Robin Ujfalusi: magic, politics and football in Africa

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Robin Ujfalusi is a humanitarian aid worker, football-lover, and now author. I met him in a cafe the other day to ask him about his new book "Jak se hraje fotbal v Africe" or, "How football is played in Africa". The book was written during a three month stay in Nairobi, where Robin was working with communities, and more specifically, their football teams. Ujfalusi comes from a footballing background, with his cousin, Tomas, playing for the Czech national team. In "How football is played in Africa", Tomas Ujfalusi makes a guest appearance, writing an introduction to the "football for development" project that took Robin to Kenya, and a few words about the book as a whole. But I started at the very beginning, asking Robin about a quote he uses to open his book, from the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, which makes the bold statement that "Africa doesn't exist" - I asked him what he meant by this...

Robin and Tomas Ujfalusi, photo: CTK
"It's a popular book, and I think that the title itself is quite ambitious, and quite misleading. Because to say 'what is football in Africa?' well, it is such a huge continent, and here I am trying to explain it in one-hundred, one hundred and fifty pages. Obviously not everything is there. So I tried to say with this motto that I used concrete stories of the people I met in Africa. It's just part of the African reality. I mean, that was one of my main experiences from Africa, before you go there, it is Africa, as a whole. Since I went there, I never actually say that I was in Africa, I was in Kenya, and I was working in Nairobi. And after, when I travelled I went to Uganda and Rwanda and I found out that even those three countries are so different, and the landscape, the habits, the history and all that stuff. And then I found out that that was just three percent of the continent - and Africa, that's Morroco as well as Madagascar. They're both 'Africa', but what do those two countries have in common? That's the big question when it comes to Africa, and I tried to highlight it with this motto."

As you mentioned there, the title of your book is 'How football is played in Africa', so, would you say that given your experiences, there is a different way of playing football in Africa than there is, say, in Europe?

"Umm yes, there are two points there. Even when you see the World Cup or a big match like that, you see that the African way of playing football is quite attractive, and cool to watch because they like to really play. They are not so focused on the result, but they really like to enjoy the game. What is often missing is strategic thinking and going for goals and being super efficient, but they really enjoy playing. So that is one point, the other crucial difference is that football is played in completely different material conditions. They usually play without shoes and the fields are so bumpy, the sort of grass fields that you have here in every village they can only dream about, because usually its just on dirty, not-nice ground that they play. But they are happy with what they do have, nonetheless, and they really can enjoy the game, even if the material conditions are really, really basic."

At the end of your book, you have a series of thematic sections, and one of them is 'Football and Witchcraft' or 'Football and Magic', as the book is only in Czech, can you explain a bit to our listeners the sort of rituals that go hand-in-hand with football matches?

"It's kind of a public secret, people don't talk about it so much, but at least in Africa everyone knows that it is going on. And it's the practice in really small clubs in the countryside as well as in Africa's top clubs and even the national teams."

So, what exactly is this practice? It must vary from club to club, but are there generally sort of certain preparation rituals that are gone through? What form does this witchcraft take?

"There are different kinds of preparation for matches, they prepare a kind of potion and then they put the jerseys and the socks inside and then they believe that the players are stronger. They, for example, make a special ritual with a part of a lion, for example using lion's fat - they put it on the skin of the player and then they believe that he will be strong. Or if your using zebra, then it is for speed during the game, So there are many rituals. They try to influence or destroy the abilities of the opposition too. They put the names of the rival players on eggs and then they break them, which is supposed to take energy from them."

Is it really just a question of money for shamen who do this? Does each team just have a coach and shaman getting paid a salary, or how does that work?

"There are different ways, I think that some of them really know how to influence the spirit of the players, and this is actually what European teams have in the form of a 'sports phsyciatrist'. They prepare the players spiritually for the match. But obviously you get some people who are just pretending that they know spells and who just try to make magic so that they can earn some money. And on the administrative side of things, some clubs have some special funds for influencing referees or for corruption, and they often say these funds are for paying a 'shaman', to legitimise them."

Do you think that there is this clear link between football and storytelling? Do you think that it is easy to tell tales about football, to write books about football and that it is this international language that your cousin speaks about [in the introduction to this book]?

"Not really, I mean I see more connection between football and the reality of African daily life, and that was really interesting for me to show a part of African daily life through the phenomenon of football, because this is really a big topic in Africa, and football is not just played on the field. It is everywhere, it is closely connected to politics. Very often politicians, for example, try to use football, or successes of the African national teams for their own purposes. So I was more interested in that. I wanted to share this experience, and to show the audience the not-so-popular, less mainstream topic of life in the slums, in the poorest areas of Africa, and I just thought that football was quite a neat tool for doing this."

For our British audience in particular, it might be quite interesting, what you say in your book - that in Kenya especially, the English Premier League is the most watched thing. Can you tell me a bit about that?

"It is really unbelievable. It is unbelievable as well for someone coming from the Czech Republic, when you ask what they know about the Czech Republic. Somehow they mix together Czechia and Chechnya, so they have no idea geographically. Sometimes they ask you if it still a part of Russia, so geographically, they really don't know very much. But what they do know is almost the whole eleven of the Czech national team, they are able to count the players one after another. This is especially the case with those who are playing in the English Premier league. I think it is a matter of history as well, in many restaurants, even in poorer quarters, they can go on Sunday to watch a match in the afternoon, they pay a small amount of money for that, and then they can enjoy the match. When I was being more mischevious, I used to say that there were two main religions in Kenya. One of them was christianity, becuase in the morning they go to church, and the other is the English Premier League, because in the afternoon they are glued to the television and the actions of their heroes in England. Football icons, or signs of football are really visible in places where you would never expect to find them in Europe. You can be beside a bus and then find out that the title of the bus, the bus's name is really 'Beckham', or you find a two and a half metre high Ronaldinho painted on the side of the bus. There are really many examples of that."

Okay, and I guess just a nice final question would be has your life here changed since you went to Africa and did all of these things? And if so, how?

"Umm, probably. I mean, what I definitely did find out in Africa was that you can live at a very modest level and still be happy. So, I think I am quite aware of that even after two years. The second way that my life changed a lot was that I since got really involved in the projects. Last year, there was a street football festival, the first kind of World Cup of projects all around the world that use football as a tool for some other social, or development project. Then, during the autumn and winter I was writing this book, and the last four months I was working on the Czech version of this football for development programme, which actually finished today."