‘Muscular Christianity’: the Role of the Ethiopian YMCA Sports in Shaping ‘Modern’ Masculinities (1950s-1970s)

Katrin Bromber


The work of the Ethiopian Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), which commenced in Addis Ababa in the early 1950s and spread to eighteen Ethiopian cities until the early 1970s, revolved around the development of a ‘balanced manhood’ through social, recreational, spiritual and educational activities among boys and young men. Similar to the UK and American templates, it combined inward-looking character development and outward-looking religiosity with the idea of a ‘muscular Christianity’. In the 1930s, the American YMCA linked these aspects with concepts of the ‘modern’ YMCA member as a leader with specific character traits. This approach met with the post-World War II needs for ‘progressive’ citizens and leaders in Ethiopia. Incorporating sports as a morally positive activity became a powerful strategy for the creation of a distinct life style and a legitimate form of self-improving leisure for educated males in Ethiopian cities, notably Addis Ababa.

The following paper discusses the establishment of the Ethiopian YMCA and its contribution to the production of the ‘modern man’ along three lines. The first part places the emergence of the YMCA sports culture within broader developments of physical education in inter-war and post-war urban Ethiopia. In the second part I will look at concrete activities which attempted to channel the energy of young males for the good of the nation. The conclusion will discuss the question in how far these activities built on religious arguments which supported or opposed existing notions of acceptable bodies and perceptions of useful self-improving leisure.

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