(Advisory: All serious people should not read this column)
Last week, Kenya's Mcdonald Mariga helped take Inter Milan to the top of Italy’s Serie A league with a 35th minute tap-in for his side. It was his first goal at Inter.
However, Mariga’s fortunes also raise another issue. Why do Eastern Africans (Kenyans, Ethiopians, Eritreans) so comprehensively dominate middle and long distances, but are hopeless at soccer? Apart from Mariga, no Eastern African plays for any top European team (in fact there is none even waiting on a reserve bench).
It doesn’t make sense because busy footballers, like Chelsea’s Frank Lampard, cover the most distance in a football game — about 17 kilometres. The distance Lampard will have run in a whole game, is the point at which someone like Paul Tergat or Haile Gebrselassie will be ending his warm-up in a marathon.
West, South and North Africans, on the other hand (with the occasional exception of Morocco), cannot run long distances. One thing they do, though, is that they can play football and the sprints. In most West African countries, a Mariga would not make the news the way he does in Kenya.
That is because Europe has a different problem with West African players — there are too many of them in their clubs. So why is there this difference between Eastern Africa and the rest of other regions in the continent? I got an idea a few days ago while reading an article in The Economist magazine.
The article asked if the food people eat could, somehow, lead them to be more desirous of democracy. The question was in respect of Damascus, which, for decades, has been ruled with an iron fist by the Assad family. Now, The Economist reported, the country was opening up to the world, and there were many new foreign restaurants in the capital.
It suggested that going out to eat opens the mind in ways that eating at home daily with the same wife, husband, children, and relatives doesn’t. He might have a point. My own sense is that if you go to a Chinese restaurant, surely at some point, you will want to know about China.
On the other hand, the only question you can ask at dinner at home is whether the potatoes were bought from Hawkers Market in Parklands or City Market. That is a very limited horizon. Immediately, I could see that one big difference between Eastern and West Africa is food. To be honest, the food in Eastern Africa is boring, the exception being Ethiopia. However, delightful as Ethiopian food is, it’s nevertheless still narrow in range.
West African food is varied and frighteningly peppery. You can’t let it linger on the tongue, nor can a child eat it playfully at leisure. It has to be swallowed quickly, and the burning tongue soothed with palm wine. That is why Eastern Africans are not palm wine people. Our food doesn’t require it.
The fiery burst of hot food and the whole urgent way it is eaten is very much how a sprinter approaches a race or an excellent striker makes goals. This is totally unscientific, and please don’t repeat it to the children at home; Eastern Africans are lousy footballers and sprinters because their food is not fiery.
Which brings us to Mariga. What this man is doing could upset the balance of power in Africa. How, you might ask. First, Eastern Africa is turning out to be the most technology adaptive region in Africa. Think M-Pesa. And, in an act that raised the game extremely high, the other day, a Ugandan chap called Fredrick Balaggade invented a miniaturised plastic chip that mimics the behaviour of living cells. That is some world-class beating stuff.
Then, depending on the figures you look at, somewhere between 2030 and 2050, about 60 per cent of Africans will be living in Eastern Africa, thanks to the fertile wombs of our women and our rich soils. Add to that the fact that outside of South Africa, no region beats Eastern Africa in tinkering with alternative energy — solar, wind power — than Eastern Africa. Credit to Ethiopia and Kenya on this one.
The only thing we are still far from cracking is top league football. If Mariga can continue to score goals, more Eastern African children will want to be as famous and as rich as him, and so will take to the field to practise. So the future of his family, his home district, Kenya, and Eastern Africa are all now in Mariga’s legs.