Functional multilingualism and the use of standard languages, by Bo Utas

With a description of the complex linguistic situation that characterized my father’s native village in the Ukraine as a starting point, I will try to demonstrate the multifarious uses of languages and dialects and in how far both vocabulary and grammar depend on the context in which they are used. Some of the conclusions are that writing is not language, and that written language is only one form of strictly standardized language. Oral use of languages and dialects may be studied in many different “registers”, from the freer forms used in everyday social interaction to higher and more formalized forms used in oral literature. Hypothetically, at least, there would be a difference between language used to formulate texts that are meant to be memorized verbatim, such as folk poetry, and texts that may be transmitted and re-performed with some variation, such as folk narratives. Finally, I will give some hints on how this may be applied to the study of Iranian oral literature.

A Swedish village

My father was born in 1905 in a Swedish village in Ukraine. This village had been established in 1782, when his ancestors had been forced by the Russian administration to leave their native island Dagö (Hiiumaa) on the Estonian coast and march south to the newly colonized territories in Ukraine. This village can furnish us with an instructive example of what we may call “functional multilingualism”. In their everyday life the villagers spoke an east-Swedish dialect similar to the dialects spoken by other Estonian Swedes. With inhabitants of the nearest neighbouring villages they spoke a kind of colloquial German, and with neighbours further around they could communicate in Ukrainian or Russian, as for instance in the market of the neighbouring town Berislav. With the local authorities it was necessary to correspond in Russian. (My grandfather served as selskiy pisar’, i.e. village scribe, and wrote beautiful Russian.)

This was a small village. Of the somewhat more than one thousand Swedish farmers that left Estonia only 535 reached the area distributed to them by the Russian authorities. There they met with extremely harsh conditions, and by 1795 they only counted 140 souls. Ten years later German colonists were established in three adjoining villages, something that proved to be both a support and a threat to this fragile island of Swedish culture. Religious adherence seems to have been a main factor for the survival of their separate national identity. The Swedish settlers clung to their Lutheran faith, and already after a few years they had erected a simple wooden church – replaced by a fine stone church in 1885. Two of the neighbouring German villages were also Lutheran, and this became a mixed blessing for the Swedes. During the greater part of the 19th century, the Russian authorities granted religious minorities a considerable independence in both administrative and ecclesiastical matters. The Swedish and the two Lutheran German villages were governed by a special administrative committee (called in German “Fürsorge”) and were united in an Evangelical-Lutheran parish, in which the Swedes were a minority. This meant that clergy and teachers were predominantly German-speaking and often hostile to the use of Swedish in both church and school.

Towards the end of the 19th century the Russian authorities took over both the secular and the ecclesiastical administration, and from 1890 obligatory Russian schools were introduced all over the country. The Swedes were, however, allowed to keep a Swedish school teacher in parallel with the Russian. Thus, they had to handle three “high languages”, Russian, German and what they called “hegsvänsk”, i.e. high Swedish, meaning mainly the language of the Swedish Bible translation and Christian hymns. In spite of the fact that Ukraine had had an independent history and culture for many centuries, under Russian rule the Ukrainian language was regarded as a primitive peasant dialect and was completely ignored in schools and administration.

The Swedes clung to their spoken east-Swedish dialect but their ability of writing “high Swedish” was very limited. After the dominance of German, Russian became the main medium of communication outside of the village. Obligatory Russian military service, that could stretch up to eight years, also meant that the men of the village got full practical knowledge of Russian. Contacts with Sweden and Swedish-speaking Finland – through letters and visitors – were rare during the 19th century but helped to preserve the Swedish identity. In the beginning of the 20th century the situation improved considerably. In the years before the Russian revolution Swedish books and even newspapers reached the village, and children of some of the most well-to-do families were sent to Swedish schools in St. Petersburg. However, this comparatively prosperous period ended abruptly with the outbreak of the First World War and the following Russian revolution that brought tragedy upon tragedy to the village. Finally, in 1929 the whole village succeeded in leaving Ukraine to go to Sweden (see Bo Utas, “Gammalsvenskbybor”, in Ingvar Svanberg & Harald Runblom /red./, Det mångkulturella Sverige. En handbook om etniska grupper och minoriteter, Stockholm 1989, pp. 138-140).

