Sitting in the dirt on the outskirts of the capital city of Bissau—with someone’s screaming pet baboon tied to a branch above my head, two teenage girls plaiting a third friend’s hair behind me, a mother suckling her youngest of four beside me, and a boisterous football (soccer) game in front of me—I’m in the middle of an International Women’s Day celebration in Guinea-Bissau, one of the poorest countries in the world. International Women’s Day is a global celebration of “the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women,” and here in a place sometimes lacking water or electricity, the women are marking their special day by playing football. The teams include mothers, schoolgirls, and businesswomen, married or unmarried, in mismatched outfits and bare feet racing over a garbage dump. The goalposts are empty beer bottles. The ball is slightly deflated. The crowd consists of women, old and young, pregnant and menopausal, shod and unshod, poor and not-so-poor, all of them seriously involved in their favorite sport—laughing, high-fiving, jumping up and down, shouting, clapping, and whistling. For now, euphoria rules over this small, sandy patch of land.
Many West African girls and women have limited opportunity to pursue leisure activities. Their overwhelming and intensive household chores and reproductive obligations leave little time and energy to develop athletic skills. Yet, in a Fula village in southeast Guinea- Bissau, where finding enough food to eat and fulfilling all one’s chores are difficult, a group of young women have started their own football team. And on Bubaque, one of the Bijagós Islands in Guinea-Bissau, amidst extreme heat and dust, girls spend their weekends practicing their footwork. Running up and down sandy paths, dodging push-bikes and wheelbarrows, head-butting footballs back and forth, they dream of becoming football players when they grow up.
In The Gambia, the smallest country on the African mainland, the widespread enthusiasm for the sport is palpable: young girls walk through football crowds selling groundnuts and small plastic bags full of water or frozen crushed baobab and white sugar. Mothers sway back and forth, their infants strapped to their backs with colorful cloth. Older, hard-working, turbaned, stick-chewing women sit on the ground laughing and clapping while they roast corn on braziers. Men and women alike scream their approval or disapproval of their team’s performance. Each time a goal is scored, exuberant fans run on to the field. Those unable to afford the entrance fee sit or stand on the walls and in the branches of the tall trees surrounding the field. Some of the supporters are hijab-clad young girls, singing and dancing. Sometimes, the linesman is actually a woman wearing shorts and a tight T-shirt.
When The Gambia’s female team qualified for the FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2012, the entire country was proud. Although the team’s performance on the world stage was not as they would have hoped, one player set a notable record. Sainey Sissohore, at thirteen years and nine months old, was the tournament’s youngest player and the youngest-ever goal scorer in a FIFA world final. She stands as an inspiration for girls in this impoverished nation.
Other role models are beginning to emerge. In Senegal, Aminata Touré, a past footballeuse who played for the Dakar Gazelles and has advocated for feminism and human rights, was the nation’s prime minister from September 2013 to July 2014. Fatma Samba Diouf Samoura, also from Senegal, was appointed as FIFA’s first female secretary general in May 2016. Despite institutionalized gender discrimination and harassment, West African girls and women are making progress on and off the football field.
While football is traditionally thought of as a male activity, in West African cities, villages, and forests, from southern Guinea-Bissau through The Gambia and up to northern Senegal, young girls kick balls in and out of buildings, over compound walls, through marketplaces, around schoolyards, over traffic, around termite mounds, and past thorn-covered thickets. When balls aren’t available, plastic bottles, bundles of rags, or tightly wadded strips of raphia will suffice. Goalposts? Wheelbarrows, fallen branches, rocks, old rags, inner tubes—anything. Uniforms? Not necessary. Shoes? Not necessary, either. What are necessary and abundant are creativity, inventiveness, and resourcefulness. During each game, cheering, dancing, and fancy footwork wipe out the sometimes harsh realities of daily life—for men and women alike.
By Dawn Starin