“customary” aspects of the game.  Johannes Fabian argues that colonial and national popular cultures should be studied from sociological perspectives focusing on Africans’ complex collective negotiations of historically novel disruptions and dislocations:

[I]n contrast to both modern elitist and traditional ‘tribal’ culture…[Popular culture] implies…a challenge to accepted beliefs in the superiority of ‘pure’ or ‘high’ culture, but also to the notions of folklore, a categorization we have come to suspect as being equally elitist and tied to certain conditions in Western society.[25]

Prompted by Fabian’s insistence on the specificity of African mass cultural dynamics vis-à-vis previous traditional practices, it is productive to compare African valorizations of football and wrestling in the late-nineteenth and twentieth century.  These are the sports that would correlate most directly with the “mass” and “pure” cultural practices signaled by Fabian.[26]

Drawing on a wide array of ethnographic texts, Sigrid Paul has produced a compelling historical summary of African traditional wrestling.  From her research we learn that W.H. Bentley, exploring the Pool region at the end of the nineteenth century, coined wrestling the region’s “national” sport.  A photograph from Bentley’s Pioneering the Congo shows the setting for a match along the edge of Stanley Pool (fig. 1).[27]  Notable are the natural, organic characteristics of the competition venue, an impression strengthened by the river and unbroken circle of spectators.  Paul’s work indicates that the popularity of wrestling throughout Africa (acknowledging the wide variety of forms in which it was practiced) was intimately tied to agrarian techniques and cycles of production.  Wrestling, Paul argues, was well suited in diverse ways to consolidate social relationships and exchanges within a given locality.

[[W]restling matches between different local populations had a number of functions.  Planning and organizing the festival was a means of strengthening solidarity between members of the local group.  In different roles, all or at leas many of the community had to contribute time, effort, and goods; they had to organize themselves and prepare for meeting opposing groups with proper hospitality and collective harmony…[W]restlers and their judges had an opportunity to demonstrate fairness, expert command of rules, and readiness to compromise, thus exhibiting qualities sought after in potential marriage partners and allies in economic or martial enterprise.  Public credit was given to elders for having brought up their children in an attractive way and to the young people for having endeavored to live up to their elders’ ideals.[28]

While one may well question the communal romanticism tingeing Paul’s description, her analysis underscores the key fact that wrestling tended to be, in Fabian’s terms, “high on normativity.”[29]  It was perceived by its participants (athletes and spectators alike) as a representative event modeled upon rules of conduct whose transgression would assault normative structures guiding social behaviors in general, well beyond the wrestling event.

Martin shows that though it was once a highly popular activity in the Brazzaville area, the local popularity of wrestling declined significantly over the course of the course of the twentieth century.  Football was “king” by the late 1920s, and wrestling was not among the activities that competed for the time, attention, and materials devoted to the new sport.[30]   How does one account for football’s triumph over wrestling?

In the conclusion of “The Science of the Concrete,” Lévi-Strauss discusses the sharply different values one should attribute to games and rituals.  While rituals have a conjunctive effect, including social and spiritual union, games “appear to have a disjunctive effect:  they end in the establishment of a difference between individual players or teams where originally there was no indication of inequality.”[31]  Lévi-Strauss argues that it is no accident that in modern industrial societies games thrive at the expense of rituals.

It is obvious that wrestling was a highly competitive, rule-governed activity, thus possessing the essential traits Lévi-Strauss ascribes to games.  It is equally true that colonial period football was shaped by appropriations of traditional and neo-traditional ritual and magical beliefs and practices.  Acknowledging their partial subversion of Lévi-Strauss’s paradigmatic opposition, the sports’ vital differences still need to be duly recognized.

A photograph of the 1945 select team foregrounds these differences (fig. 2).[32]  The contrast between this photograph and that of the late nineteenth-century wrestling event (see fig. 1), which unfolded in the same region, is striking.  Even limited visual data is useful in a preliminary assessment of how different the sociocultural dynamics embodied in wrestling and football were.  The uniforms poignantly distinguishing the specialists (the players themselves) from all onlookers, the rectilinear, neatly marked boundaries of the field, and the evenly layered bleachers that bracket the football event from the surrounding natural environment all point away from the suggestions of unbroken social-environmental cohesion conveyed in the wrestling photograph.  Instead of seamless community, the football photograph conveys multiple signs of specialization, strict demarcation, and differentiation.

A tighter focus on the concrete execution of the two sports furthers critical appreciation of their socio-cultural distinctiveness.  Wrestling is without a division of skills.  The winning wrestler is the most complete wrestler and therefore the embodiment of the complete man, at least at the level of physical prowess.  In sharp contrast, divisions of skill and purpose are fundamental to football.  Goalkeepers, sweepers, defenders, midfielders, wings, and strikers each have highly specified tasks and thus are required to focus on cultivating equally specific skills.

In developing a critical framework to explain football’s soaring popularity during the colonial period, it is again useful to follow some of Fabian’s central tenets on the study of popular cultural processes:

[C]ultural expressions are always more than reflexes of social, economic, or political conditions.  Culture does not simply mirror; it symbolizes and thus always has a sign-function (it is semiotic).  More than that, any living culture must be viewed as a communicative process in which a society not only expresses but also generates and forms its world.  One way to deal with the enormous complexity of all culture is to concentrate on some carefully chosen expressions…and take these to be answers to specific problems or questions.[33]

While inspired by Fabian’s seminal conjectures, the aims of this article also diverge from his to a significant degree.  It seems very doubtful that Brazzaville football, cast as “a communicative process,” offers up the type of clear-cut messages developed by Fabian in his analyses of the symbolic resonances of popular music, painting, and religion in early post-independence Zaire.  Thus my approach to football’s semantic powers will remain more open to multiple and contradictory meanings than Fabian’s account of the semantics of popular music, for example.[34]

There can be no doubt that Brazzaville football qualifies as a consequential popular cultural process.  The lust for sport took shape within the township neighborhoods, surprising colonial and church authorities, and sparking what was to become a constant quest for adequate resources.  By 1936, at the peak of its first “golden age,” fans “followed their teams, crossing the pool for Sunday matches or trekking across town to see contests between Poto-Poto and Bacongo teams.”[35]  In the late 1940s, at the dawn of the sport’s second “golden age,” around thirty teams incorporating some seven hundred and fifty players competed in organized matches in Brazzaville.[36]   This figure represents only a fraction of the number of men and boys involved in the sport on a semi-official or recreational level.  Brazzaville’s Eboué Stadium, constructed in 1944, stood as a monumental sign of the game’s popularity.  The stadium accommodated 32,000 spectators, about half of the city’s contemporary population.

