Eat my dust! Football for women and girls in West Africa is kicking off

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.

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Photo copyright: Dawn Starin

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.

Fever pitch

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.

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Photo copyright: Dawn Starin

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 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.

Inspirational breakthroughs

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.

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Photo copyright: Dawn Starin

De­spite institutionalised 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
Dawn is an anthropologist and has spent de­cades doing research mostly in Africa and Asia on primates – human and nonhuman. Her articles have appeared in publications as varied as Behav­iour, Critical Asian Studies, Gastronomica, The Humanist, The New York Times, Philosophy Now and Scientific American. This article was first published in the Natural History magazine under the title ‘Parity on the Pitch’ in October 2016.

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