The black, female polo player changing perceptions in ‘sport of kings’
Uneku Atawodi is the only black woman in the world playing the game professionally – and she usually draws quite a crowd.
When Uneku Atawodi told her parents in her home of Nigeria that she wanted to be a professional polo player at the age of 16, they advised her to steer away from such an unconventional career path. First they tried talking her out if it. Then they stopped paying for the upkeep of her horses.
Undeterred, Atawodi convinced managers at England’s Epsom Club to give her a job mucking out stables – “basically packing horse shit,” she explains. Waking up at dawn, wearing double gloves to stop the shovels shredding her skin, it was a far cry from her comfortable upbringing, which revolved around the local polo club in the northern Nigeria capital of Kaduna.
A decade later, Atawodi is the only black woman in the world who plays professionally. “When people say: ‘Oh, I didn’t know black people play,’ I understand that it is new and different to people. I’m happy to patiently explain to them the diverse and expanding world of polo,” the 25-year-old says after a meal in an upmarket bar she runs in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
While she says she has never experienced racism in a sport synonymous with European royalty, surprise can lead to amusing encounters. Once, at a game in Argentina – the birthplace of the modern game – she approached an assistant handing out the team jerseys. “I asked her, ‘What colour am I?’ She gave me the yellow top and replied, ‘You’re black.’
She apologised, and later told me that it was not because I was black, but because she was so shocked to see a black girl playing,” Atawodi said in an interview last year.
More difficult is pressure from her compatriots – male and female – as a woman in a male-dominated sport. “[Some players] constantly ask when I’m getting married,” she says, while women have warned her it reduces her marriage prospects.
“Atawodi is part of a wave of rekindled interest in a game once considered a national sport by a burgeoning middle class during Nigeria’s petro-boom years of the 1960s.
A former military parading ground – where British soldiers first played polo in 1903 – is now the prestigious Lagos Polo Club, located in an exclusive enclave still littered with commanding, if peeling, colonial buildings.
“Polo is the game of kings, so it costs a lot,” says Adeyemo Alakija, a club member dubbed one of a rising set of ‘polo princes’. “A lot of people play to show off, but for me it’s an addiction. It takes money out of your pocket but you keep playing because you love this beautiful game.”
Riding boots on display in the club shop cost $800 (£530), a huge sum to millions here earning less than $2 a day, and jet-set folklore has it that club members quaff 400 bottles of bubbly a week.
Thanks to a long history of cultural contact with horseriding Arab nomads, polo has always had popular appeal in Nigeria’s Muslim north. Emirs, who host lavish durbars, or festivals, each year, helped the game spread after colonialism, and today most of Nigeria’s polo-playing dynasties come from the north, including relatives of Africa‘s richest man, Aliko Dangote. At the Lagos Polo Club, most of the stable boys and trainers are northerners.
Atawodi hopes to help break down perceptions that only rich horse-owners can play. An NGO she set up, Ride to Shine, introduces orphans to the game. “I want my kids to dream as big as they want to,” she said. While she has inspired Nigerian girls to enter the game, it brings enormous pressure, she confesses. “I get so nervous because I don’t want to let people down.”
On a recent sweltering Sunday, Dangote cheered along at the annual finals in Lagos. “It was a great game,” the softly-spoken billionaire trader said, as dozens who had sneaked into the exclusive club flooded on to the field to celebrate their winning team.
“I used all my money to travel for two days from Kano,” said Mohammed, a bricklayer, ecstatic after the northern-based Kano team beat their southern rivals. “I will have to work hard now to find money to go back, but I will come again every year.”
Source: The Guardian
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