The remainder of this section examines football as a cultural form capable of responding to the focal concerns and interests of Brazzaville’s African population.  Five inter-related subtopics serve as points of departure for investigating the multiple, sometimes contradictory meanings and values of the game.  These subtopics are rules, the minimum vital, differentiation and allegiance, magic, and violence.  Each of these topics provides lenses for studying why the game was poignantly compelling to play, watch, and/or discuss.  They help clarify the sport’s relations to common concerns and interests permeating an emerging urban society.


In The Tao of Cricket, Ashis Nandy describes parallels between conceptions of fate implicit within the British practice of cricket and those found at the core of many heroic narratives within Hindu mythology.  Nandy argues that Indians’ positive evaluation of cricket has much to do with very long standing South Asian religious themes and sensibilities.[37]  As we will see below in relation to “magic,” the study of football’s popularity in Africa should not be detached from inquiry into local metaphysical belief systems.  Forces and virtues of “otherworldly” provenance have certainly been invested in the game by diverse cultures.  It remains clear however that football has also always been entangled in very worldly socioeconomic processes and conflicts.

Football differs deeply from the two great imperial sports—cricket and rugby—in at least one very significant respect.  The establishment of football’s rules emerged more quickly, and with far greater precision, than those governing the other sports.  An International Football Association Board was established in England in 1882.  The Fédération International de Football, formed in France in 1902, set out to dictate the game’s rules wherever it was played throughout Europe and Latin America.  From the nineteenth century through the present, “the rules which govern the game have changed less than those of any other sport.”[38]

The universalizing, quasi-scientific ethos steering football, at least in principle, was notably absent in the historical emergence of rugby and cricket.  In her analysis of football’s rise, Janet Lever indicates that rugby’s rules were far more complex and open to interpretation.  Since rugby was considered a game for relatively refined social strata, “the elite schools and clubs could fairly and honorably resolve questionable infractions one by one, as they arose.  Any breech of rules was believed to be unintentional because a gentlemen’s code of behavior was in effect.”[39]   Nandy’s work on British cricket discloses a similar cultural dynamic, where implicit notions of adherence to good form and proper etiquette tended to legislate the game’s practice through the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century.

Football’s rules are simple, explicit, and stringent.  These traits are, broadly speaking, a function of nineteenth-century European class relations.  Latitude and ambiguity could persist in sports such as rugby and cricket, where it was assumed that restraint was an intrinsic feature of their players’ personalities.  The assumption was just the opposite with football.  It was hoped by many who promoted the game in Europe that workers and working-class youth would assimilate proper masculine values of vigor and discipline in the very act of playing the sport.  This is not to argue that subordinate classes’ passion for soccer resulted from a well-conceived hegemonic ploy.  The complexity of the sport’s history in Europe and across the colonized world combats this type of reduction.[40]   The question that begs attention in the context of this paper is:  what roles could the rules and objective structure of the game have played in its popularity among colonial-period Brazzavillois?  Two emphatically negative features of local experience may throw light on this question:  the indigénat and the conditions of wage labor.

The indigénat was a “peculiar set of regulations” inaugurated throughout French Equatorial Africa (or AEF) in 1908, remaining operative until 1945.[41] The indigénat essentially granted Frenchmen the right to punish Africans for actions that were not explicitly condemned, or even addressed, in formal legal codes.  Justifying the repressive measures that could be (and often were) taken in conjunction with the indigénat, Governor-General Antonetti referred to the “near barbaric state” of the people “who have still not made reasonable progress in the disciplined life freely agreed to, which subordinates individual interest for the good of the community.”[42] A chief administrator of Moyen-Congo stated that the indigénat “determined the disciplinary powers of administrators in regard to the natives…[It applied] to actions that are not wrong or contrary to our penal code, but which necessitate repressive punishment in support of our influence and authority.”[43]   The indigénat clouded the borderlines between lawfulness and unlawfulness, rendering Africans vulnerable to spontaneous, potent extensions of French administrative power.  Over 1,500 “infractions” were persecuted under the indigénat in 1908 alone.  Fifty-four percent of these acts were registered in the courts under the categories of “rowdiness, brawls, disputes, and vagabondage.”[44]

The experience of wage labor was another source of acute vulnerability and uncertainty for African Brazzavillois.  In his Sociologie des Brazzavilles Noires, Balandier repeatedly cites the lack of stable investment and construction projects plaguing laborers and the broader economic life of the city.  “I can never remain at the same worksite, the job finishes too quickly,” laments one of his informants.[45]   Balandier and his informant were not alone in recognizing Brazzaville’s economic feebleness.  The city emerged as capital of AEF solely due to its position at the southwestern tip of the Congo’s most navigable strip.  The immediate environs possessed little of interest in mineralogical or agricultural terms.[46]  Possibilities for employment fluctuated dramatically, rising or falling suddenly in tune with the launching, completion, or simply abandonment of civil works projects funded by France.  Even at the “best” times, most work consisted of unskilled positions of short duration, making the common dream of steady economic gain impossible for the great majority of Brazzavillois.

A brief analysis of Brazzavillois’ legal and labor predicaments allows one to see how deeply football, in both concrete physical and symbolic terms, differed from more troubling fields of colonial experience.  Whereas the indigénat encapsulated and expressed the ambiguities, asymmetries, and arbitrariness of contemporary sociopolitical relations, football constituted a domain of action where players and referees shared a common knowledge of clear-cut, universal rules.  Whereas the daily and seasonal routine of the urban wage-seeker was dictated by fluctuations in investments and initiatives completely beyond his control, football constituted a space where the individual player could deploy his energies as he saw fit.  The sport presented a possibility of reclaiming control over one’s body and time.  Teamwork and discipline were ineluctable aspects of any game, but what a difference to give and take commands in relation to a goal one has willingly chosen to pursue with fellow African players, rather than according to the externally imposed hierarchies of the workplace.  In football, radically unlike the workplace, one willfully directed one’s pursuit of the mission at hand at every moment.

The idea that football was attractive for its marked differences from most facets of colonial-period urban life is demonstrated in Martin’s analysis of the complex social semantics of the game during its rise to mass popularity.  She notes that in the 1930s:

A rift between administrators and African footballers developed from their conflicting views on the purpose of the sport.  Africans, though serious about improving their skills, were in it for fun and unwilling to be regimented by whites in training sessions.  Europeans, on the other hand, were interested in the inculcation of values such as “team-spirit,” “perseverance,” and “fair play.”[47]

Leaving aside the political ironies of colonial administrators’ espousal of “fair play” during the era of the indigénat, it is crucial to grasp the emergence of a struggle over whether football terrains would constitute a vehicle for the extension of colonial power or whether they would provide a space where that very power—in its variegated forms—would be revised, subverted, or altogether suspended.  The more that the practice of football could generate distance and difference from the (often uncertain) rhythms and clearly restrictive and more ambiguous “laws” of the colonial “order,” the more pleasure it could return to African players and spectators.  A fascinating aspect of the sport’s local popularity arises:  a rule-governed sport created and imported by Europeans became a means for Africans to create spaces in which the onerous powers of European imperialism were, in varied and uneven ways, deflected.

