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Senegal women tackle taboos to play sports

By Heather HewettSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 1999


As the sun sets over the sultry city of Dakar, the paths along the ocean cliffs fill with male - and increasingly female - joggers.

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The women are easy to spot. Because of Islamic law, many wear full-length sweat pants and long-sleeved shirts, while the men wear shorts.

It takes a special kind of determination to be a female athlete in West Africa. While the American Women's World Cup winners bask in national adulation, women who play sports here often meet with bemusement, if not religious scorn. Their battles echo the struggles of US women before Title IX, although there are distinct cultural differences.

Abby Atchikiti, who plays college basketball, was frequently told she should spend less time on her dribbling and focus more on her domestic skills while growing up.

But those comments have not deterred the law student from honing her game. In fact, three years ago, with only grudging acquiescence from university officials, she founded the first women's basketball team at St. Louis, one of two public universities in Senegal.

"Even the medical center didn't want to help," she says. "We didn't have a ball. We had to fight men off the court to play. We still don't have any money from the university. It has been promised, but we've never seen it."

Like other West African nations, Senegal suffers from high rates of poverty, unemployment, and political turmoil. There are limited resources for athletic facilities and equipment. There's no Title IX rule giving women's sports equal funding. At the University of St. Louis, for example, female students vie with their male peers for space to play basketball, handball, volleyball, and soccer. Moreover, these women play sports in a country where many still believe that athletics are, by definition, masculine.

Senegal has always idealized its male soccer players. Recently, however, it is women athletes who have captured the national imagination. The women on the University of Dakar team have in recent years brought home successive gold medals from the All-Africa Club Championship. M'Borika Fall and other players on the National Women's Basketball team are now celebrities and, for some, role models.

"They have won trophies and have proven that women can play sports," says Mame Oumy Ciss, an English student from Zinguichor, a city in southern Senegal. The national visibility of women's basketball has changed perceptions of what women can accomplish - and the fact that some of those women are married and have children is revolutionizing ideas about motherhood.

"This is a big change. Before, they had to stop. Doctors said that mothers had to stop playing sports," says Antoinete Mendes, a confident young woman who plays an aggressive game of basketball and practices martial arts. She adds, "Now, it's OK to continue after you have children." A few women even wistfully talk about money and scholarships to universities in the US.

The ambitions and hopes of these young women contrast sharply with the images of African women - as victims of AIDS, poverty, and mutilation - typically found in the Western media. The young women who make it to the university level do not think of themselves as victims.

City girls only

Female athletes are predominantly an urban phenomenon. Of the girls whose families send them to school, many play sports in physical education classes. High school and university students can play on club teams, organized through schools or local communities. Some sports, such as women's basketball, are organized into traditional, established clubs, whereas other sports, such as soccer, have fewer clubs that are not well-supported.