I have dwelt on the more general circumstances of this tiny island of Swedish speakers in order to enhance the understanding of the multilingualism that characterized their daily lives. How they handled this mixture of languages and dialects is demonstrated in a quite remarkable work by my father, Jan Utas. He was born in Ukraine in 1905 and was trained at a teachers’ seminar in Sweden in the 1930’s and worked all his life as a village school teacher in northern and central Sweden. He wrote a number of books about his native village, and after his retirement he set out to make an inventory of the vocabulary of the Swedish dialect of his youth “as it was spoken just before the Russian revolution”. The result of his work is found in a manuscript of some 4,000 neatly hand-written pages. In the present context it is especially interesting to see that a very great number of loan-words appear there, either as separate entries or as synonyms of Swedish dialect words. Thus, we find lots of loans from standard Swedish, Russian, Ukrainian, German, Estonian, Yiddish, Tatar, Georgian, Armenian and Circassian – languages and dialects that mirror the history of this minority (see Bo Utas. “Jan Utas och Gammalsvenskby-ordboken”, in Gammalsvenskbyborna 50 år i Sverige, 1929–1979, Visby 1979, pp. 89-94).

Naturally, these loanwords belong to contexts in which they can be expected to appear: German in church and school matters, Russian in administrative and military contexts, Russian and Ukrainian in rural matters, Yiddish in trade etc. My father argues that all these loanwords were an integrated part of his native dialect, although his fellow villagers would generally not admit that. What we can learn from this on a more general level is, I think, that spoken dialects of this kind are of a quite fluid character. Both grammar and vocabulary depend very much on the context. The dialect appears in many different registers. For the Swedes in the Ukrainian village their dialect was, indeed, an important part of their identity. It was used in everyday social interaction, but when it came to culturally marked uses, they tried to use “high Swedish” as best as they could. Christian hymns, sermons and ceremonies as well as folk songs and traditional rites were performed in this prestigious Swedish, but at times also German and Russian could be used – especially in folk songs. The dialect was never written. Depending on the purpose the villagers wrote in “high Swedish”, German or Russian.

Multilingualism in Iran

If we transfer this to the language situation in Iran until early modern times, before the rapid development of communications, education and media changed the linguistic scene quite quickly, we will find close parallels. Compare, for instance, my ancestral village with a Christian (e.g. Assyrian) village in Iranian Azerbaijan surrounded by Azeri Turkish speaking Muslims. For both groups both religion and language were important for their separate identity. As for the Ukrainian Swedes, I assume that the Aramaic dialect spoken by the Assyrians differed considerably from their church language, and their Azeri neighbours again had their own specific linguistic and religious situation, while Persian was the main means of education and written communication for both these groups.

The technique of writing one language in order to communicate in another has been practiced in this region for something like 4,500 years – since people started to write Akkadian with Sumerian signs. In the 1960’s one could still see scribes sitting on the big stairs in front of the central post-office, the P.T.T., of Tehran writing letters in Persian for those unable to do so themselves – or when necessary reading out Persian letters in languages understood by their customers. As an example of how this works, I can relate an experience I had in the 1960’s, when I travelled by bus in the countryside of Azerbaijan. At my side I had a young Azeri soldier. I asked him about his native language and he replied “Azeri, of course”. I continued: “Now, when you are away in the army, don’t you write to your mother at times?” “Yes, I do”, he said. I continued: “And in what language do you write?” “Persian, of course”, he replied. Then I asked “Can your mother read it then?” “No”, he said, “but they read it out to her in Azeri.” It should always be underlined that writing is NOT language. The leading Swedish poet of the 20th century, Gunnar Ekelöf, has given an apt description of this: “A text, of any kind, is nothing but a sort of musical score of ideograms combined with phonetic instructions” (En självbiografi. Efterlämnade brev och anteckningar, Stockholm 1971, p. 240).

The kind of functional multilingualism that I describe here has clearly been characteristic of Iranian lands since time immemorial. That means that when investigating various forms of oral communication, we should take into consideration what “registers” we are describing. Direct social interaction will depend on the people interacting. Higher and more formal registers depend on what kind of message the speaker wants to communicate. Folk songs, folk lore and traditional story-telling are formalized in ways that make the “text” (if we may call it so) memorizable – either verbatim, as in songs and poetry and proverbs, or more broadly as in traditional stories. Since such texts generally are seen as embodying the cultural heritage, and thus identity, of the group of people using the language/dialect in question, they are probably formulated in a high or prestigious register that differs from everyday multilingual usages.