The minimum vital

The system of wage regulations known as the minimum vital was inaugurated by the colonial administration in 1947 to establish criteria for the proper payment of workers.  The vital was defined according to an individual worker’s essential requirements:  money for food, lodging, clothing, furnishings, and taxes.  Manioc, fish, oil, and salt were the only items listed in assessing nutritive requirements.  Balandier argues that, crude as it was in qualitative terms—reducing the local diet, in principal, to fish and manioc—the vital was even more punishing in quantitative terms, with an annual provision of 584 kilos of manioc and seventy-three kilos of fish.  The vital presumed that, though wages were allotted on a daily basis, workers would work continuously throughout the year (even though the demand for labor across a given period was often profoundly uneven).  Little account was taken of the worker’s potential responsibility for dependents.  Though the regulated wage responded to high inflation, real wages declined between 1947 and 1950.  More hours of (uncertain) work were required to purchase the same (insufficient) amount of essential goods.[48]

The effects of the intensely objectifying logic of the colonial economy obviously had consequences that extended beyond the workplace and diet.  In her work on colonial Nairobi, Luise White writes:  “Labor power is produced and maintained by much more than the number of calories prepared by one person for consumption by another…What constitutes the reproduction and maintenance of labor power is the social context in which the calories—and what the calories are often metaphors for—are prepared and consumed.”[49]  Frederick Cooper frames the African colonial capital/labor relation in more conflictual terms:  “Could capital continue its relentless drive to accumulate when it confronted workers for whom alternative modes of social organization were not memories or dreams but concrete realities, strongly rooted in their own urban neighborhoods and rural villages?”[50]  White’s study of African workers’ capacity to shape patterns of symbolic and economic exchange at the margins of colonial power, along with Cooper’s description of “alternative modes of social organization” that contested the cultural ramifications of imperial capitalism, may help us better grasp some of the positive values attributed to football and footballers in colonial Brazzaville.

The vital, and more particularly the blindness to individual human qualities that it exemplified, was probably among the sociopolitical problems that football helped Brazzavillois address; or rather, football was shaped in ways that allowed players and spectators to reflect upon and reject the ways they were defined by colonial authority.  Some footballers saw the lack of compensation for their efforts as illustrating the seemingly boundless extent of their exploitation.  Ex-player Barnard Mambeke-Boucher complained:  “at the end of the match, we did not have lemonade money, nothing.”  Commentator Sylvain Bemba “accused the Brazzaville league of treating its players ‘like machines’ with little reward for their willingness ‘to risk their lives in every match.’”[51]

Match proceeds from Brazzaville’s Marchand stadium went to the Catholic Church while those from the larger Eboué facility went to the administration.  The very absence of financial gain for players could however be transformed into a kind of useful symbolic capital.  The lack of pay may have allowed players’ efforts to carry meanings that they could not have otherwise borne:  the possession of impressive degrees of stamina and agility, and even sheer generosity, that could not be exhausted by the vicissitudes of wage-earning or any other form of involvement with the colonial economy.  The sport thus provided a space for the demonstration and celebration of individual competencies and qualities untranslatable within the evaluative and exploitative logic of the reigning political economy, a logic distilled most vividly in a minimum vital that measured Africans’ needs and aspirations solely in terms of cash and food[52].

Differentiation and allegiance

A 1949 report on the make-up of AEF labor resources defined three-quarters of the regional population as lacking in any distinguishing technical or intellectual skills.  The substantial bulk of Africans were, in the precise terms of the report, “sans aucunespécialité.”[53]   Balandier casts these evaluative frameworks and the statistics arising from them as reflecting European illusions of a lack of social differentiation or individuality within traditional African communities.  There were many spaces within Brazzaville for Africans to forge both “neo-traditional” and novel, “post-village” forms of social affiliation and cultural identity.  Work experiences, ethnic ties, and religious belief strongly influenced the attachments Africans formed in the new, and not so new, communicative contexts and institutions that emerged with the rapid growth of the regional capital.  Football participation, as player or fan, was among the pivotal spaces of collective social action and differentiation, but was also distinctive in the types and intensities of allegiances it generated.

Martin’s research indicates that loyalties toward teams could form around multiple points of belonging and connection:  city neighborhoods, religious affiliation, ethnicity, occupation, race, and class.  One could study fan support in specific matches to gauge the range and intensity of cultural and political allegiances taking shape within urban African society.  Drawing on reports of instances and patterns in fan violence, Martin deduces that the most poignant allegiances were generated by shared neighborhood identity, followed by support or refusal to support Church-sponsored teams—both dynamics in which ethnic attachments also factored powerfully.  In studying the massive popularity of football however it is at least as crucial to explore the range as it is the depth of the expressions of allegiance it fostered.

Football, like most sports, differs from many aspects of social life in its emphatically annual nature.  The season opens, all teams compete for supremacy, some kind of championship occurs.  (The number of leagues in which these stages could unfold in any given place in a given year is, weather permitting, unlimited).  A marked pause in competition (in any given league) occurs before the entire cycle begins anew the next competitive season, giving each fan the opportunity to shift or retain former allegiances and favorites across time.  The very loose organization of football competition in the constantly growing capital of AEF, where teams were quickly emerging, disappearing, and reconfiguring themselves, forced local fans to develop situation-specific criteria for support, and the forms that support would take.  This is not to argue that fans never demonstrated steadfast allegiances or that there were no solidly built, enduring teams.  Martin shows that the opposite was often the case.  Still, opportunities for changing the lines of one support, or altering its intensity, were manifold.  Teams’ configurations and reconfigurations enabled rapid, momentary shifts of allegiances.  For example, a fan could cheer ardently for Bacongo’s Olympique over L’Etoile of Poto-Poto one Saturday, and then go on the next weekend to support a Brazzaville team consisting of players from both sides in a match against a Léopoldville club.

