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Senegalese Female Runner Breaks Down Barriers

  • Naomi Schwarz
  • Kari Barber

The west African nation of Senegal is one of the continent's most sports-minded countries. Many athletes join informal football teams, play basketball, lift weights and go running. The vast majority of them, in this Muslim-dominated country, are men. But this is changing, even if slowly, like in many other parts of the world. For VOA, Naomi Schwarz introduces a young woman who is part of the new generation of female athletes.

In fitness crazy Dakar, running in the evening is one of the most popular sports. But although some women participate, they are few and hard to spot among the sea of men's faces.

Paul Ndione, an amateur footballer and runner, says Senegalese women are too busy with housework. He says, "For example, they clean the house and do the cooking. That is what it means to be a Senegalese woman."

But a male and female track team practicing at a stadium across town tells a different story.

Fatoumata Sakho, a 19-year-old student, is the team's star sprinter. She says she loves running. "I feel alive when I'm running. If I go a week without doing it, I don't feel right," she says.

She practices with her team five times a week. But when she started running four years ago, she says she had to lie to her father and sneak to practice.

Her coach, Cheikh Niang, says many men do not approve of their daughters participating in sports. "It is because of the clothing. If you are Muslim and you see women on television running some would say practically naked, in a t-shirt and shorts, that gives a negative image to the sport."

But despite the strong objections of her father, Sakho was determined to run. In other Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East, women sometimes have to wear veils and full-length clothing while taking part in sports. But, still, they are allowed to compete publicly, something that was unheard of in some countries 10 years ago.

Back at home, Sakho still finds time to fulfill her traditional role, as she helps her mother prepare meals for the family. Her mother says she always supported Sakho's running.

Holding the only photo Sakho has of her father, who died last year, she says she knows he would be proud of her today. "At the end he understood. He started encouraging me sometimes."

For two years, Sakho has been the Senegalese women's champion for the 100 and 400-meters. This year she says she hopes to win international competitions and show women worldwide that, even in the face of social pressure, they can dream and achieve in any field.

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