Eton’s ancient game thrives in Nigeria

In a dusty Nigerian park, dozens of youths dodge goats and rusting cars to be first on to crumbling courts built to replicate the side of the chapel at one of England’s most elite public schools so that they can play the ancient game of Eton fives.

Introduced nearly a century ago by a former pupil of Eton College, this peculiar form of handball pulls in the crowds in impoverished Nigeria.

“An English schoolteacher may have brought the game here but Nigerians are the best now,” said Usman Yusuf, a civil servant and local Eton fives favourite in the northern state of Katsina, where many people live on less than $2 a day.

“We love it. Every day after school we come here and fight to get on the court,” said Yusuf, standing in front of crowds of barefooted schoolchildren shouting instructions to players dashing around graffiti-covered courts.

In England, the game is played mostly by former or current public schoolboys who wear custom-made, padded gloves to smash a hard ball around a three-sided walled court where it ricochets off ledges and steps reproduced in the mould of the original school ground.

Nigerians forgo the expense of gloves and make do with a tennis ball but the court retains the obstacles and idiosyncrasies that make a simple game into a skilful sport.

Emir’s court
“It looks simple but it has subtle skills that take intelligence. This is why Nigerians are so good at it,” Umar Kabir, the secretary to the Emir of Katsina state, told Reuters.

“The Emir has a court in the palace and every evening he goes out to play. He still plays to win.”

While the popularity of Eton fives peaked in Britain in the 19th century, hundreds of people still attend competitive games in Nigeria and matches in the annual Sardauna Cup are followed by dinners, cultural dances and speeches.

Eton fives has been exported across the world but while it never caught on in New Zealand, Nepal or Argentina, Nigeria embraced its “minutes-to-learn, years-to-master” attraction.

“Nigeria is a great example of how bashing a ball against a wall can have mass appeal … Eton fives is just a very good version of what millions of kids do naturally at school,” said John Reynolds, a former England national fives champion.

“It’s now almost certainly more popular there than back in England. We can only dream of the crowds that state matches draw,” added Reynolds, who runs a rare fives court construction company.

Ancient Egyptians
All students at Eton College — whose alumni include Britain’s Prince William, Prime Minister David Cameron, Belgian King Leopold III, James Bond author Ian Fleming and London Mayor Boris Johnson — don the gloves at some stage.

The ancient Egyptians played a form of fives, which is thought to refer to the number of fingers on your hand, as in “a bunch of fives”, while today spin-offs like handball in the United States and pelota in parts of France and Spain are still popular.

Authors Aldous Huxley and James Joyce mention the game in their most famous works and a recent biography of the former US president Abraham Lincoln said he was passing the time playing fives when he received the presidential nomination.

Whether it is the ancient heritage, the simplicity or the low-cost of a tennis ball, fives has stood the test of time in northern Nigeria since former Eton student JS Hogben introduced the game while teaching here in the 1920s.

“Some people here don’t have much but you can see how the children are when they play the game, so we’ll always keep the courts ready for them,” Kabir said. “Nigeria loves fives.” — Reuters

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