Processes of meaning investment spurred by football undoubtedly resembled and diverged from forms of commitment spawned in other arenas of collective life.  In his fieldwork Balandier observed that most forms of social distinction and attachment were couched in terms of belonging to one or another organization—most typically churches and/or welfare associations.  While joining a church or welfare association was not necessarily indicative of deep personal or spiritual commitment—both types of attachment could serve a range of symbolic and material purposes—becoming a “member” bounded one to maintain group ties at least as long as one hoped to derive benefits from services rendered—ranging from spiritual comfort and possible salvation, to education for one’s children, to financial aid in always unstable economic times.  Football allegiances, by contrast, were a tie that could be severed without such substantial consequences.  The social stakes involved in playing for or supporting one local team over another were relatively minor.  Such actions could be taken without a sense of pressure or long-term obligation, and could thus perhaps furnish a pleasure rare in “deeper” arenas of social affiliation and interaction.

Another potential basis of identification in the growing colonial city was the labor union.  Potential is the crucial word.  Balandier reports that in 1948, 24% of French West African workers were unionized, compared to only 4.5% of AEF workers.  In Brazzaville, the official figure was 12%, but this assessment was inflated as it took into account only “regular workers,” failing to acknowledge a great number of highly mobile “unskilled” laborers.  Balandier lamented the anemic condition of local unions and was struck by the hostile distrust—at times passing into violence—the mass of workers directed at relatively well-educated union representatives.  Workers’ protests occurred in a “quasi-spontaneous” manner without any central spokesperson to express complaints and demands.  A local labor inspector wrote of such protests:  “The term strike, if one takes it to mean an organized, general movement with a precise goal, is inaccurate.  It is really a matter of acts of honor having different causes and ambiguous goals…One gets the impression that the worker who refuses to work does not know why and only makes a demand afterward.”[54]

The inspector’s depictions of Brazzaville workers’ perspectives and actions cannot be accepted at face value.  It is unclear how much interest or energy he devoted toward grasping the experiences and critical frameworks that drove specific sets of men to “suddenly” stop their work, and demand changes in their work situation.  His comments are nonetheless of interest in allowing us to consider affinities in decisions and actions taken by individuals as workers and fans in two seemingly disparate arenas of experience.

Local workers’ allegiance to any collective cause apparently hinged upon highly localized circumstances where economic stakes and personal emotions sometimes infused one another with a momentary, exceptional force.  What the inspector perceives as “spontaneous” action lacking a rational objective needs to be reinterpreted in light of the precarious socioeconomic circumstances facing most colonial-period Brazzavillois.  Given such circumstances and a broad sense of vulnerability vis-à-vis the (mis)workings of colonial power and policies, one should not be surprised that momentary acts of allegiance and identification were preferable to more “robust,” institution-based commitments.  Where the rules shaping emerging urban social relations were poorly defined and shifting, enduring commitments, the submission of self to a specific movement or cause, may have been difficult, unattractive, or even impossible for many.

V.N. Voloshinov’s concept of “behavioral ideologies” is useful in examining processes of self-identification, prioritization, and differentiation at play in colonial Brazzaville.  Voloshinov held that behavioral ideologies operated in an “atmosphere of unsystematized inner and outer speech,” standing in more or less antagonistic relation to “established ideologies” enshrined in “official” seats of power.  Behavioral ideologies “are a great deal more mobile and sensitive: they convey changes in the socioeconomic basis more quickly and more vividly.  Here, precisely, is where those creative energies build up through whose agency partial or radical restructuring of ideological systems comes about.”[55]

Refraining from Voloshinov’s protorevolutionary conjectures, we can nonetheless discern in fan and labor activity “behavioral ideologies” distinct from “established ideologies.”  The latter, in the case of the Brazzaville worker-fan, would be championed by state-supported trade unions in the city and village-based institutions in the countryside.  To argue that highly mobile shifts in social perspectives and allegiances of the kind Voloshinov labels “behavioral ideologies” were prominent features of Brazzavillois’ negotiations of urban life is not to argue the absence of more steadfast, traditional political and cultural sensibilities.  It is simply to assert that such attachments did not preclude the possibility or attractiveness of momentary and historically novel forms of individual and group identification and differentiation.  The latter were particularly important in a new city, and one can see how football spectatorship and support were ideal vehicles for short term, more or less experimental, personal investments of devotion to a kind of “cause” with specific, clearly bounded social stakes.

Outside of instances of hooliganism, and the devout support evident for some of Brazzaville’s championship teams, little information is available on fan behaviors.  There is, however, some suggestive data on the sociological make-up of certain teams.  A 1944 side sponsored by the Compagnie Générale de Transports en Afrique “included six clerks, one electrician, three fishermen, one apprentice carpenter, one tailor, and one (other) clerk working at the Courts of Justice.  The same fifteen players are listed under ten ethnic labels.”[56]   If, as Martin argues, occupation and ethnicity were among the central factors in the distribution of fan support, one can imagine that Compagnie Générale matches elicited a very heterogeneous set of followers.  These matches constituted occasions where individuals from potentially disparate cultural backgrounds and occupations came together in a communicative space highlighting individual and group similarities and differences.  Such processes of social interaction and discovery were tied to the existence and constituency of the competing team itself.  Here football both drove and reflected the kinds of “creolization” and “new syntheses” Fabian sees exemplifying popular cultural work.[57]


In characterizing deployments of magic as “the Africanization of football,” Martin risks de-historicizing such actions’ motivations an perceived effects.[58]  In fact, as certain details of Martin’s investigation indicate, the intersection of football and magic unveils much about Brazzavillois’ apprehensions and representations of causality under very specific sociohistorical circumstances.  The interplay of football and magic constituted a process of experimental inquiry into a fundamentally important question:  What brings power and good fortune in the colonial city?

The very common interest in magic among colonial-period Brazzavillois arose in part from the extreme opacity of the “logic” of the local economy.  Not only did the latter fail to supply economic security to the urban masses, it often failed to engender any firm, guiding criteria through which Africans could ascertain precisely why certain individuals fared significantly better than others.  In his Combats pour un sport africain, Jean-Claude Ganga reports (with horror) the profound insecurity and distrust which drove his Catholic parents to consult a Bacongo “féticheur” upon the illness of their elder son.[59]   Balandier devotes a principal section of the Brazzaville chapter in Ambiguous Africa to an interview with Poto-Poto’s “Alfred W.:” magician, fortune-teller, divine mediator, doctor, and conscience.[60]   Balandier and Ganga concur that Brazzavillois’ engagements with magic could not be seen as returns to vestigial divinatory practices.  They were rather emergent explanatory techniques forged in response to complex existential puzzles generated by the contingencies of urban life.

