Genna is a field hockey sport played in Ethiopia, with which the Ethiopian Christmas festival of genna shares its name. Players use carved wooden sticks to strike a wooden ball in an effort to pass it through the opponents’ goal at the end of the pitch. It’s played on an expansive field without borders, and sometimes grazing cattle even interfere with the game. Its legends of origin tie back to the first century AD, though its full, accurate history is unknown.
Origins and History
There is no archaeological evidence to establish any historical starting point for genna. The primary argument for its origins lying in antiquity is that its legends can be fixed to a specific date in the first century AD. Ethiopian oral tradition relates that when Jesus was born and news of his birth reached shepherds in the local area, they were so overjoyed that they picked up their crooks, started hitting a ball around, and invented a field hockey sport on the spot. (Because of this story, an Ethiopian Christmas festival has taken the name genna as well.) If this legend has any credibility, it would place the sport’s origin sometime between 4 and 6 AD.
However, field hockey-like games have existed in many cultures throughout history (such as Mesoamerican pelota purépecha or the ancestral Gaelic sport behind both Scottish shinty and Irish hurling). It is more likely that this legend was ascribed to an already existent sport. As it stands, it isn’t feasible to determine a historical period of origin for genna.
How to Play
Since most of the history of the sport has not been recorded, it is unknown how genna was played in times past. As such, the rules for the modern version are summarized below.
Genna is played very similarly to field hockey, with the objective of each team being to pass the ball through the opponents’ goal at the end of the field. Each team is typically comprised of seven players, with one positioned as a goalie. Each player wields a hand-carved wooden stick with which to control the ball.
The game is played on an expansive field typically lacking any boundary markers. Each goal is marked by two random items sitting three paces apart. These goals serve as boundaries for the ends of the field, making the field typically around 110 yards long. Though the sides of the field aren’t marked, players try to stay within an area as wide as the field is long, making the legal playing area roughly a square.
To begin the game, two players meet in the center of the field with the ball between them. They hit their crooks together three times then go for the ball. The game is split into two 30-minute halves, and the team with the most goals by the end of the second half wins.
To play genna today, you’ll need a wooden hockey ball, some hockey sticks, and some small training cones. If you want to be really authentic, sand the ball down to the rough size and shape of a kiwifruit and paint it with bright green designs. Although hockey sticks are ideal for the game, you could also used a similarly shaped tree branch.
You’ll need a large, open field for the game. Use training cones to set up two goals each 12-15 feet wide (3 paces) with 110 yards (around 130 paces) separating them to mark the length of the field. Genna is traditionally played without definite boundaries, but if you have a limited area, place training cones 65 paces out from the center of each goal to mark the field’s corners.
Divide your players into two teams of ten people each. Assign one player from each team to serve as their team’s goalie, and the rest of the players are free play wherever they like. To start the game, two players meet over the ball in the middle of the field, strike each other’s sticks three times, then attempt to take the ball. Whichever team scores the most points in two 30-minute halves wins the game. (Substitute rules from regular field hockey as needed.)
The genna stick is hand-carved, typically crafted from a eucalyptus branch. To make one of these sticks, the player looks for a branch just longer than arm’s length and curved at the end, similar in shape to a hockey stick. An ideal stick would be approximately 1.5 inches in diameter, with the far end a little bit thicker. While the shaft is typically cylindrical, the sides of the end are carved flat for better ball handling.
The ball is wooden, usually carved from the dried root of a eucalyptus tree. It’s about the size of a tennis ball, and slightly ovoid rather than perfectly spherical. As the wood is a tan color and would be easily lost in the similarly colored field, it’s painted with bright colors to make it more easily visible.
Briggs, P. (2012). Ethiopia (Bradt Travel Guides). Chalfont St. Peter: Bradt Travel Guides.
Trans World Sport. (2015, August 24th). Genna | Ancient Ethiopian Sport on Trans World Sport [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/UOttBUvRcBU
Industrial Ethiopia. (1970). Nairobi: United Africa Press.