Family, History, Sports

American Football, Churchill, and Gagara Yasin

“American football is a bit like World War I–only without the trenches.”

My Dad always attributed that quote, which I learned as a small child, to Winston Churchill. (Well, it sounds like something Churchill might have said, doesn’t it?) Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to trace it since, so at the advanced age of 65 I’m starting to wonder if perhaps the attribution, or even the quote itself, is apocryphal. (That’s all about Churchill in this post. If you came for Churchill, either stay for Gagara Yasin, or I’m afraid it’s over between us. Please don’t make a spectacle of yourself on the way out.)

I was reminded of the sentiment contained in the quote while reflecting upon the absurd and undignified brouhaha at the end of last week’s Thursday night Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns football game. (I don’t have to tell you where the “Stillers” are from, do I? In my mind, they’re a bit like Madonna and Cher, in that only the mononym is needed. Anyone who’s at all plugged in knows they’re from Pittsburgh. Not like the Browns, who really aren’t the Browns, because the Browns are actually somewhere down the road masquerading as the Baltimore Ravens, just like the real Baltimore football team is posing as the Indianapolis Colts, and Lord only knows where the Chargers are this year. Really. Google Maps needs a specialized GPS app just to keep track of the football teams. But I digress. Imagine my surprise.)

So there I was, wincing, as someone called Myles Garrett (never heard of him before Thursday night) tore off Mason Rudolph’s helmet and whacked him on the head with it, and a scrum ensued with several players taking starring roles before the referees regained control and ejected three players with only twenty seconds left in the game. Subsequently, Garrett received an indefinite suspension, Steelers Center Maurkice Pouncey received a three-game suspension for fighting and kicking, and Cleveland Browns Defensive Tackle Larry Ogunjobi was suspended for one game for shoving Rudolph from the blindside. Each team was fined $250,000, and Mason Rudolph was fined for (I guess) obstreperously objecting with hands and feet to what appeared to be a late hit from Garrett, which was the action that set off the melee. More fines and suspensions may be coming.

It was memorable, especially so as it’s one of the very few recent episodes like that involving the Steelers in which someone called Vontaze Burfict was not the center of attention, and because Antonio Brown was nowhere in sight. Praise the Lord.

One of the player’s names, though, did ring a vague bell. Not as it related to a particular individual, but as it reminded me of days, and a life, long gone. Larry Ogunjobi. “Hmm, Self,” I said to myself, “that sounds like a Nigerian name.” And it is. A Yoruba name, from the Southwestern part of the country. Larry was born to immigrant parents in Livingston, NJ in 1994, and until the Thursday night debacle, he had, as far as I can see, been an exemplary citizen and player. I can’t speak to his intentions during the game, but I hope he’s paying attention and that he’s learned something from his experience.

Be that as it may, my rather haphazard mind quickly got from there to thoughts about American Football and Nigeria, and it didn’t take me long to get round to thoughts about something I haven’t had any thoughts about for almost sixty years.

What follows was published for the first time in the Harvard Crimson in October of 1963. My mother, my sister and I were in England, shuttering up the family home, prior to our next exciting family adventure, a move to the United States! Dad had led the way, and was already in Boston, finding us a place to live, and preparing for his new gig as a Research Fellow at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. A friend from Dad’s days in Nigeria had taken him under his wing, and I suppose, as part of his acculturation process, must have taken Dad to a college football game.

It’s a bit of a dream vision, in which Dad (always a keen observer of people) relates what he’s seeing on the playing field before him to other life experiences he’s had. As with all things “Dad” it’s a musing on what unites us, not what divides us, and I’m sharing it with you in that spirit. Dad’s been gone for twelve years, and I miss him every day. I would so, so, love to hear what he has to say about Trump. (I know what he’d say about Brexit. No mystery there.)

As Dad said in the 1963 intro to his piece (this was written only five months after we left Nigeria for good), “All the analogies drawn, all the Hausa words used, and all the definitions are entirely authentic. I apologize in advance for any undue irreverence!”

I’ve made a few, very minor, edits. But what follows is pure Dad.

The little tufts of coarse red rag fluttered bravely on the tips of the fetish sticks which that morning had been set up in position around the arena. There was an expectant hush as the spectators, massed on the tiers of rock which formed the amphitheater, settled in their places.

Many had come from far away, travelling great distances, some throughout the night, to be there. From farm and hamlet, from tungas (homesteads) and ruggas (nomad encampments) and zangos (fishing settlements) they had gathered together with the rest of the tribe to witness the greatest of the spectacles. They were impatient, but not restive, and the multitude of hawkers, some selling baubles, others charms, trinkets and gee jaws, did a roaring trade, enhanced as it was by a general air of levity and open-handedness which encouraged free spending.

Away at the end of the arena the dancers were assembling, one troupe from each of the two villages which formed the nucleus of the separate clans. As is usual, and common to all tribal ritual, the assemblage was circumscribed and hedged in by rigid attention to the details of convention and tradition.

First, the maidens, each dressed in the strange, even bizarre, attire appropriate to the age group. Tall, slender, yet well-built and comely, they exuded an air of vibrant sexuality. Each had obviously spent considerable time and money in bringing her appearance to the pitch of perfection. Eyes were carefully shaded with kohl (antimony), skins painted and bodies held taut and provocative within the stresses of the short little kilts and tightly fitted matari (little short jackets designed to display the lower half of the bosom).

The Royal Drum
Slowly at first, and then more quickly, the drums began to throb and the horns to bray. Deep and profound through all of it rolled the resonant bass of the tambari (the Royal Drum) which was held by the tribe in an almost religious awe and took the whole skin of a full grown ox to dress each surface. The tambari is the repository of the basic tribal esprit de corps and is held in both reverence and affection.