The case of the quatrain

Iranian languages and dialects share many kinds of stories, lyrics and epics. This opens possibilities of comparing the way such texts are treated in the various languages/dialects. A genre that is especially interesting in this context is the short epigrammatic poem known as rubâ’î, du-baitî, ch(ah)âr-baitî etc. I have not made a thorough study of this poetic complex, but here I will present a broad picture of the uses of these forms.

This kind of quatrain is found midway between the prestigious forms of art poetry and folk poetry. It was originally an extemporized poem rather than a calculated form of artistic expression. On the art poetry side, we find the philosophic rubâ’î that has a specific thematic structure, the first two half-verses setting the theme (x, x), the third (generally non-rhymed) entering an unexpected new element (y) and the final half-verse (with the rhyme returning) resolving the tension with a clever pointe (z>x). Still in the 1970’s I heard this practiced very elegantly by Afghan literati in what I think was called a mushâ’ara. Someone starts out by improvising the first two half-verses and someone else comes up with the final ones. A successful pointe is met with applause.

This structure is reminiscent of what may be found in early Chinese poetry from the Tang period (618-907 AD) and even earlier as well as in the modern English limerick (cf. G. Doerfer, “Gedanken zur Entstehung des rubâ’î,” in L. Johanson and B. Utas, eds., Arabic Prosody, Stockholm 1994, pp. 45-59; A. Bausani, “La quatrina”, in A. Pagliaro and A. Bausani, Storia della letteratura persiana, Milan 1960, pp. 527-78). There might be some connections but it might also be a more general form of human creativity, since a similar structure is also found in musical forms like the sonata in Western music (“exposition > development > recapitulation”). Here is an early Chinese example:

Green grass is spreading afield like slender silk,

And red blossoms on all the trees in full bloom.

Whether you are coming back or not,

Flowers will all be gone when you are home.

(Xie Tiao 464-499 AD, transl. Zhang Longxi)

The rubâ’î is characterized by a seemingly Arabic structure, using the qasîda type of rhyme, only however for two verses: a,a; b,a. Its meter is theoretically adapted to the Arabic metrical system through a number of possible but rather abstruse mutations of the hazaj, namely maf’ûlu mafâ’îlu mafâ’îlu fa’al (- -v/v- -v/v- -v/v-) freely alternating within the same poem with maf’ûlu mafâ’ilun mafâ’îlu fa’al (- -v/v-v-/v- -v/v-) – in both cases thirteen syllables or, rather, twenty morae to the line. This seems to be an arabicized form of an earlier poetic structure. There are interesting earlier, pre-Islamic parallels as for instance in this so called surûd-i khusruvânî (royal song):

Qaisar mâh mânad u khâqân khvarshêd

Ân-i man khvadây abr mânad kâmghârân

Ka khvâhad mâh pôshad ka khvâhad khvarshêd

The Qeisar (of Rum) is like the moon and the Khâqân (of China) the sun.

My lord is like the cloud all-powerful:

At will he veils the moon, at will the sun.

These verses are attributed by the historian Ibn Khurdâdhbih to the legendary minstrel Bârbad at the court of the Sasanian Khosrou Parviz. They were brought to light by Shafi’i Kadkani (“Kuhantarîn namûna-yi shi’r-i fârsî: yakî az khusruvânîhây-i Bârbad”, Ârash 1342/1963, pp. 18-28). Note that there are eleven syllables in each verse line!

Extemporized quatrains are most probably the background of the so called “wandering quatrains of ‘Umar Khayyâm”. As you know such rubâ’îyât appear under the name of numerous authors, for instance the Sufi Shaikh Auhad ud-din Kirmâni. An interesting case of an early Sufi adaption of such oral poetry is found in a story about the Shaikh Abu Sa’id b. Abi’l-Khair of Nishapur (d. 1049). It is told that one day a singer (qavvâl) recited this verse (bait) in front of the Shaikh:

Andar ghazal-i khvîsh nihân khvâham gashtan

tâ bar lab-i tô bûsa diham chûn-sh bi-khvânî

I shall hide myself in my ghazal

So that I will kiss your lip when you recite it.

