A common sight during the late afternoons or weekends in villages and cities across Cameroon is that of boys playing soccer. In 1863, the same year as the sport was established by the Football Association of England, soccer was imported to the African continent by British colonists, making it a global, rather than distinctly European, game.
Yet it was the British who determined the rules of the game in Europe and Africa. Only men were allowed to play, and the sex-segregated nature of the game and a push by the British to have men show their physical dominance over each other lent to a distinctly hypermasculine, sometimes violent, sports culture. Clubs in England such as the War Office and the Crusaders supported an aggressive jockeying for a dominant position, and the exclusion of women from the pitch set the stage for an increased lack of gender equity in women's social status and economics in not only England, but countries such as South Africa, Ghana, Algeria, and Cameroon. Also, because it's been proven that unequal gender norms fuel gender-based violence, it's fair to argue that sex-segregation of soccer hurt women.
Advice Project Media has worked alongside Gender Danger and the Marie-claire N. Kuja Foundation in the Northwest Region of Cameroon for the past three years. We've conducted extensive interviews of people living in the city of Bamenda and surrounding villages and we've learned that while young boys are encouraged to carve out time after school for sports, watching television, and doing homework, their sisters are forced to work in the kitchen or assist with the childrearing of younger siblings. In fact, some of the teen girls we work with directly have reported a lack of gender equity within their homes, which makes their commitment to excelling both in school and also as citizen journalists with our organization even more admirable.
Despite the pervasive division of labor between genders, Cameroonian women are fighting for equality on the soccer pitch. To understand what this means, one must acknowledge the sexist history of soccer. Soccer matches between married and unmarried women were taking place in Scotland and England in the late 19th century, and by the early 20th century, competitive games between women's teams were happening in England, Canada, and France. On Boxing Day in 1920, a women's game in England brought a crowd of 53,000 spectators, drawing the ire of the men who stood at the helm of the Football Association of London. The following year, a ban against women playing soccer was implemented for a 50-year period. Although women's teams occasionally cropped up throughout the 1930s and 1940s, support was rarely provided, and most of them failed. In most of Europe and definitely throughout North America, women played sports assigned to the so-called "weaker sex," and soccer was only a Sunday pastime until 1951, when the first soccer league in the USA was founded.
In the 1960s, as many African countries gained their independence, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was forced to admit teams formed in African nations. While the rules of soccer didn't change, the culture that surrounded the sport entirely transformed. In many villages, dance and music performances were incorporated into pregame, half time, and postgame performances. While women previously didn't have a place in soccer in Eurocentric soccer except at the sidelines, they now took an active role in demonstrating the rich culture of their communities and countries. Soon, women not only showed their pride off the pitch, but on it. Today, the national women's team in Cameroon - the Lionesses - boasts some of the best soccer players in the world. Gaëlle Enganamouit, Madeleine Ngono, and Raissa Feudjio, for example, have become role models to girls across Cameroon, and more and more young girls are now starting to play the sport. Support for these girls is still uncommon, but some people and organizations are starting offer their help.
This past August, the Marie-claire N. Kuja Foundation attended the final men and women's soccer matches in the village of Bawock and offered cash prizes, trophies, and medals to the winning teams. The women's teams played first, and they demonstrated great sporting spirit both on and off the pitch. Some of the young women wore stockings with holes and they hadn't been supplied with matching kits, but that didn't take away from their pronounced athleticism, demonstrated team spirit, and respect for the opposing team. Many of the villagers came to cheer for their favorite players, and because the Advice Project has been developing a relationship with Bawock, some of our members joined the Marie-claire N. Kuja Foundation to help document the game through both photography and videography.
After the women's game, the men's game soon followed. The men wore markedly improved kits than the women. None of the men had socks with holes, and each of them wore soccer shoes and red or yellow jerseys depending on their prospective team. Although the game started off well, one of the teams started posturing, yelling, and provoking the other team after their goalkeeper failed to block a goal. Many of the villagers got involved, and for awhile, it looked as though things might get violent. It was a gross display of hypermasculinity and veered wildly from the stellar sportsship that the women had so gracefully demonstrated. Eventually the losing team walked off the pitch, forfeiting the game. Despite the stressful circumstances leading up to the end of the game, the entire village celebrated the winning team.
After the finals, the Marie-claire N. Kuja Foundation hosted an awards ceremony and feast, and HRH the Fon Wanda III of Bawock arrived to not only lend his support of the games, but to also comment on his disappointment over the behavior of the losing men's team and to say that the players who had started the screaming match would be banned from playing the following year. This ruling, while harsh, is necessary in the fight for gender equity, as it conveys the message that violent toxic masculinity both on and also off the field will not be supported.
Marie-claire N. Kuja and Cletus Oungkam from the Marie-claire N. Kuja Foundation distributed the cash prizes and trophies and also said that they would support the winning teams by purchasing their uniforms the following year. The Fon supported the men and women who had played so well, and it was wonderful to see the equal praise of both winning teams.
While soccer has been only a very small contributor to the much larger - and vastly more complicated - history of oppression, gender-based inequity, and even violence against women, it's heartening to see how aggressive posturing no longer has a place within the sport in the village of Bawock. Time will tell if the peaceful promotion of soccer will have a lasting impact on the community, but for now it's clear that the strong understanding of sportsship, camaraderie, and grace helped both of the women's teams become the big winners at this past summer's soccer finals.
Please consider sponsoring a kit and soccer shoes for one or more women in the Northwest Region of Cameroon. $85.00 sponsors one woman, and all donations will be sent directly to the Marie-claire N. Kuja Foundation. Make your tax-exempt donation here.
Advice Project Media will continue working alongside the Marie-claire N. Kuja Foundation, Gender Danger, and the village of Bawock (with permission from HRH the Fon Nana Wanda III of Bawock) on community projects and stories. We expect these stories to grow as we better familiarize ourselves with the complicated issues in the Northwest Region of Cameroon. We sincerely thank his Highness for granting us an audience and interviews, and for allowing us access to his village, and we also thank the Marie-claire N. Kuja Foundation for organizing exciting volunteer opportunities.