Then suddenly, its beat was stopped; the silence could almost be felt; until, after a pause, it was broken again by the sharper, more compelling clamor of the algetas (panpipes) and gangas (small kettle drums controlled by squeezing the strings under the arm pit whilst being beaten) of the challengers.

Eagerly, breathlessly, the maidens swung into the complex routine of the dance, drilled and practiced, yet at the same time refreshingly and excitingly individual.

Shuffle forward; shuffle back; turn, bend and stomp, repeated time after time in endless succession, each third beat of the foot being accentuated in unison by the thwack of cupped palms brought sharp upon the curve of naked thighs.

The dresses themselves were completely ritualistic, and bore little, if any, resemblance to normal or rational attire. All were of one pattern, save only for those of the leader and under leaders. Each was designed to combine a strictly regulated minimum of decorum with yet a more than adequate hint of charm and personality undisclosed. The vivid colors, the high piled coiffures, on which many hours of preparation had been lavished, primping and setting each curly ringlet in place with preparations of rancid butter, wax and oil; the fantastic feathered headdress of the magajiya (leader of the female dancers), the throb and beat of the swirling paces, the glow of sweat, the shining eyes of enthusiasm, all combined in a vivid phantasmagoria of color and of sheer physical, animal magnetism.

The Hosts
By tradition, all the female dancers were drawn from the village that had taken up the challenge. The hosts were, by immutable tribal lore, much more severely restricted and as a result, somewhat at a disadvantage. Here, the girls of marriageable age were, by time honored edict, by a veritable law of the Medes and Persians which changed not, segregated and formed into a compact mass, separate and distinct, “of” but not “in,” the ranks of the general audience.

Instead, their place was taken in the arena by the gadarawa (male dancers, usually humorous, affecting outlandish or archaic attire) who spun and twirled and twisted, cupping their hands to their mouths the better to emphasize the strident coarseness of he hoarse cries which they continually emitted.

The excitement of the audience mounted with every minute. The sellers of native beer, the sweetmeat vendors the yan-tabur (literally “sons of tables,” thus “barrow-boys”) and the yan tala (purveyors of hot cooked meats or other foodstuffs) offered their little trays of sugared delicacies, of spiced offal stuck on a wooden skewer and liberally dusted with hot pepper, of puffed cracknels fried golden brown in seething oil, passing up and down in endless procession among the assembled multitude.

The war horns brayed and silence fell. Now it was the turn of the young warriors to show their mettle. Stalking with arrogant self-conscious pride, flexing their muscles, taking up momentary attitudes and then, rather shamefacedly, discarding them, they took up their positions on the edges of the arena, facing each other and eyeing one another contemptuously across the space between.

The Chief nodded his head and the contestants took the field. With him, three of his “yara” (household servants) moved sedately and ceremoniously to the middle of the ground to supervise proceedings. Then, at the signal of a high pitched blast on a cowrie studded war horn the young men, the samari, (warriors who have reached full puberty, been initiated into the tribe, but are still unmarried), the hope of the future and the finest physical specimens available, met, and joined, if not in combat, then certainly in the nearest thing to it short of actual warfare.

By general consent, a halt was called, and the amphitheater was again given over to the maidens and the gadarawa, this time each group being accompanied by their own troupe of drummers and horn blowers, and each vying with the other to enhance the general cacophony. Then, for a second time, the warriors took the field. Again the mock battle was repeatedly enacted, an advance here, a retreat there, until the crowd was cheering wildly.

I was awakened out of my reverie by a raucous voice shouting in my ear. “Iced Coke–Hot Chocolate!” The electric time clock at the end of the horseshoe flashed to its final reading–00.00. The referee’s whistle blew. The contestants withdrew. A score of nil-nil was generally adjudged by the cognoscenti to be as good as could have been hoped for. [Note: In an excess of enthusiasm, I fact-checked Dad on this. The game must have been on September 28, 1963, when Harvard and UMass did, indeed, play to a scoreless tie.]

I was still thinking, as I strolled with my host in the rear of the band back towards Harvard Square (quite the best way to avoid the traffic) that what I had witnessed was but a manifestation of what I had seen a hundred times before during 17 years in tribal Africa. Perhaps, I mused, there is something to be said for tribalism after all: perhaps the urge to “belong,” to be at one with a greater whole, to sink individuality into tradition and tradition into loyalty, is too strong for any of us to resist.

Dad belonged to an age, and a culture, where it was possible to be both uniquely and strikingly individual (God made him and broke the mold, that’s for sure), and at the same time, to belong to, and be at one with, a greater whole. He exemplified “The British Empire” to everyone who ever met him, and almost everybody whoever did has a “Dad” story that couldn’t have been told about anyone else on earth, to prove it. He never sacrificed a jot of either aspect of his character, and he dedicated 110 percent of himself to both.

I’m not sure that’s possible anymore, as I wonder if the age of constructive eccentricity and purposeful idiosyncrasy is gone forever, only to be replaced by the age of stultifying and stodgy conformity policed at second and third remove by self-involved ignorami with an agenda that has no room for the quirks and peculiarities of individuals, but which requires that they be suppressed and surrendered, so we can all march forward together in lockstep, just as in the 1984 Macintosh ad. Is there a woman (or even a man) with a hammer for this day and age? And would we recognize her, or him, and stand for the ensuing chaos, if there were? I’m not sure.

It seems to me, though, that in a strange way there’s a symbiotic (yes, that is the right word) relationship between the individual and the whole. And that the whole is much the better for being composed of rampant individualists, each adding his or her own strengths and weaknesses to the mix, but each committed, and loyal, to an overarching set of common goals. I think we used to know that. I’m not sure we do any more. I hope I’m wrong.

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