I’ve written a fair number of blogs about my observations of the life and culture in Burkina Faso, which are important for you to read. I’ve written less, however, about my actual job here, and especially the difficulties that accompany it. I’m currently working on one project that’s very important to me, and I thought that describing the process from its beginnings to where it stands today might help you understand what it’s like to work on development in Burkina Faso.
A lot of you know that I started a girls’ soccer team at my high school. It happened last year, towards the end of the school year. Ironically, when I started teaching at my school I had firmly decided not to create a girls’ team. The reason being that there are generally a few volunteers in every new group that start up teams, and I wanted to focus on something else, something original and more important to Yako’s development and the livelihood of its inhabitants than a sport.
I was, however, playing soccer. I had started playing during my training period in village and had found a group to play with in Yako as well. It was comprised of men and some of the older male students at my school, good players, and we played at a location not far from the school grounds.
You may have already inferred this, but women don’t generally play soccer here. They’re kept too busy with chores around the house, or they’re mocked if they try. I got a free pass because I’m white, but I’m not sure how long it would have lasted if I wasn’t any good. As it were, some of the men were quick to come up and introduce themselves after I started playing, but others were less welcoming, never passed to me no matter how loud I yelled, and waited several weeks before begrudgingly admitting that I knew my way around a soccer ball. I could tell that only my skill and persistence had earned me their respect, or at least their acknowledgement, and that’s when I realized how important sport can be to development.
Burkina Faso has serious gender inequality issues, especially in the North, where I live. Girls constantly fall victim to early pregnancy, and then may be kicked out of their homes. Families will often send their male children to school and keep the girls at home; boys are seen as an investment, because they will grow up and carry on the family name, while the girls are married off and become part of someone else’s family (which, in fact, is not true, because that family always sees them as an outsider, meaning that women in this country suffer from being the constant foreigner in any family they inhabit). Women stay at home; they cook, clean, maintain the household, raise the children, and sometimes they even work in the fields. The men work, drink, and sleep with other women. This may seem like an excessively harsh conclusion, and of course, I am generalizing; I have met several men that break this stereotype, but they are few and far between. There is a social expectation for men to have multiple sex partners, and I’ve felt my jaw hit the table on more than one occasion when women tell me that it’s not a big deal for men to cheat on their wives because culturally men have the right to several wives anyway. Women, however, risk being kicked out of their homes, stigmatized by the entire community as a prostitute, or worse, if they step out with another man.
But, I digress. Women’s issues are a future blog. My point is that women and girls have very few opportunities here. I saw that playing soccer with the men changed a few of their perspectives about me, and young girls would stop alongside the field to watch me play, fascinated. Maybe seeing a woman play a sport with a group of men would make them think twice about what they can and can’t do. But, it wasn’t enough. I was only one person, and a white woman at that, which meant that I fell into a special ‘third gender’ category where I’m obviously not a man but I’m not quite seen as a woman by West African standards either. I’m a woman with my own set of rules that were forged in a country and a culture that are so foreign to this place, they may as well be on Saturn.
I decided that soccer could be an opportunity for girls at my school to discover that their capabilities and opportunities exceed the kitchen. And while I knew we’d be mocked by the boys, I figured that there would have to be some that, like the men I played with, upon seeing the girls repeatedly practicing and trying to learn the sport, could at least admit that the love of soccer is entitled to cross gender lines.
So, I mentioned the idea to my school principle in passing once or twice, more as a way of testing the waters to see what he thought than to take constructive steps to set up the team. When I realized that I had his support, I sat down with him to ask him how to go about creating the team. He told me to talk to the gym teachers, maybe they could help.
The next day I showed up at the school, with no real purpose but to mingle with some of the professors during their break time. This largely consisted of me greeting each one of them, and then standing around awkwardly as they talked and joked with one another. A larger woman strode out of the teachers’ room. I recognized her as the female professor who always sat at the table with the men during teachers’ meetings when the rest of the women pulled up chairs back near the walls, who drank beer when all the other women drank sodas. She had a presence in the way she walked, seemed to be everyone’s confidant, the eternal jokester, the loudest whether she was happy or upset, and frankly, she intimidated the hell out of me. She had never given me the time of day before, so I didn’t realize at first that she was talking to me when she walked up beside me and announced, loudly, “Madame, I would like to be your capitain.” The other teachers fell silent and looked over at us; even I turned to look at her quizzically, not processing at first that she had spoken the phrase in English, meaning it must be meant for me. She tried again.
“I would like to be your capitain, with the football.”
“Ahaa.” I still couldn’t make out what was going on. She raised her eyebrows at me.
“The principle told me that you want to start a team with girls.” Lightbulb. I hadn’t even realized he had talked to anyone about my idea.
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “Yes, I mean, I do.” She smiled.
“Well, I want to help.” Then came the obligatory joking and mocking from the male teachers; not only was she a woman, but she was very heavyset at that, not exactly the kind of person you’d picture to run a team. She deflected the comments with self-deprecating humor, and when she went back to her class ten minutes later, we had exchanged contact information and agreed to meet to come up with a plan for our team.
I was ecstatic, although slightly cautious. This wasn’t exactly how I had foreseen things progressing, and for all I knew, this woman could be a loose cannon, or unreliable.
That’s how I met Cathérine, my counterpart, co-coach, and closest friend in Yako.