This piece was published on November 16, 2018, in the Nation, a daily newspaper published nationally in Malawi. It was published under the title “Whatever We Ask of Them.” You can read it here: https://mwnation.com/whatever-we-ask-of-them/
I went to a football game the other day, or as the Americans call it—soccer. I know my friend Ken Gondwe reading this will not be amused: He cannot understand why Americans refer to it as football—a game that involves throwing, carrying or catching a ball with one’s hands, and why they call football soccer. So, we will go with football here, in his honor. The match was between Malawi and Cameroon. There were not as many people as I thought there would be, especially for an international game. Then again, it was a Tuesday afternoon, when many people were at work. Still, the atmosphere was electric, the crowd was relaxed and, for the most part, supportive. Yes, there were the occasional aspersions cast on a player who egregiously misplaced a pass, but there were also chants that would occasionally break out: Ma-la-wi! Ma-la-wi! Malawians love their country’s team.
Towards the end of the match, when it became clear that the first team to score would probably win the game, as there was not enough time for an equalizer, I couldn’t help but feel proud as a Malawian. The Cameroonians looked like, well, West Africans. They were the bigger team—figuratively and literally. This was the team of the likes of the great Roger Milla and Samuel Eto; they were taller and brawnier. They were, as one lady I know used to say, “Amuna opha n’gombe nkutsina.” Our side was of, well, let’s be kind—average height. Oh, did I mention that the Cameroonians had flown in on a private jet and arrived from Cameroon before their hosts who had flown back from the first leg on a commercial flight? (I will say no more here. This private jet issue has gotten me in trouble before.) Suffice it to say, in many ways, the Cameroonians had the advantage. Yet here we were, disadvantaged little Malawi going toe-to-toe with the indomitable lions—the African champions.
It is as I sat there glowing with national pride, imagining how much better our side really could be, given adequate resources, that I remembered an interview I watched on one of the international broadcasters, perhaps CNN. In fact, the interview had nothing to do with football and everything to do with war. The interviewee was an American, some policy analyst, and I think he was talking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the toll they were taking on the U.S. military, which is predominantly young men. He got very emotional, in a manly sort of way, and he said something to the effect that as society we must be careful what we ask young men to do because they will do it, usually without so much as asking why. If we ask them to go to war, they will lay down their lives and go to war, so we must be very careful what we ask of them. Now war is deathly serious; football is just a game.
Still, it was in the context of said interview that I thought about the indignities suffered by our national team over the years and how as a nation we ask so much of these young men while giving them very little to work with or build upon. I remember with embarrassment how our national team in 2017 was reduced to playing in shabby, oversized uniforms at the COSAFA tournament. And don’t even get me started on the more serious issues of unpaid or late allowances, short camp times, and poor sponsorship generally, manmade problems that need not exist. Even given such problems, our young men have always showed up and done what we have asked of them—play. Indeed, our young men will always show up to play: they will do whatever we ask of them, even when we do not give them enough resources for the task. But it is time we—government, private sector, and citizens—became more materially invested in them, that is if we expect them to beat the likes of Cameroon. Long-term investment should be made toward their success, then we can all say: Ma-la-wi! Ma-la-wi!