Although this is presented as a verse from a ghazal, it is composed almost exactly in the rubâ’î meter. This episode is reported by the great-great-grandson of the Shaikh, Ibn ul-Munavvar, in his Asrâr ut-tauhîd written in 1157 (ed.Safâ, Theran 1348, p. 280). According to Ibn ul-Munavvar’s report, the Shaikh then promptly asked: “Whose bait is this?” The singer replied: “It was composed (guftah) by ‘Ammâra.” The Shaikh rose to his feet and together with all the Sufis went on a pilgrimage to the poet’s tomb in Marv – a couple of weeks away by caravan.

There are more popular and less erudite types of quatrains, often called du-baitî or châr-baitî, consisting of four half-verse rhyming a,a; b,a or a,a; a,a and composed in the simple hazaj meter mafâ’îlun mafâ’îlun fa’ûlun (v- – -/v- – -/v- -), i.e. lines of eleven syllables each. They tend to celebrate the temporary joys of life, especially wine and love. Such poems are found over a broad field of dialects. In historical sources they are often referred to as fahlaviyât. Many are associated with the nebulous figure Bâbâ Tâhir ‘Uryân, who is supposed to have lived in Luristan or Hamadan in the 11th century. The original northwest Iranian characteristics of the poems ascribed to him have, however, mostly been Persianized due to their broad popularity. Similar du-baitîs have also been collected outside of Iran proper: in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and adjacent parts of Central Asia. In modern times they are generally not sung with musical accompaniment but rather chanted in a peculiar style. We have no means of ascertaining what such folk-poems could have been like in earlier centuries, but it is possible that this way of singing them is quite old.

However, in various dialects popular verses appear that don’t follow Arabic types of quantitative metrical patterns. Thus, Lorimer describes popular verses of the Bakhtiaris as having “a line of 12 syllables in rhymed couplets, with normally perhaps 4 stresses to the line”, but adds “in practice the number of syllables varies from as little as 9 to as much as 14 or even more” (see D.L.R. Lorimer, “The popular verses of the Bakhtiâri of S.W. Persia”, BSOAS 16/1954/, pp. 550-51.) Other types have fewer syllables and only two or three stresses to the line. This very much resembles what seems to have been characteristic of Middle Persian and Parthian poetry.


These quatrains and their closeness to oral practices demonstrate how the language used depends on the literary form. Poetry, even if composed and performed orally, must be formulated in a normalized language that allows it to be remembered, repeated and transmitted. This should be observable in all kinds of popular verse found in the various dialects of Iran, including epic (narrative) poetry. With a term introduced above, this may be called the highest register of a language/dialect, that is language formalized enough to make a text memorizable verbatim. Narration in prose – story-telling – would, in its turn require somewhat less formalized language but still following strict conventions. In this context it is interesting to mention the note-books that traditional professional Persian story-tellers are reported to use, called tûmâr, kitâbche or the like (see M. E. Page, “Professional storytelling in Iran: transmission and practice”, Iranian Studies 12/1980/:3-4, pp. 195-215). It is my impression that such note-books have texts of two types: summary descriptions of events that are meant to be expanded in the actual performance, on one hand, and carefully formulated passages, often containing verses, that are meant to be repeated verbatim at crucial points of the stories. However, it is my main point that both these “registers” are made up by a language that is clearly different from everyday interactive practice of the language in question. Here the role of loan-words also comes in. As I tried to show in the beginning of my lecture a dialect used by a small minority surrounded by a great number of other dialects and languages is likely to use a great number of loan-words – depending very much on the context, but for literary purposes, both in verse and prose, the dialect or language will be rather puristic. Thus, my ancestors in the Ukrainian village sang the folk-songs that they loved so much in the purest possible high Swedish.

Bo Utas, is (in addition of being my father) a Swedish linguist and Iranologist. He is professor emeritus in Iranian languages at Uppsala University, and a scholar on Persian historical linguistics and classical Persian literature. 

This text was presented at a Conference on Oral Narration in Iranian Cultures, Uppsala University, 7-9 June 2018.

