Ethiopia's Neglected Sports

Cultural games have been played for many years in Ethiopia. They have been passed on from generation to generation. While some sports are more indigenous played in one area or community others have a nationwide coverage. Although their benefits are immense, traditional sports still have little attention in Ethiopia as EBR Adjunct Writer Abiy Wondifraw reports. 


It was well documented in history that Emperor Tewodros II used to recruit the best youth in wrestling (gibgib/tigil) from all over the country for contests with foreigners to symbolize the strength and indomitable spirit of Ethiopians. Emperor Minilik II and his wife, Empress Taytu Betul were known for organizing ‘ye gena chewata’ (hockey) teams of their own to face each other on special occasions. Later, Taitu chose gebeta (board game) to attract more customers to the hotel opened in her name.

Nowadays, however, these traditional games are not as attractive as they used to be, even though some of the games are still played in the rural parts of Ethiopia. Traditional sports and games might be the last thing one may hear about amidst all the talk from fans and media. Even when it occasionally grabs some attention from the media, the audience does not look like they are enjoying it. For many sport lovers, traditional games are a thing of the past.

The Ethiopian Cultural Sports Federation (ECSF) officials think traditional games are relatively popular compared to a few years ago. The Federation’s move to embrace more games, by extending their list from six games to nine and then to 11, eight years ago, did not pay off. Still, the Federation is working hard to add two more games to make them 13. According to Belayneh Haile, head of ECSF, there are more than 290 cultural games in the country. Assessing all these games and preparing standard rules demands a lot of resources and effort. Unfortunately, the smaller demand for the introduction of the games seems disappointing to the Federation officials.  

“That is true. The interest in cultural games is very low. I think we are the victims of the ever-growing effect of globalization. People are more attracted to European soccer and Olympic Games,” says Belayneh. “It is not just the cultural games, but almost all domestic sports that are suffering. Our big annual tournaments do not get enough media attention. Journalists knock on our door once a year, and that is for ‘ye gena chewata’ around Christmas time. Forget playing and knowing the rules of the game. The chance to know the games by name is difficult for youngsters.” 

The ECSF organizes three annual competitions and festival which attract close to 1,000 delegates, to compete in 11 different cultural games. It also participates in the schools’ sport competitions held between regional states. Cultural sports also make an appearance during women’s championships.

Beyond encouraging the games to be popular among Ethiopians, the Federation dreams of seeing some of the sports take on a more modern status. “We wish to see our traditional sports get regional, and continental recognition, and maybe even be events at the Olympics,” the office head hopes. “But this cannot be achieved by the Federation alone.” 

When the World Indigenous Games was held in Palmas, Brazil, for the first time in 2015, only two of the 50 invited Ethiopian delegates attended the event. “Myself and an expert managed to go, and introduce one of our cultural games to the world.             

We could not afford the transportation expenses, even though the accommodation was fully covered. If we could cover the expenses, we could attend this event every two years and introduce some more games of our own.”

With no external financial funding or material support from any international sports governing association such as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association or the International Association of Athletics Federations, ECSF always struggles to cover its expenses with the annual budget of ETB 410,000 it gets from the Ministry of Youth and Sport (MoYS).

 “Our budget only covers the costs of two training sessions a year. The Ethiopian National Cultural Center helps us to organize competitions, allocating ETB 250,000 to ETB 300,000. We need help from the MoYS, Ethiopian Sport Commission, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Culture and Tourism as well as universities. This is not about taking our games to the Olympics. It is about preserving cultural heritage,” Belayneh adds.  But the ECSF officials are concerned by the recent structural reforms in federal institutions because the National Cultural Center might not keep supporting the Federation.  

According to the evidences of archeologists and historians, gebeta (which is also called mancala in other African countries, and is known to be the world’s oldest board game) and ye gena chewata (hockey), are among the oldest traditional games in Ethiopia. Sport science researchers argue that these games can benefit the communities and individuals. This is because board-games like gebeta test one’s ability as a tactician and strategist while other cultural games such as ye gena chewata require the players’ physical skills.

“We always listen to statistics that say that 80-85Pct of our population lives in rural areas. That means we still have the chance to let people enjoy cultural games. The games comprise our identity and history. They also help to connect communities and keep local groups together.” Belayneh concludes.

7th Year • Dec.16 - Jan.15 2019 • No. 69



Abiy Wendifraw

Special Contributor

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