Do you know the nzango, this schoolyard game presented at the African Games?
In Congo, little girls know the Nzango very well, they play it in the street or at school. From now on, this child’s game will be in the big league and will be presented as a full-fledged sports game at the African Games in Brazzaville which ends on Saturday.
Combining gymnastics, dance, song and a good dose of luck, nzango is popular on both sides of the Congo River, in Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo and as far as Burundi. A game invented long before independence in the north of the Republic of Congo and whose name literally means “foot game” in Lingala, according to the Congolese Nzango (Feconza) Federation of Brazzaville.
I play nzango to keep my balance.
The game is a kind of version for the stone-leaf-scissors feet, which would have been invented by girls facing boys playing marbles and hoop. Today, it is a codified sport, “like the others”, but “in the beginning, nzango was practiced mainly in the neighborhood and at school”, during off-peak hours or during recreations, explains Blanche Akouala, president of the Feconza, created in July 2014.
Women who practise it have various motivations when they reach adulthood. Many do it for their health or simply to get away from home for a while. “I play the nzango so I don’t lose my balance. I also practice it to fight rheumatism. I feel like I’m holding myself together and keeping the line,” says Doris Mantsanga, who coaches a nzango team in Brazzaville.
“We play nzango to remember our childhood. It’s a game of chance. Today you can play well, but sometimes you can’t tomorrow. But, if you have the technique, you always manage,” says Noëlla Debanda, on one of the fields of the sports complex of Kintele, the epicenter of the African Games, 15 km north of Brazzaville.
A game of nzango pits two teams whose players take turns playing against each other individually under the control of referees on a field of 16 by 8 meters. Players score points, also called “feet”, based on the position of their feet in relation to their opponent’s feet. The winning team is the one that scores the most points at the end of the 50-minute game, divided into two halves of 25.
The teams (11 players and 6 reservists) face each other on either side of a center line and alternately attack or defend to the rhythm of songs sung in the heart of all participants and accompanied by hand clapping. At the beginning of the game, each side chooses an attacking foot, the right or the left, it being understood that it cannot be the same for both teams.
At some point, the two players facing each other advance one foot towards the line at the same time. For example, the player who attacks with the right foot scores one or more points each time her opponent opposite answers with the left foot. On the other hand, if the player advances with her right foot and the opponent also responds with the right, she loses. These foot movements are usually preceded by jumps, leaps or aerial tricks, for the sake of “beauty of the game” (they do not score any points).
On both sides of the Congo River, nzango enthusiasts have formed hundreds of neighborhood, parish, and corporate teams and compete in friendly meetings or tournaments, sometimes between teams from both Congos. In Congo-Kinshasa, the game is also used to settle inter-community conflicts by bringing divided populations together for a joyful game.
The nzango: A game that can be exported
According to Feconza officials, nzango has also been “exported” to Gabon and Cameroon, but for the African Games, only five teams from Congo-Brazzaville were selected to compete on open fields. Another demonstration sport at the African Games is Pharaoh’s boxing. A typically Congolese game reserved for men. This fighting sport was created about forty years ago on the basis of an ancient martial art that would be described in Egyptian papyrus.
“This is just a demonstration. There will be no medals to be awarded. We have chosen nzango to popularize it and encourage those who practice it,” says Bienvenu Emile Bakalé, deputy director general of the Organizing Committee for the African Games (Coja). Nazaire Issié, from Feconza, has even higher ambitions. Our goal,” he says, “is to make it an Olympic sport.