“From Zero to Hero”: The life of Sierra Leonean football players in Scandinavia, by Zora Šašková

Community league game in Lunsar, Port Loko District

“Is Foday back home?” I asked Erik, a former Danish Superliga coach and owner of a second division club in Sierra Leone. “I don’t know where he is, he just disappeared, he didn’t make it to the flight from Denmark back to Sierra Leone.”

Foday was a young, rising Sierra Leonean football star. I first met him during a football game in June 2014 in Freetown. The Ebola outbreak was on the decline, yet, a ban on places of assembly, including playing sports and sport events, was still in effect. The game was held at a secluded part of a golf course because the organisers needed a concealed venue to avoid a potential fine of up to LE 500 000 (£50), a painful price to pay in the declining economy. Despite the risks, the game takes place. That is how much football is loved in the country.

Football is the most popular sport in Sierra Leone. Village greens, sandy beaches or dusty streets, wherever you go, football is played everywhere

The match is tense; everyone knows that there is a coach from Denmark watching and it might be the chance they are all longing for – getting a professional contract in one of the European clubs. Foday does well, so much so that within the next few weeks he is on his way to sign a contract with a Danish Superliga Club. This is a dream come true in one of the most unlikely periods. Football was not played, the clubs were not training, the national team had been banned from travelling. Watching English Premier League games in cinemas, a hugely popular activity among Sierra Leonean youth was also prohibited as part of the Ebola emergency and safety procedures. With no agents or scouts travelling to the country, he was more fortunate than he could imagine. Despite the ban being lifted within a few weeks after this game, the shut-down of Sierra Leonean football continued for another four years. For more than five years, the players lost their platform to showcase their skills but also their means of survival.

The temporary halt of the game caused many players to shift their focus and find alternative livelihoods elsewhere. “I met a friend with whom I played football, but now he was working in a store where they offload flour for bread. He told me ‘this is what I depend on presently, this is what I am doing now for a living’. It was very sad to see someone with such talent doing that stuff,” says Morris, a Premier League player. It was only earlier this year when the Premier League was resumed, but there are still thousands of the Sierra Leonean young men harbouring the dream and engaging in a committed pursuit of a career as a professional footballer.

Junior players’ personal training

It is a distant dream, and their chances are incredibly slim. In Europe, the odds of becoming a professional, for children playing organised football, are less than 1%. For Sierra Leonean youth, the odds are even smaller, given all the obstacles. Organised grassroots football is non-existent. The pitches are poor and equipment scarce. The majority of coaches are unqualified. Unlike in other West-African countries, where some of the big European clubs maintain scouting networks and recruit players from their academies, the possibilities in Sierra Leone are extremely limited.

SLFA Academy pitch in Kingtom, Freetown. One of the two artificial turf pitches in Freetown

Sierra Leone has never been a great footballing nation. The country has never won any major football competition, qualified for the FIFA World Cup nor produced many big football stars. The national legend, former Inter Milan striker, Mohamed Kallon, is perhaps the only Sierra Leonean footballer known by a broader international audience. And while stories like Foday’s are scarce, they do give players the hope to keep going. As John Keister, the former national team head coach puts it: “they’ve seen their colleagues gone and become professionals, that’s what is giving them the hope. You know, for example, we can be here together, going through the same processes, and then I have the break-through. Once I go, there is every belief and hope that you are going to think ‘I am going as well, I am going to make it’, so for me, I give them credit in regards to their application towards work.”

The players’ ‘application towards work’ is, indeed, admirable even praiseworthy. A Premier League player on a contract is promised a minimum salary of 500 000 LE/month (approx. £50). Some of them get more, however, as the players disclosed, most of the clubs are not keeping up with their promise and the majority get less or sometimes don’t even get paid. Yet, the players still commit and develop different strategies on how to navigate their lives as football players without a salary. As Morris tells me, “We have a musician here, called Emmerson, saying that we in Sierra Leone, we live like magicians, so I can say it’s something like that, we survive and even ourselves we don’t know how. It’s really hard here, really hard”, then he continues “The most difficult thing about being a footballer is, now you’ve made it to the Premier club, you are playing football, you wake up in the morning, go and train, and when the month is done, your parents expect something from you. It’s very, very hard. You are playing football, and you are playing at the top level, you are playing the Premier League, and you cannot support your family. Because forget about parents or kids, even just for yourself, to take care of yourself it’s very difficult.”

