KANO, NIGERIA —
It's a rare sight. Girls in Nigeria playing rugby. And in northern Nigeria's Kano state, the girls in the Basic College secondary school are defying cultural norms.
“A girl is expected not to be involved in all those masculine games, because they believe rugby needs strength,” said Rahilat Umar. “So they believe, as a girl, I'm just supposed to face my studies, leave all those games. I believe that what a man can do, a woman can do better.”
At 13 years of age, Umar is one of the youngest players on this all-girls high school rugby team. The team captain, Janet Emmanuel, is a star player. Janet says she has learned to ignore what people say about girls playing rugby.
“We are not weaklings at all,” Emmanuel said. “We're doing good in rugby.”
'Here to crack rocks'
The team has been getting ready for Nigeria's largest rugby tournament, and Coach Stanley Uka is working hard to prepare them as much as he can on the field.
The Basic College high school all-girl rugby team smiles at the end of the tournament. They played a scoreless game, but they still received a trophy. (VOA / C. Oduah)
“To let them know that they're coming here to crack rocks,” said Uka. “Not just coming here for child's play.”
Off the field, the coach knows that some of his players are facing challenges.
Umar comes from a conservative Muslim family. Her father is strongly against her playing rugby.
“I sent her to school to learn, not to be playing rugby,” said her father. “As a Muslim and a girl, I don't think it will be very wise, I allow her to play rugby. If I decide to stop her, I will do that.”
Game day is here
But Umar said she hopes her parents will eventually come around. The next day is game day, and the team is ready.
Female rugby players, who wear hijab on top of their uniforms, in Kano State, Nigeria, a predominantly Muslim state, wait their turn to play at the tournament. (VOA / C. Oduah)
At the Kano State Youth Rugby Championships, only two of the thirteen competing teams are made up of female players. Umar’s parents are not coming. But she doesn't dwell on that for long. Coach Uka is counting on her.
“Rahilat as a player is one of the fantastic players I have,” said Uka. “When it comes to games, Nigeria ... was nowhere to be found when it comes to the females. But presently, the females are coming up; they are beating the imaginations of so many people.”
This is the second time the tournament takes place. It was put together by the Kano State Rugby Association and the Barewa Rugby Club. U.K. national Martin Crawford moved to Kano 13 years ago. He grew up playing the sport, and these days, he's passing it on to Nigerian youngsters.
“When we started, we focused on the senior secondary [students] and we realized that was a mistake,” said Crawford. “Because if you catch the kids when they're 12 or 13, they're with you till 13, 14, 15, 16. They leave secondary school, by that time, they're die-hard rugby players. They play rugby for the pure pleasure of it, in fact, they'll walk over hot coals.”
Coach is proud
They try their best, but by halftime, no one scores. And Coach Uka is not happy. They try again. But it's a scoreless draw. In the end, both female teams win a trophy. Uka said he is proud of his players.
Coach Stanley Uka talks to his players after their scoreless game at the tournament. (VOA / C. Oduah)
“Nigerian females are coming up and not just crawling,” said Uka. “They are really coming up, and I believe they're going to make the world proud some day. With the cooperation and the understanding of her parents, Rahilat is moving somewhere, and I know for sure she will get somewhere. The sky will not just be her limit, but her starting point.”
Umar is disappointed that they didn't score, but that doesn't dampen her spirits.
“I tried my best,” said Umar. “I put all my effort in it.”
These female players from Basic College secondary school represent change and gender equality.