Martin summarizes one colonial-period footballer’s view that “superior talent is not natural, and excessive skill by individual players can only be explained through the intervention of supernatural forces, which have given him this ‘force’ or ‘dexterity.’”  Throughout the colonial period “A goalkeeper might be given a charm to improve his leaping ability, or a forward an attachment for his shoe to guide the ball between goal posts.  A skilled magician could turn the opponent’s ball into stone or make the ball invisible until it was in the back of the net.”[61]

The common practice of consulting West African marabouts by teams searching for an edge was tied to the relative success of Senegalese in colonial society.[62]   In the early 1950s sporting medallions advertised in French mail-order catalogues became popular among local players.  Knowledge and objects originating from places where superior powers circulated were highly valued and understood as possessing enchanting and/or empowering force.  In the interaction of magic and football one observes another instance of the sport’s intense meaningfulness for Brazzavillois assessing their limited capacity to control or transform local events and processes.  Given their subordinate status vis-à-vis Senegalese and French, it is unsurprising that power to influence football results was sought via West African and European channels and symbolic objects.

The connections between football, magic, and various understandings of the sources of political and economic power seem to challenge the earlier argument that Brazzavillois appreciated football for its fairly straightforward structures and rules.  What did the deployment of magic involve, if not the very suspension or subversion of the rule-governed nature of the game?  How can this apparent contradiction be explained?

While variegated magical attempts to influence the course of play flourished, Brazzaville footballers were simultaneously striving to sharpen their technical skills and theoretical mastery of the tactical schemes that could enhance their side’s chances at victory.  Recalling his experience as an eighteen-year old player-coach of a local team, Ganga writes:

I was proud of my role.  I almost considered myself a national coach with all the concerns and seriousness that entails.  Looking ahead to an important match, I decided to undertake, every evening after class, with my colleagues and mature pupils who played among us, a sequence of assiduously prepared training sessions.[63]

Not only daily drills but specific offensive and defensive strategies for match play were discussed and practiced by Brazzaville clubs.  In 1952, Bacongo’s Diables Noires took the city title away from five years’ champion L’Etoile of Poto-Poto.  The upset was seen to result from the Diables’ revolutionary departure in strategy.  In the championship the side abandoned “dependence on sweeps down the wing and aerial crosses on the British model, which had dominated Brazzaville play up to that point, and introduced a short passing game with close marking on defense.”[64]

The rigorous methods of Ganga and the Diables reflect a concern to dictate the style and course of play in quasi-scientific fashion.  How can diverse magical practices be reconciled with these rather “demystifying” technical and tactical approaches to the sport?  One must recall that football was not only played and directly observed, but was subsequently discussed, sometimes for hours on end.  Martin reports that many a Sunday afternoon was spent by groups of men spinning descriptions of recent matches and memorable events from the history of the sport.  Football had a vibrant discursive life stretching well beyond the field of play.  Magic may have been most important at this level.  The potential presence and impact of magical influences broadened the conjectural space in which the results of a match might be interpreted and deliberated upon.  Reference to magic’s roles provided those who appreciated discussing games with a vast reservoir of stories that might be told about a given match, making a given day’s competition more symbolically complex and thus more intellectually stimulating.  Team X may have scored its last-minute tie-breaking goal against team Y because its players were better skilled or conditioned; or they may have scored because a ritual specialist had rendered the striker’s pivotal shot invisible to the goalkeeper until it reappeared behind him on its way through the posts.  Alternative accounts of pivotal moments in a game could proliferate and enrich post-game conversations for hours, days, and even years on end.[65]

Martin reports that “Captains and team members were given talismans and amulets to wear, or special preparations to rub into their skin…A favorite tactic was to bury a talisman in the center of the playing field the night before a big match, while watching out for spies from the other side.”[66]   The deployment of talismans, amulets, and ointments complicated the structure of a quite simple game, enabling it to produce richer and more interesting events, analyses, and narrative accounts.  Brazzaville football could certainly not have achieved the popularity it did had it not been compelling to discuss, interpret, and reinterpret.  Magic was valuable for its capacity to extend and enrich conversations about games.[67]


Martin writes that “The failure of European organizers to mould the sport in their own image is particularly shown in the behavior of the African crowd…While players might dispute calls, engage in dangerous play and fist fights, spectators were known to invade the field during and after the game, throw missiles onto the field in shows of displeasure and vandalize the stadium.”[68]   Matches pitting Catholic against secular teams “often ended in scuffles in the crowd and on the field…The situation in football had become so bad that the Catholic mission ‘hesitates when it is asked to field teams…for fear of an incident, injury to players, legs broken, etc.’”[69]   Among those struck (negatively) by Africans’ passionate interest in certain games was Lieutenant-Colonel Belocq, who commented of local crowd behavior:  “[I]t is certainly a circus; lacking an education in sporting behavior, their exhaustive chauvinism becomes degenerate; in certain ways, the public corrupts the players, causing them to ‘play to the gallery,’ encouraging reprehensible gestures and sapping the authority of the referees and organizers.”[70]

Bellocq’s most interesting observation is that “the public corrupts the players.”  In his view, positive “sporting” values are inherent to football, but those values are endangered when unwelcome interplay emerges between footballers and those “lacking an education in sporting behavior.”[71]   Martin reports the interesting fact that in major matches at Eboué Stadium in Poto-Poto, the Marchand Stadium near Bacongo, and the Queen Astrid Stadium in Léopoldville, football was the focal, but not the only interest of fans:  “Bands, dancing, and hand-made flags displaying team colours gave the stadium an air of festivity…Team colors were sported by the crowd as well as the players.”[72]   The competitive aura of the major match was heightened by music, clothing, and other collective signifying practices that had little objectively to do with football, turning the clash of sides into a hybrid, polycentric social event.  This amalgam of off-field expressions of partisan fervor obviously posed a keen threat to the sense of disciplined orderliness administrators like Bellocq thought that sport should exemplify and convey to the general public.  The types of “para-entertainment” generated within the crowd constituted anarchic interference threatening to obscure or altogether destroy any moral-pedagogical influence football might have in the region.

In his study of football in Sharpeville, South Africa, Ian Jeffrey advances three explanatory frameworks for local fan violence, or “hooliganism.”  The first is that “supporters were more likely to engage in soccer violence because they were all in rotten jobs, from rotten homes and had no other excitement or meaning in their lives.”  A second view asserts that “football violence is an example of a backward-looking riot, where supporters attempt to restore a prior set of affairs.”  A third argument is that “the violence is a result of football supporters becoming more and more removed from control of the game, as traditional relationships with players, managers and supporters are replaced with professionalism and contracts.”[73] 

Attempting to apply these explanations to colonial Brazzaville, the first one can be readily dismissed.  No matter how impoverished quotidian experience may have been for many Brazzavillois (at both material and symbolic levels), there is no data implying that football was ever seen as the lone realm of meaningful cultural engagement in the growing city.  The third explanation can also be dismissed.  During the colonial period the sport remained amateur and did not undergo the type of bureaucratization addressed by Jeffrey in the South African context.  It remains to explore the “backward-looking riot” thesis.