Football boots are expensive, and not all players can afford them. However worn out, these are still in use

Struggling to make ends meet is a reality for most Sierra Leonean players. Becoming a pro footballer in a European club is not only a question of fulfilling one’s dream and passion but is also seen as the fastest way of getting rich. Still, instead of expressing their desire of becoming rich, most players talked about their hope of having a decent life and being able to provide for their family. As Devin, a retired Sierra Leonean player currently living in Sweden, reflects: “People want to come to Europe, it’s the biggest thing. It’s where everything happens; people come from Brazil, America, other places, everybody wants to come to Europe and play football because the European football is one of the biggest you can ever dream about so that’s the reason why Africans want to come out here, and also for a better life. This is where you play and sustain, you earn something, you make a living out of it. In Africa, you don’t really make that much”. However, as he adds, the reality is quite problematic; “People take advantage of that when you come out here [to Sweden], knowing that you don’t get nothing back home compared to whatever little they give out here, they take advantage of that, they say, ‘I will give him little, he will take it, he will appreciate it better than what he got home anyway.”

Tactical meeting before a game

This, though, is only one of the unforeseen issues that Sierra Leonean footballers, who sign contracts overseas, have to deal with. Their imagined experience is highly positive. They often perceive any encounter with a European club as a guarantee for an easy and successful life. For Musa, a second division player, the image of living in Europe is pretty straightforward: “I will be happy. I imagine that everything is ok for me. I’m from zero to hero”.

Unfortunately, the expectations usually don’t meet reality. While the majority of the young men who are awaiting their chance abroad share Musa’s view, the players with the actual migration experience articulated their disillusion. Victor, a retired Sierra Leonean footballer living in Sweden, sighed as he told me: “They [the young players] have this dream that when you come to Europe, your dreams come true, no matter what. Because they do not know what happens here…”

The next time I saw Foday was when he arrived in Denmark. The smile on his face showed how excited he was about the opportunity. He had made it! He signed a professional contract with a European club. We went to the club, and despite being visibly nervous, Foday tried to stay calm and look confident. Everything was different. He had turned his life around. Foday was born and raised in one of the poorer areas of Freetown. There he lived in a tin-shack home together with his family. He shared a room with two of his friends. A double mattress on the floor that makes up half of the room, a shoe rack for their boots (an essential display for any footballer) and a light bulb, no TV, no radio. Access to electricity depends on the National Power supply, which is sporadic. Today, he moved into a newly built apartment with a washing machine, dishwasher, TV, unlimited internet, and electricity 24/7.

Three months later, I revisited Foday. It was in November, the time of the year when people in Denmark enjoy drinking hot chocolate and snuggle in fluffy blankets, and when the temperature averages around 5°C. I noticed there is no duvet in Foday’s apartment.

“Where is your duvet?”


“How do you cover yourself when you sleep”?  

“I don’t. But I am fine Zora. I am really happy to be here!”

After a short search, we found a duvet and sheets in one of the storage places in the apartment. Sometimes it is the small things that make a big difference. It is these cultural differences that then affect the integration process for the players. The traffic, opening a bank account, taxes, health system, the unfamiliar products in grocery stores and simply the fact that you are surrounded by a language that you do not understand. Navigating between two considerably different cultures without any help is a tiring experience. These little struggles contribute to making succeeding more difficult for many African (international) players.

While on the pitch the players might need to adjust to a new style of coaching or different training methods, the off-pitch life is often an overlooked part of their journey. One might assume that the clubs are there to help. However, as the players themselves acknowledged, unless you are a superstar, the clubs tend not to invest in players more than is necessary. Similarly, Erik Rasmussen, a former Danish Superliga coach and owner of a second division club in Sierra Leone, explains: “You have to keep in mind that the players the club brings over are very, very cheap players. The cheaper the player is, the less effort the club is going to do to try to make them fit in. And I mean, if you buy a player for two million pounds, then you have to put a lot of effort in making him successful, but if you get the cheapest possible player, they will say, ok, why should we put this much effort into him. And these are the players from Sierra Leone, they are the cheapest players you can actually get in all instances, so the club hasn’t invested that much. Maybe they should say ‘ok, when we take a player from Sierra Leone, it will cost us £1000 or £2000 a month and then we have to put another one or two thousand pounds to make him successful’ but they don’t do that. They will say ‘ok, now we take a chance, we spend this kind of money’ but they don’t put the money into trying to make the adjustment when it’s possible for the players to get successful.”

