Thursday, July 09, 2009

A Sporty Culture

Of the different countries where I have visited and worked, I have never seen sport or fitness so hallowed as I have seen here. It’s not just a matter of fun here, which I’ve seen elsewhere (for example, kids or adults playing soccer). Burundians, however, also do it for good health and well-being. All day, every day, men and women run down the roads and do push-ups in the medians and on the sidewalks. I’ve even seen people doing push-ups in the dark of night, at 11 p.m. The army often jogs, chanting and blowing whistles, around my neighborhood and down the main roads (causing a lot of traffic, I might add).

Added to this is the fact that the government ministries have mandatory days of “sport,” another phenomenon I have not seen elsewhere. On Tuesday or Friday afternoons, entire ministries put on their tracksuits (they are very popular here—the markets are swarmed with them) and go for a jog, or play soccer, or do something active. President Nkurunziza has been known to play with his presidential staff. (I asked my driver if they always let him win. He just looked at me sidelong and shrugged.) The ministries even have a soccer tournament in which they play against each other.

I can’t speak to television or radio advertisements (because I don’t have a TV or radio), but I can say from the billboards around town that there is definitely an emphasis on sport. In the disarmament billboards, for example, a man is missing a leg. In the background, people are playing soccer. Poor thing. Because of your gun/grenade/other weapon, he can’t play sports anymore. The theme is omnipresent.

It’s so normal for people to run for fun/fitness here that most people don’t bat an eye at the muzungus who go for a jog. Anywhere else, and you get stared down (one, because you’re a muzungu; two, for wearing shorts; and three, because people don’t understand why you would want to run anywhere unless you are really, really late…and even that isn’t worth running for).

I witnessed the icing on the cake about a week ago when, out on Rwagasore Road in town, I passed a number of people selling things—mostly cassava roots and potatoes. A little further down, I noticed a man on the sidewalk, nothing in front of him but a weight scale. A man walked up, paid the vendor a few francs, and stepped on. He looked at his weight, sighed, thanked the vendor, and walked off. Guess he’s going for a run later.

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