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 nursing 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 day celebrating the economic, political, and social achievements of women in the past, present, and future. This is a day when people pay tribute to women and their contributions to society. And here, in this sometimes water- and electricity-less area of the capital, women are celebrating their special day by playing football. The teams consist of mothers and aunties, sisters and nieces, schoolgirls and businesswomen, and the married and unmarried in mismatched outfits and bare feet flying over a sandy garbage dump. The goal posts are empty beer bottles, and the ball is slightly deflated. The crowd consists of women, old and young, pregnant and menopausal, shod and unshod, poor and not-so-poor, but all of them seriously involved in their favorite sport—laughing, high-fiving, jumping up and down, singing, shouting, clapping, and whistling. This is women’s power writ large and hectic. For now, euphoria rules over this small, sandy patch of poverty.
In a Fula village in the south-eastern corner of Guinea-Bissau, walking down a dirt path piled high with dried maize, and Quranic boards stacked along the walls of mud-brick, grass-thatched homes, I stop to watch a group of young women play football. Within hearing distance of red colobus and black and white colobus monkeys and Africa’s western-most population of chimpanzees, these young women take a much-needed break from their everyday drudgery and non-stop toiling. Onlookers engage in good-natured shouting, barefoot dancing, and flirting while the players concentrate on technique.
Sitting on the steps of an old colonial building peppered with bullet holes on the island of Bubaque, the second largest in Guinea-Bissau’s Bijagós Archipelago, I watch two young girls spend hours running up and down sandy paths, dodging push-bikes and wheel barrows, head butting a football back and forth. I ask the youngest of the two what she wants to be when she grows up. “A football player!” she shouts, and immediately continues practicing her skills.
Up the coast in The Gambia, the smallest country on the African mainland, in a village not far from the capital, the widespread enthusiasm for the sport is palpable. While young girls walk through the crowds selling groundnuts and small plastic bags full of water or frozen crushed baobab and white sugar, older, turbaned, stick-chewing women sit on the ground roasting corn on braziers. Mothers, with infants strapped to their backs with colorful cloths, sway back and forth. Old men and even older women scream their approval or disapproval depending on how their team performs. Each time a goal is scored, singing, dancing, clapping, and whistling fans run on to the pitch. A crowd controller, carrying a switch, beats anyone– men, women, boys, and girls– he can catch when they stray onto 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 pitch. At a local football match, some of the supporters are singing and dancing hijab-clad young girls, while the lineswoman wears shorts and a tight tee shirt.
It is often said that football is a man’s sport but, when The Gambia’s U-17 female team qualified for the FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) U-17 Women’s World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2012, the entire country was proud. Unfortunately, their debut on the world stage was not as they would have liked; their losses were astronomical, but, they 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. Today, Sainey is the head of women’s football in The Gambia and stands as an inspiration for the girls of this impoverished nation.
Next door, in Senegal, in the bustling capital city of Dakar, just around the corner from a street market selling chimpanzee hands, antelope horns, and porcupine quills, I find a young woman kicking a football over and over against an old building. When she finishes her practicing, she picks up her schoolbooks, places them on her head, wraps her arms around her ball and dances off. Will she follow in the footsteps of Madame Aminata Toure, the country’s first female prime minister, a feminist, a human rights advocate, and a past footballeuse who played for the Dakar Gazelles? Or perhaps she might follow in the footsteps of Fatma Samba Diouf Samoura, also from Senegal, who was appointed as FIFA’s first female secretary general in May 2016.
In spite of institutionalized gender discrimination and harassment, West African girls and women are making progress on the football field. Perhaps the progress is not as fast or as tidy as their footwork, but these girls and women are following their passion and, in Senegal at least, the Fédération Sénégalaise de Football has just identified women’s football as a ‘key priority.’
In cities, towns, villages, and forests, and even on isolated islands, 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, bundles of rags or tightly wadded up strips of raphia palm fronds or plastic bottles will do just as well. Goalposts? Forget goalposts. Smashed plastic water bottles, broken beer bottles, wheelbarrows, fallen branches, rocks, old rags, inner tubes—anything can be a goalpost. Uniforms? Not necessary. Shoes? Again, not necessary. What is necessary, and exists in bucket loads, is an immense amount of creativity, inventiveness, and resourcefulness.
Throughout West Africa, from southern Guinea Bissau, through The Gambia, and up to northern Senegal, I have seen football incite exuberance and jubilation among women and girls. I have felt it. During each game, the cheering, the dancing, the singing, and sheer euphoria appear to wipe out the fears and realities of poverty, government corruption, and press censorship for a brief period of time, and not just for the men. Here, women’s football is alive and trying to thrive.
And that is how I remember West African football. Free, fun, and feminine.
A previous version of this article appeared in Natural History magazine in October 2016.