Several elements of local fan violence contest, or at least substantially complicate, this line of argument.  One must ask if the “backward-looking” perspective can account for either the scale of participation or contextual factors that spurred local rioting.  In a 1959 issue of the Brazzaville newspaper La Semaine, a reporter warned “the time is not far off when, in Brazzaville, meetings between Bacongo and Poto-Poto will take on the appearance of a military campaign…[S]upporters of Poto-Poto come to the stadium armed with machetes…[A]t Bacongo women and children arm themselves with huge pestles…[I]incidents of this nature have been taking place for a long time.”[74]   Scenarios in which men, women, and children traversed township paths and city streets on their way to imposing new stadiums with neatly-groomed pitches hardly strike one as a metaphorical journey to a “prior state of affairs.”  Long-standing forms of ethnic consciousness and expressions of collective identity in times of conflict may well have been potent factors in the intensity of feeling exhibited at big matches, but they can hardly be seen as definitive factors in the emergence of violence.  Threats and concrete acts of violence were more likely the product of very contemporary pressures, particularly changing social and economic problems that heightened antagonistic feelings at certain specific junctures.  Martin notes that “matches between major teams were curtailed in the months before independence when there was political violence in Brazzaville streets.”[75]  Fan violence was thus seen to pose the threat of further social destabilization precisely when it was Africans’ opposing appraisals of Congo’s future that produced violent clashes.

Certain instances of football violence were indeed “riotous.”  But the riots combined recognitions and evaluations of past, present, and anticipated future hardships, pressures, contradictions, and triumphs.  The explanations of violence advanced by Jeffrey are provocative, but they do not interrogate football’s limitations as a means for staging myriad forms of local conflict.  In the Brazzaville case, it seems fan aggression is largely explained by the inability of on-field competition to resolve, or even foreground in a satisfactory way, the multi-layered complexities and contradictions shaping urban social struggles.

Martin writes that “the reasons for intense eruptions among fans could be as diverse as social identity, political animosity, unemployment and economic deprivation, high stakes in gambling, drunkenness, the ‘rebellion’ of youth and the unemployed, inexperienced referees and ‘lack of leadership’ on the part of sports organizers.”[76]  One could examine the relative contribution of each of these factors in turn, as well as the ways they may have combined in particular instances.  In broad terms, one can state that violence flared at those moments when the game as a form of quasi-liminal social play crumbled beneath the weight of the conflicts and pressures of the encompassing mundane world.[77] Throughout this article, stress has been placed on football’s responsiveness to the political and cultural needs and desires of African Brazzavillois.  Crowd violence, it could be argued, occurred at instances where the game “in itself” could simply not meet the demands of the public.  In its bounded structure, football sometimes could not produce the quality of drama that was required of it.  In their violence, crowds and players alike foregrounded and acted upon currents of collective antagonism in ways that football—or at least rule-governed football—could never enable.  In social-symbolic terms, the ensemble of meanings and messages broadcast within the constraints of match play was simply inadequate to the expressive desires of the public.

It may seem odd to conclude a series of studies of football’s poignant responsiveness to collective sentiments by stressing the sport’s occasional weakness, even failure, as a popular cultural form.  The sport’s rise to popularity among Brazzavillois stemmed substantially from its multifaceted capacities to establish spheres of relative autonomy for compelling individual and collective action that combated dehumanizing, humiliating exigencies of the colonial urban economy.  In the violence that sometimes erupted in major matches, the distance between crowd and players was radically reduced—a fact much lamented by colonial administrators—and the symbolic autonomy of the game vis-à-vis the struggles of everyday life greatly diminished.  Of course, this diminishing of distance need not be seen as a rejection of football as a domain and vehicle of urban popular culture.  Having seen football pulled in multiple directions to serve various sociocultural purposes, one might see fan violence as simply another remarkable form of the sport’s local appropriation, a violence with its own very noteworthy contributions to Brazzaville’s social and political history.  The violence occasionally provoked by the sport (in conjunction with other social tensions) is not at all inconsistent with its unquestionably pivotal role in popular culture as a collective, critical process.  In instances of football-related violence, mass culture finds expression not in adoration of the sport but in its partial destruction.  The masses never cease appraising the game, most often enchanted, but sometimes deeply dissatisfied.


Representative passages from Balandier and Fabian are helpful in formultating some final remarks on Brazzaville football and popular culture.  In his semi-literary account of a return to Brazzaville in the 1950s, Balandier wrote:  “This urban society is waiting to be built.  It is in need of new leaders, new values, freedom of expression and creation.  As long as these conditions are unfilled, the Negro city remains a place where a great many people struggle in poverty and obedience to the harsh law of joyless labor and the futility of illusions.”[78]  Martin’s studies of a variety of leisure practices—such as dance, music, fashion, and football—make the anthropologist’s picture of unbroken material and symbolic exploitation difficult to credit.  Examining the historiographic, epistemological, and ideological factors that prompted Balandier to such totalizing, pathos-laden pronouncements might constitute at least an article in its own right.  Balandier’s self-consciousness as a Frenchman regarding his nation’s great responsibility for the existence of places like Brazzaville, alongside his astute and deeply-felt admiration for African traditional cultures, would be among the crucial points of departure.

Though Fabian writes about Zaire, his approach to African cultural processes constitutes a provocative counterpoint to Balandier’s portrayals.  After noting some of the conditions shaping early-colonial “pidgin” cultures, Fabian underscores the comparative, remarkable vibrancy of subsequent developments:

[T]his pidgin period came to an end in the 1940s at the latest.  What followed was—to stay with the linguistic analogy—“creolization,” the emergence of creative and fully viable new syntheses…[A]t this “juncture” in our inquiries into African culture, we must stress that the emerging forms of expression, reflecting the life experience and consciousness of the masses, deserve our fullest attention as evidence for cultural independence and creativity.  From sterile fixations on the presumed disintegration of tradition and on the rare accomplishments of “assimilated” elites we must proceed to a fuller appreciation of the new mass culture.[79]

Fabian’s construction of the late-colonial “juncture”—in sociological and epistemological terms—differs sharply from Balandier’s.  Fabian’s criticism of “the sterile fixation on the presumed disintegration of tradition” could conceivably be addressed directly to Balandier; it is certainly addressed to those who share Balandier’s rather tragic vision of African urbanization.  This article explores the juncture outlined by Fabian; it has been written from a vantage foregrounding the existence of creative, resistive, and synthetic processes within African mass and subordinate cultures.[80]

As an object of cultural and historical inquiry, Brazzaville football could be approached from many perspectives beyond the five primary subtopics foregrounded in this article.  The material culture that developed around the sport, and its role in shaping gender relations, are among the themes that it would be crucial to address in a more extensive study.  The present article is not meant as an encompassing account of the urban football culture.  It has sought rather to disentangle and specify some of the shared feelings and ideas football responded to or animated in a particular colonial African setting.  It explores both how football came to be seen as a compelling activity for players and observers and how the sport was made to be increasingly compelling by the same subjects over the colonial period.  In doing so, it seeks to contribute to existing studies of the sport’s remarkable symbolic force and flexibility in specific places and times, qualities that risk being ignored when the game’s continental career is subordinated too sternly to histories of colonial and national politics.


