Event: Sussex Africa Centre. James Esson, ‘Entrepeneurs of the body? Ghanaian youth and football trafficking’

By AiW Guest: Ross Wignall.

First, from us at AiW, a quick intro to the Sussex Africa Centre, a new initiative in its founding year, celebrating the University of Sussex’s history of international scholarship and engagement with the African continent. Building on Sussex’s long-standing tradition of area studies expertise that is a legacy of AFRAS (African and Asian Studies), the SAC provides a hub and brings together the wide scope of disciplinary interests in cutting-edge and emerging Africa-focused research from across the University. There is a programme of events, including visiting speakers and postgraduate workshops, leading up to the SAC’s official launch at the ASAUK14 conference in September: at AiW we hope to bring as much coverage as we can of these lively and varied papers and discussions.

This, given by James Esson (Loughborough), on migration, ‘football trafficking’ and youth culture, has been covered for us by an SAC PhD member, Ross Wignall, who was also discussant for the paper (and gave us the first photo of the post, taken in The Gambia – below). Further details of Ross and his work and research on youth culture and the role of faith in the Gambia and Brighton can be found at the end of his post.



Scholars from across the university, from a number of different disciplines including English, Anthropology, Geography and Migration had gathered in the Global Studies Resource centre at Sussex to listen to James Esson present his paper entitled ‘Entrepreneurs of the body?  Ghanaian youth and football trafficking’.


James Esson (Loughborough)

We began with a short introduction by Prof. JoAnn Mcgregor, head of the Sussex Africa Centre, who, having supervised Dr. Esson previously, knew his work well. Esson completed his PhD at UCL on the topic of football trafficking between Ghana and Europe.  He showed how understanding migration through the lens of football provides important insights into the wider conception of mobile African male bodies in development, migration and trafficking discourses. He is currently based at Loughborough University, working as part of a research team on the EU-FP7 African rural-city connections (RurbanAfrica) project. This major research project is a collaboration between researchers based in Denmark, the Netherlands, France, UK, Ghana, Tanzania, Rwanda and Cameroon and is led by the University of Copenhagen. The aim is to explore the connections between rural transformations, mobility, and urbanization processes and analyse how these contribute to an understanding of the scale, nature and location of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, challenging a number of generally accepted ‘truths’ about rural and city development, and the significance of migration in shaping these.

At the Sussex Africa Centre event, Esson gave an introduction to his pathbreaking work on football migration, often termed football trafficking. As he explained this was somewhat misleading as it negated the individual agency of the footballers. A large part of his research is aimed at trying to understand how young footballers are becoming implicated in schemes that encourage migration abroad, mainly through shady intermediaries and agents who offer a trial or lucrative contract with a football academy or club, mainly in Europe but also in the Gulf, Asia and America. In exchange the young footballers are pressured into handing over large sums of cash before finding their dreams dashed when they travel to the foreign football club only to discover they had been part of an elaborate scam.

Esson’s research found that this systematic mobility was much more than a simplistic exploitative relationship and has to be understood in the specific historical, political, economic and cultural context of 21st Century Ghana. Across Ghana thousands of young men are dropping out of the education system preferring to pursue a career in football. This trend is motivated by a two primary factors. Firstly a failure in education to match up to young men’s expectations of work and future prospects, which has created an aspirational gap, particularly in the context of the continuing uncertainty of the Ghanaian and global economy. Secondly, this has been accentuated by a burgeoning middle class in Ghana where flashy conspicuous consumption has become the primary aspirational goal for achieving success, status and masculine power. As Esson’s research subjects told him, they were following the ‘X-Way’, seeking extraordinary lives defined by wealth and prestige, where they could also refashion their masculine identity.

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Michael Essien

He linked this to the global brand of football, where African players such as Ghanaian Michael Essien, live the ‘X-Way’ by being good at football, turning their embodied, physical power into hard cash. As he argued, social mobility now needs to be viewed in tandem with spatial mobility, as switching geographical location has become a vital livelihood option across Ghana and Africa. This is accelerating as young people become more engaged with global media, viewing the riches of the world through the internet, advertising and the behaviour of their sporting role models. However, he kept asserting the need for a more complex and nuanced understanding of these processes which too often see the young migrants as passive victims rather than agents in their own right. He also stressed that in the Ghanaian context families would pressure young men to seize these opportunities, buying into the dreams of their children. This was added to by a historic belief in the power of sport stemming from its use a vehicle for independent Ghanaian identity, further cementing the privileged status of sport as a site of transformation, aspiration and possibility.

Esson’s evocative and, in some terms, provocative paper challenges much current literature on football migration and trafficking and stimulated lively debate at the event. It relates directly to my own work at the YMCA in The Gambia, where I worked on a beginners coaching course with young men. We discussed how Dr. Esson’s work makes a compelling case for re-examining youth discourses that characterise youth as being ‘stuck’ by using the West African context, where young men use sport as one part of a portfolio of livelihood and survival strategies. Other questions addressed wider issues around the concept of ‘trafficking’ itself and how this linked into broader debates over individual agency and complicity, urging a rethink of reductive portraits of exploitative trafficking relationships.

Overall the event was a resounding success and the discussion spilled over into IDS bar over a few, cordial drinks.


_ARossWignallRoss Wignall (R.) is a 4th year Dphil candidate at the University of Sussex in the Anthropology Department. After gaining an English Literature degree and working for several years in government departments, he became involved in charity work. This led into an interest in the Anthropology of Development, especially working with youth, and the role of faith in modern society. His current research ‘Moralities of Transformation’ centres on the role of faith in development, using the YMCA, the largest youth charity in the world as a cross-cultural case study focussing on youth centres in The Gambia and in his home of Brighton and Hove.

Feature photo: ‘Velha Guarda’ footballers, Huambo, Angola. By John Spall.

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