Leveling the Playing Field

They come out onto the field, singing of loss and grief. The songs appropriate for a funeral. Carrying a… bunch of tree branches? The Form 2 (second year) students have just beat teachers in a mpira (soccer) match. They are bringing the teachers their ‘coffin,’ celebrating their win as they march to collect their prize. A plump hen.

Fridays are my favorite day of the week. Not because it’s the end of the week but because it is sports and games day! All week I watch students bored in class, tired of sitting through class after class in a language unfamiliar to them. Each day before and after class they must clean the school grounds and classrooms. I see their fear of the punishment they will recieve after doing poorly on their most recent exam or by answering a question incorrectly. But, on Fridays they are somehow free.

My students and I sit on the uwanjani (field) and we cheer on whoever is playing mpira and net ball. On the sidelines I get to see students’ spirit and humor as they cheer on their peers. One friday, the teachers let this young guy working on the construction of our new classrooms play on their team. As soon as he entered the field, students were yelling “We don’t know him!” And “Who is that!? Not our teacher!”

A little halftime photo shoot with some of my Form I girls

Another Friday, when playing a rival school the student cheering squad decided to run and pick up teachers. Singing a cheer of, “Who can we carry?” “Can we carry Mbwiro?” “We can carry Mbwiro!” as they ran to pick up their English teacher Mbwiro continuing up and down the field with him.

Elisabet, avid netball player, goalie for the girls soccer team, and always leading the mass of student cheering

My favorite Friday was recently when the girls, boys, and teachers from our school played a neighboring school. We don’t get to play other schools often because they are all relatively far and usually the girls only play netball not mpira. Mamas came out and sold snacks and we cheered a lot as the boys beat our rivals 3-0! Sometimes the matches are for bragging rights only while other times their are prizes at stake such as a chicken or a goat.

Tanzanian culture is very hierarchical. You respect your elders, you respect your teachers. Sometimes it seems for children and teenagers, you don’t talk around persons of authority unless addressed directly. But, when students play the teachers in mpira you catch a glimpse of a more narrow power dynamic. The students dont hesitate to bump into their history teacher that makes them feed his cow and maybe occasionally slide tackle the teacher that gave them a biolgy test earlier that day. Any other time. The teacher has the power and usually a stick in his hand for corporal punishment. But, on the soccer field it’s different. It’s more level, more equal.

Vasco and Zawadi really getting into the team spirit
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