1 Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti (eds.), Football in Africa: Conflict, Conciliation, and Community (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004).

2 For an illuminating critique of the multiple problems of such nation-centered historiography, see Ranajit Guha’s “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency,” in Ranjit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (eds.), Selected Subaltern Studies (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Reference to Benedict Anderson’s seminal concept occurs implicitly or explicitly in most of the Football in Africa essays.  My purpose is not to refute the value of situating local histories of football within broader histories of “the nation.” Rather, it is to argue that emphasis on the politics of football threatens to hinder better understandings of the vibrant “lives” of the game in specific communities around the continent.

Peter Alegi, Laduma! Soccer, Politics and Society in South Africa (Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2004).  See also Martha Saavedra, “Football Feminine—Development of the Game: Senegal, Nigeria, and South Africa,” Soccer and Society 4 (2/3): 225-253; Bea Vidacs “Visions of a Better World: Football in the Cameroonian Social Imagination,” (PhD dissertation, CUNY Graduate Center, 2002); and Ossie Stuart “Players, Workers, Protestors: Social Change and Soccer in Colonial Zimbabwe,” in Jeremy MacClancey (ed.) Sport, Identity, and Ethnicity (Oxford: Berg, 1996).

Alegi, Laduma!, 149.

6 See Georges Balandier, “Le Travailleur Africain dans les ‘Brazzavilles Noires,” Présence Africaine 13 (1952): 315-330, 316.

7 Phyllis Martin, Leisure and Society in Colonial Brazzaville (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995).
Georges Balandier, Sociologie des Brazzavilles Noires (Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 2nd edition, 1985).
—–The Sociology of Black Africa, trans. Douglass Garman (London: Andre Deutsh, 1970).
—–Ambiguous Africa: Cultures in Collision, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Pantheon Books, 1966.)

8 Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Colonialism (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996), 19.

9 Balandier, Brazzavilles Noires, 255.

10 Ibid.  Alegi describes a very similar dynamic around dance among Xhosa mineworkers on the South African Rand:  “[C]ompetitive dance forms allowed miners to escape temporarily [their work conditions]…  Team dances were also an arena for the display of masculine toughness, the expression of collective identities, and the material and spiritual identification with the rural livelihoods many longed to return to.”  Laduma!, 15.

11 Ibid., 264.

12 Ibid., 256.

13 Poto-Poto and Bacongo were colonial Brazzaville’s two African-populated townships.  They differed considerably from one another.  Of Bacongo, where approximately one-third of Brazzaville’s African population resided, Balandier writes:  “Bacongo remained, unequivocally and exclusively, and extension of the Kongo countryside, with a homogenous population which, as any observer could see for himself, still retained the impress of tradition.  This in itself was proof of the vitality of Ba-Kongo institutions, and of their capacity for adaptation” (The Sociology of Black Africa, 361).  Ninety-one percent of Bacongo’s residents were from the Ba-Kongo ethnic group, whose traditional territory abutted the western edge of Brazzaville.  Ba-Kongo constituted only twenty-one percent of the residents of Poto-Poto, which was about twice as large demographically and topographically as Bacongo.  The majority of Poto-Poto residents had arrived from diverse parts of the northern portions of French Equatorial Africa.  Also living in Poto-Poto were immigrants from French West Africa and Martinique.  Poto-Poto and Bacongo were separated by about four kilometers, the former lying about a kilometer northeast of the colonial administrative center, the latter approximately three kilometers to the southwest.

14 Balandier, Brazzavilles Noires, 257.

15 Ibid., 251-252.

16 Martin, Leisure and Society, 119.  All names not in quotations—Steamboat, Hammer, etc.—are translated from French.  The italicized items are transcribed from Ba-Kongo.

17 Balandier, The Sociology of Black Africa, 427-428.

18 For other discussions of African celebrations of stylistic flair on the field, see Laura Fair’s “Ngoma Reverberations: Swahili Music Culture and the Making of Football Aesthetics in Early Twentieth-Century Zanzibar,” in Football in Africa; and Alegi Laduma! Ch. 5.

19 Pursuing a parallel line of inquiry in the South African context, Alegi writes “Not only did izibongo zebhola (football praises) express agrarian cultures’ continuity and change in an urban milieu, they also symbolized the meritocratic possibilities of sport in the sinister context of intensifying racial discrimination.  Nicknames helped to strengthen the identification of fans with their sporting heroes…Players’ nicknames demonstrate how spectators shaped the collective arena in affirmative ways.”  Laduma!, 52.

20 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Totemism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), 89.

21 Martin, Leisure and Society, 114.

22 Ibid., 108.

23 Ibid., 103.

24 Here I have in mind Marcel Mauss’s notion of habitus as an ensemble of socially inscribed dispositions or codes that model proper comportment and utilization of the individual body.  See his Sociology and Psychology: Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Routledge, 1965), 98-99.  The relevance of this type of interpretive framework for understanding’s football’s rise to popularity in African localities is richly demonstrated in Alegi’s study of the “Africanisation of Football” in Laduma!, Ch. 5.

25 Johannes Fabian, “Popular Culture in Africa: Findings and Conjecture,” Africa 48 (4): 315-334, 327.

26 For a highly stimulating analysis of the cultural meanings of wrestling in postcolonial Senegal, see Mamadou Diouf’s “Des cultures urbaines entre traditions et mondialisation” in Momar-Coumba Diop (ed.) Le Sénégal contemporain (Paris: Karthala, 2002).

27 The image appears in Sigrid Paul’s “The Wrestling Tradition and its Social Functions,” in William Baker and James Mangan (eds.), Sport in Africa: Essays in Social History (New York: Africana Publishing House, 1987), 36.

28 Ibid., 41.

29 Used here in contrast to Fabian’s conception of popular culture as “low on normativity” in “Popular Culture”, 329.

30 Martin, Leisure and Society, 107.

31 Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 32.

