Women Are My Tribe

On gender and pétanque

By / February 2016

Pétanque is a French game similar to boule or bocce. Every evening in Djibouti City a triangular island of dirt right across from the National Djiboutian Football Stadium fills with pétanque teams, older men on one side, young boys on the other.

It’s hard to say which is more popular in Djibouti: pétanque or football. Men play in teams of one, two, or three but many more people are involved in the game, offering advice, keeping score, and simply standing around, socializing. I sit with a group of men and watch a game.

“Do women ever play?” I ask.

They laugh. “I’ve never seen a woman play,” one man says. “Do you want to try?”

I have played pétanque with my kids and husband.

“What would happen if a woman did play?” I ask.

“Oh, they just wouldn’t,” the man says.

The others laugh again. The idea is so far out of the realm of possibility that they can’t imagine it.

Pétanque balls are hollowed out metal balls about the size of an orange. The wooden cochonnet, literally translated from French as piglet, is much smaller, the size of a grape. One player tosses the cochonnet and then each player, taking turns, attempts to aim his balls as close as possible to the cochonnet.

In pétanque, unlike in bocce, balls are thrown backhand, with the fingers uncurling as the ball leaves the palm. At the end of each round, points are tallied based on the position of the balls and the first team to reach thirteen points wins.

Photograph by Aaron Van LuvenMen playing pétanque in Djibouti City. Photograph by Aaron Van Luven

Pétanque began in France in the early 1900s and some Djiboutians say it came to Djibouti after World War 2 when Djiboutian soldiers returned from the war and brought the game with them. When electricity and streetlights were built along roads and in neighborhoods in the 1960s and 70s, the game increased in popularity as people could now play past the 6:30 p.m. sunset.

The inexpensive and non-strenuous game is excellent in the intense heat and low-income environment of Djibouti and it continues to grow in popularity. This is currently due to more lights, many of them solar-powered, and also to efforts at cleaning and beautifying Djibouti City. There are park benches and flowerbeds, street cleaners and designated places for dumping garbage.

By the end of the 1970s, Djibouti was hosting several pétanque tournaments every year. In 1983 the official Federation of Pétanque was founded. Now, players compete on an international level and one competitor told me they had most recently placed fourth at a tournament in Nice, France, though he was foggy on the details.

Shadows grow long as the sun sets and the call to prayer will soon end this particular match. Only a few tosses remain. A middle-aged Djiboutian man crouches flat-footed in the dirt. His macwiis, a wrap-around sarong, is tucked up between his knees.

He stares straight ahead, shifts slightly to the left, swings his right arm backward and forward, and releases a heavy silver ball. A brief hush falls over dozens of men as their eyes follow the ball’s trajectory and as soon as it plops into the dirt and rolls to a stop, the silence is broken.

Everyone shouts out the position of the ball in relation to three other silver balls and the primary target, the cochonnet. Then they shout opinions about the force of the toss, the arc of the ball, whether the player added too much spin or not enough spin. No one agrees on anything except that this was not a winning throw.

The man who just threw the ball that missed the cochonnet by a wide margin sits beside me while he waits his next turn. “Before, pétanque was forgotten,” he says, “but it is really making a comeback.”

For men, his statement is true. But for women, who aren’t present on the pétanque field, it isn’t making a comeback. Women didn’t play pétanque before and they still don’t. It isn’t that female participation in sports isn’t welcome in Djibouti.

Other sports are increasing in popularity among women. There is an all-girls running team, several girls handball teams, and the Djiboutian National girls football club placed second in an international tournament in Qatar just last year, the highest finish for Djiboutian female athletes in any sport, ever.

The lack of women on the pétanque field has more to do with the social aspect of this particular game. Since only two or four people actually play but dozens crowd around to watch, pétanque is as much about talking and debating and being part of a community as it is about sport. And that is where the real gender division lays.

Women, more often, do their talking and debating in their homes, among women. Like with pétanque where a few play and most watch, a few women will chop onions for dinner or feed a baby while others observe, tell jokes, share stories from work, or discuss a recent international incident. The comparison isn’t exact. The men are playing a game while the women are working. To an outsider this can seem inherently sexist.

But this can also be a lazy, surface judgment. Women could play the game. I could toss the ball the men I interview offer me. I would be welcomed as an outlier. None of the women I’ve talked with resent this and neither do I. I don’t want to join this community. I’m curious about the game and I love the nightly images of men squatting together like crows on a wire.

But I’m a woman and I would rather sit with the women. Not because women ‘belong in the home’ but because women are my tribe.

I like their stories about giving birth and about caring for aging parents because I’ve done that and will do that. I learn from their recipes because I enjoy cooking. I think their jokes about marriage are hilarious and find solidarity in their experiences of jealousy and sexual harassment and loss.

In a conservative and traditional culture, it feels appropriate for men and women to have separate social outlets. Rather than forcing myself into a game I don’t want to play or dwelling on issues of sexism, I leave the men with their pétanque balls and head for home.

I stop at Hawa’s, a tailor who has been sewing curtains for me. We chat briefly about our families. She is surrounded by other women. They sell tea and fried biscuits, they argue about what color cloth best suits my eyes.

Somehow savoring the simple pleasure of their company feels more radical than joining the men for a game of pétanque.


Rachel Pieh Jones, an EthnoTraveler contributor, lives and writes in Djibouti City. To see more of Aaron Van Luven’s photography, go here.