In this book review I am discussing ‘Feet of the Chameleon: The Story of African Football‘ by Ian Hawkey. If I were to summarize your potential liking or disliking of this book in one sentence I would say: if the title alone doesn’t draw you in then you are not going to enjoy this book. I will say though, that if you don’t like a phrase such as ‘feet of the chameleon’ on its own, with no context, then you and I will not ever understand one another. This book is full of similar phrases and sayings, the kinds of phrases and sayings that make African football so beautiful and so much more than just a sport played for goals, wins, and losses.
At the beginning of this book I felt lost. This was not the first book I’ve read on African soccer, but I found myself having difficulty following along for the duration of the prologue and first chapter. This was due to these sections being a bit jumpy and not quite as focused as the rest of the book. When trying to introduce people to a whole continent this can certainly happen. I would definitely recommend sticking it out, working your way through it, and taking this trip from Cape Town to Cairo, and from Senegal to Somalia.
My favourite chapter would have to be title’s source, Chapter 3: Feet of the Chameleon. It starts off with a story about barefoot Nigerians boarding a boat heading for England in 1949. They are sent off with a good-bye from Bishop Vining: “Fare ye well, boots or no boots.” They are the first team Nigeria ever sent abroad, and were well known for their bare feet, and for the ability of these bare feet to control the ball. This story weaves into the story of ‘the feet of the chameleon,’ but not in the way you think. This phrase comes from a South African television commentator named Zama Masondo. Hawkey’s decision to include a lengthy discussion of this man, so valuable to African football, was a wise one. Zama Masondo dared to be original, and proudly African, when other commentators were content with rehashing translations from English commentators into their own languages. Zama used a mix of his native Zulu language, and came up with his own phrases, to give his broadcasts a uniquely African feel. Who can forget having heard him, or anyone, yell ‘LADUUUUUUUUUUUMA’ upon the scoring of a goal? Hawkey takes the time to explain what these phrases mean (it roughly translates to ‘it has thundered from the foot’) and giving a context for their creation. The context for ‘feet of the chameleon?’ It was how Zama first introduced slow motion instant replay to an audience that had also just been introduced to television. I love the imagery of it.
Beyond this one specific example, the book travels fast and wide across all of Africa. You will hear stories titled ‘The White Witchdoctor,’ The Tortoise and the Hippo,’ ‘The Swoop of Eagles,’ and ‘Whispering at Pigeons.’ This last story is all about the rituals, superstition and ‘juju’ that once was prominent in African football, but is now kept around much like any other good luck charm is in other soccer leagues. Meaning people believe it as much as a lucky rabbit foot, or always putting your right shoe on first. The comparison is also made, slily, of a goalkeeper dismissing the use of ‘magic,’ but espousing the power of keeping a bible next to his net. Hawkey does not point it out or highlight it, he merely presents the story and lets you drawn your own conclusion.
If you’re looking for a glimpse at African soccer as it is across the continent, with a focus on the soccer and not the politics, ‘Feet of the Chameleon: The Story of African Football‘ is a great place to start.