32 The image is taken from Martin, Leisure and Society, 114.

33 Fabian, “Popular Culture,” 327.

34 Fabian translates the signifier/signified relation, for the purposes of his work, as explandum/explanans.  This move is conducive to his project driven by a desire to elucidate “messages” encoded in three different spheres of Zairean cultural production:  music, painting, and religion.  Fabian states that sports may be the most “conspicuous bearer” of “mass culture,” yet does not include it within his inquiry.  This is probably because football, the “king” of sports, generates exceptional difficulties for a message-centered analysis (See Fabian, “Popular Culture,” 323, 328).

35 Martin, Leisure and Society, 107.

36 Ibid., 113.

37 Ashis Nandy, The Tao of Cricket: On Games of Destiny and the Destiny of Games (New Delhi: Viking, 1989), 60-65.

38 Janet Lever, Soccer Madness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 38.

39 Ibid., 33.

40 Football’s pedagogical and disciplinary meanings and capacities within African societies have recently been the object of insightful discussions.  See for example Paul Richards’ “Soccer and Violence in War Torn Africa: Soccer and Rehabilitation in Sierra Leone” in Armstrong and Giulianotti (eds.), Entering the Field: New Perspectives in World Football (Oxford: Berg), 1997.  See also two contributions to Football in Africa: Gary Armstrong’s “Life, Death, and the Biscuit: Football and the Embodiment of Society in Liberia, West Africa” and Hans Hognestad and Arvid Tollisen’s “Playing against Deprivation: Football and Development in Nairobi, Kenya.”

41 The quotation is taken from Martin, Leisure and Society, 84.  Brazzaville was the capital city of Afrique Equatoriale Française, consisting of four territories: Congo-Moyen (now The Republic of Congo), Gabon, Chad, and Ubangi-Chari (The Central African Republic).

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid., 85.

44 Ibid., 86.

45 Balandier, Brazzavilles Noires, 219.

46 Commenting on Brazzaville’s late-colonial economy, Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff portray the city as a “great window opening onto nothing…Moyen-Congo has lived almost wholly by its transit trade, of which Brazzaville is the pivot for the sailing line leading to the ocean and for Cargo boats plying between it and Bangui.”  See Thompson and Adloff, The Emerging States of French Equatorial Africa [Stanford: Stanford UP, 1960), 476.

47 Martin, Leisure and Society, 110.

48 See Balandier, “Le Travailleur Africain,” 325-326.

49 Luise White, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 171.

50 Fredrick Cooper, “Urban Space, Industrial Time, and Wage Labor in Africa,” in Fredrick Cooper (ed.) Struggle for the City: Migrant Labor, Capital and the State in Urban Africa (Beverly Hills, CA.: Sage Publications), 7-50: 10.

51 Martin, Leisure and Society, 110.

52 Alegi advances a similar compelling analysis of labor/play relations in South Africa:  “By the end of the 1930s, fans could appreciate an unprecedented variety of football genres, techniques, and tactics.  Technical styles rejecting colonial mimicry survived the radical technical and tactical transformations…The contemporary black working class aesthetic continued to place more value on the cleverness and beauty of feinting and dribbling.  These stylish moves elated audiences and, at the same time, symbolized the cultural importance of knowing how to get around difficulties and dangerous opponents in an oppressive society with creativity, deception, and skill.” Laduma!, 61.

53 Balandier, “Le Travailleur Africain,” 322.

54 Balandier, Brazzavilles Noires, 268.

55 V.N. Voloshinov, “Toward a Marxist Philosophy of Language,” in Robert E. Innis (ed.) Semiotics: An Introductory Anthology (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985), 47-65: 59.

Martin, Leisure and Society, 112.

57 Fabian, “Popular Culture,” 318.

58 Martin, Leisure and Society, 121.

59 Jean-Claude Ganga, Combats pour un sport africain (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1979), 64.

60 Balandier, Ambiguous Africa, 185.

61 Martin, Leisure and Society, 122.

62 Marabout is a term used within the Islamic world for a man possessing unique wisdom and insight into occult and spiritual forces.  Within many African societies this figure’s knowledge and assistance is often sought (usually for a fee) by those confronting seeming irresolvable problems of enigmatic provenance.

63 Ganga, Combats, 32-33.

64 Martin, Leisure and Society, 118.

65 See Fair’s “Ngoma Reverberations” for analogous observations on the vibrant discursive afterlife of specific football happenings in colonial Zanzibar.

67  Local peripheral cultures’ capacities to radically expand and reconfigure the values and meanings “inherent” in a “foreign” sport have been brilliantly displayed in the documentary film Trobriand Cricket. The film investigates New Guineans’ creolization of cricket through documenting stories, debates, and transformations of the concrete practice of the game over time. See Jerry Leach’s Trobriand Cricket: An Ingenious Response to Colonialism (Office of Information, Government of Papua New Guinea, 1975).

68 Martin, Leisure and Society, 123.

69 Ibid., 124.

70 Ibid., 128.

71 Youssef Fates cites a similar dynamic of violent fan culture and colonialist accusations of moral degradation in his “Football in Algeria: Between Violence and Politics,” in Football in Africa.

72 Ibid., 118.

73 Ian Jeffrey, “Street Rivalry and Patron Managers: Football in Sharpeville, 1943-1985” African Studies, 51 (1) 1992: 69-94: 80.

74 Martin, Leisure and Society, 124-125.

75 Ibid., 125.

76 Ibid., 123.

77 The process unfolding is analogous to that described by Ivan Karp in his study of beer drinking among the Iteso of Kenya.  Drawing on Karp (who was drawing in turn on the formal sociology of Georg Simmel) on can state that Brazzaville football in its usual, non-violent “state” constituted a “‘play form of sociation’ characterized in its relationship to the everyday world as art is to reality.  This relation is one of both separation or detachment of sociability from mundane social forms, and the transformation of seemingly unimportant aspects of the mundane world into the very meaning of sociable situations.”  See Ivan Karp, “Beer Drinking and Social Experience in an African Society: An Essay in Formal Sociology,” in Ivan Karp and Charles Bird (eds.) Explorations in African Systems of Thought (Washington, DC.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987) 325-326.

78 Balandier, Ambiguous Africa, 188.

79 Fabian, “Popular Culture,” 317-318.

80 For an excellent recent mapping of African individuals’ strategies of surviving and creating novel cultural forms and yearnings within this urban “mass,” see John Chernoff’s Hustling is Not Stealing: Stories of an African Bar Girl, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) and Exchange is Not Robbery: More Stories of an African Bar Girl (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Jay Straker Bio
Liberal Arts and International Studies
Tthe Colorado School of Mines

James Straker is Assistant Professor of Postcolonial Literatures and Cultures at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. His current research focuses on a series of conflicts centered on youth, nationalism, ethnicity, and cultural politics in revolutionary and post-revolutionary Guinea. His other research and teaching interests include popular culture, pedagogy, post-socialism, and ideologies of development.


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