Beyond the level of practical support, the majority of the clubs have limited knowledge of the background and culture the players come from and thus cannot offer a lot of help in cultural readjustment. Likewise, many players do not understand the specification of the new culture they find themselves in. To their disadvantage, they must both, adapt to and catch up with their teammates on the pitch and adjust and adopt a new way of life. For some, this process can take over a year. Again, the clubs perceive that as problematic. “It’s very few clubs who have the knowledge of what to do. So that means that they see a big talent, and of course, some of the best players in Sierra Leone are talented, but they haven’t built up the whole network in the club when the player arrives. I don’t think it’s racism. I think it’s more a lack of knowledge about what kind of players they start to try to work with …. I mean, any club in Europe, any clubs in the world, they just want the best players. But if it takes too long to develop that player, then most of them they give up and would rather have a player from their own culture “, Erik mentions.

Sierra Leonean players on a football trial in Denmark

The practices that the clubs implement are often questionable. For example, it is common to put players from South America, Africa and countries of the so-called ‘Global South’ to a shared apartment, often rooms, sometimes even beds. Putting six players into a small, three-bedroom apartment can help with loneliness and establishing the initial bonds; however, most players in Europe would not accept such treatment. “A lot of Sierra Leoneans wouldn’t speak out on the negative because as much as it is negative, in this whole thing they are looking at the positive part of it, you had nothing, you got an opportunity come out here and make something up for yourself, we are appreciative. Whatever it is that these people are doing to us, it’s not as bad as what we went through when we were back home. So, the good outweighs the bad in a sense. From our own perspective. But for them, I think it’s just an opportunity to get whatever they can get out of you and not give a heck about you” says Devin, the retired Sierra Leonean player.

And while the practical obstacles might make life unpleasant, what the players mostly struggle with is loneliness, social isolation and racism. When we discussed the experience of settling down in Sweden, Devin reflected: “Settling down in Sweden, that was difficult. It was difficult from the start because when I came up here, I had high expectations, I was thinking different. I thought life would have been from the suffering stage to gold and diamonds and everything, but it wasn’t that… it was pretty tough. I was lonely, you know, I grew up with a different lifestyle… I am used to being outside, run under the sun. I am living here, the place is cold, I am freezing, and literally have nobody to talk to. I live in my apartment by myself, and I was pretty young when I came here so the fact that I was in my own place, in my own space, it was great, it was big but then at the end of the day I realised that there was so many things that I miss.”

Whilst the Scandinavian countries rank at the top of indices for ‘happiness’ and wealth, they also outrank other countries and score the highest among countries where it is difficult to create friendship for foreigners, but also in the average number of people in a household. For Sierra Leoneans, who are known for their friendliness, and co-living with family, friends or extended family is part of the culture, might be the private, closed life in Scandinavia quite isolating. As Devin adds: “You can live in a house and your next-door neighbour doesn’t really know you, for years you see each other and you probably say “hi” and that’s it. In this country it is difficult to make new friends, people always keep their old friends”. His sentiment was shared among many Sierra Leonean migrant players that I talked to. By moving countries, and in this case continents, one loses the proximal social and support networks. The players stay connected to their close ones through social media and WhatsApp. Still, besides teammates and staff from their football clubs, they all pointed out that they mostly do not know any people outside their clubs. Yet, they perceive it as an advantage to help them to stay focused on their career as they have a lot at stake.

The pressure on the players is enormous, apart from being able to fulfil one’s ambitions they generally cannot keep people back home of their mind. And while living abroad is not easy, coming home might bring a serious dilemma as well, particularly for players from a more disadvantaged background. “No matter what kind of situation you find yourself into here, it is difficult to go back home because people back home have a 100% expectation from you. And if you come here and you don’t achieve that goal, your dream, you will always think ‘when I go home, my people have this kind of expectation and if I don’t achieve it or if I don’t have it, I don’t see the reason to go there’. So that makes it so difficult for players to forget about everything and get back home”, Victor explains.

This is also how Foday’s story ends. After a year in Denmark, his contract was not extended, and he was about to go back home. However, he never made it to the flight. Rumour has it that he joined his brother in France, met a partner, had a child and is currently an asylum seeker. Presently, with his football career abandoned, he is an undocumented migrant who cannot sign a contract with any club. Sometimes, the high expectations of friends and family makes going home not an option.

The situation is a vicious circle to which the migrant players themselves also contribute. As Victor admits: “It’s difficult, because we, who are going for holidays [in Sierra Leone], we are putting 100% pressure on them. Because when we go, we drive big cars, eat big food, go to hotels, night clubs, spending money all over, so they get that excitement, they get that thought ‘oh, Europe is heaven’. The people who go back home for holidays, they show the kind of picture that everything is WOW here in Sweden or Europe. No matter which kind of situation they find themselves in here, when they go back home, they show this kind of picture that they are living a luxurious life so the boys back home, they are so eager, they are so excited to be in this situation too.”, and explanation does not help, “There is nothing that you can tell them that they would trust. They will tell you ‘You say it’s so difficult there, but you are there, why do you never think to come back if it’s so difficult?!”

The question is then given these challenges, what are the possible solutions? What would be the best advice to get players prepared for their life abroad, and make the clubs more considerate? Devin concludes: “Well, leave your expectations behind. Don’t come here thinking your life is gonna be all brilliant because it’s not even about money, it’s just the social activities you got back home you won’t have here. It is a whole different lifestyle you are getting yourself into. You are going into this deep hole and you don’t even know what’s at the end of the tunnel. So, don’t come here thinking ‘oh, my life is going to be better now, everything is going to be alright’. No, in the same way how you have been struggling, you come here and struggle, just in a different format.”. . . . “And if the clubs sign a player, they should start valuing these players like they value the Swedish players as well, give them what they deserve instead of just going ‘He just came from Africa, he was earning nothing when he played football, let’s just give him this amount, he’s going to take it’. Give the value to the player that he deserves, the money he deserves, the life he deserves, give it to him. I think if the Swedish people stop looking at us as Africans and look at us as footballer players, they will help a lot more.”

Zora Šašková is a PhD researcher at the School of Sport, Ulster University. Her ethnographic research examines the ways in which various socio-economic and cultural issues that are specific to Sierra Leone influence the decisions of young men to actively pursue a career in professional football abroad. She also explores their experiences and expectations as Sierra Leonean football players and analyses their imagined and actual migrant experiences. Additionally, the study investigates the dynamics of the development of the emerging football migration network between Sierra Leone and the Scandinavian countries. 

The world downside up, by Lisa Åkesson

Mainstream European media portrays Angola as a country characterized by extraordinary economic growth, widespread corruption, a questionable democracy, a state totally dominated by the ruling MPLA party and glaring inequalities between the poor and the rich. This is a valid picture, but there are other stories to be told. If I compare the capital city of Luanda of today with the Luanda I used to know when I worked here more than twenty years ago, the first thing that comes to my mind is the absence of watchful soldiers and heavy military vehicles. Since 2002 peace has been stable. This means that mothers do not have to worry about their 16 years old sons being sent to the frontier. It also means that millions of persons no longer flee across the country to Luanda. Instead citizens of Luanda take the opportunity to visit relatives in other provinces, and goods and commodities circulate more easily. World Bank statistics indicate that in 1992, one of the worst years of the war, life expectancy at birth in Angola was as low as 41 years. Since then this figure has increased by 25% to 51 years in 2012. There are still enormous problems in the health and education sectors, but the peace in itself has brought a better life to many people after more than three decades years of war. An important reason behind the stability of the peace is the government’s direct access to natural resources, primarily in the form of oil and diamonds, which has made it possible for them to buy the loyalty of former rebel soldiers and their officers. Low ranking former UNITA rebels have been given income opportunities, sometimes as guards in private security companies, and in comparison with their past as UNITA soldiers, most of them live better today. Former UNITA generals have been afforded with a slice of the country’s wealth, for instance in the form of concessions to diamond mines, and they have been incorporated into the national army. Another important reason behind the stability is that the MPLA government has been wise enough to avoid publicly humiliating the defeated UNITA militaries. Instead, the MPLA rhetoric has focused on the party’s capacity to bring peace to the people.

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