The Full Circle
Fatima was my daughter Juliette’s childhood friend. The two of them enjoyed endless afternoons at the Kaduna Polo Club playing in the shade of the big spreading trees beside Field 2, climbing the water tank or balancing on the riding-school fence. Together they savoured the excitement of Polo Week where teams from all over Nigeria descended on Kaduna for 7 days of polo, each day 4 games played simultaneously on two fields. Polo is big in Nigeria, noisy, colourful, exciting, and Kaduna Polo Week was a definite highlight held at the end of the rainy season. Visiting international professional players and guests were always amazed by both the spectator interest and the level of play.
As part of a Low Goal team, I had made a bit of a name for myself being the only woman player at that time (see blog „Polo and Palaces“). A reasonable achievement in this male dominated atmosphere. My string of ponies were well-known and the State Governor had asked me to work with his grooms and horses. I was busy and in all this didn't realise that I was providing an example for my daughter and her young friends.
Juliette and I left Nigeria in 1991. Friends gathered at the airport and a group of drummers had us all dancing and smiling to hide the gut wrenching sadness of leaving a country that had given us so many opportunities and dear friends. The little plane took off. We gazed mournfully out at our friends gazing up at us. We never went back.
Modern technology has since reconnected me with Nigeria, and thanks to my daughter I was brought me back into contact with her friend, Fatima Malumfashi. Fatima surprised and stunned me with the message that her love of ponies and polo stemmed from watching polo in Kaduna and that I became an inspiration for her showing, as she said 'that a gender based boundary was merely a social construct". She started to ride in Kaduna before leaving for boarding school in the UK where she was able to keep up her riding with the local cross country pony club. University studies put her riding on hold for a few years. Then there were years of working at high level positions in various sectors form oil and gas to politics. Her passion for polo, however, hadn't subsided.
2007 found Fatima in Abuja working with an environmental consulting agency. A family friend and avid polo player, Moukter Adam, introduced her to the Abuja Guards Polo Club. Knowing that she’d always wanted to play, he arranged for her to visit his stables and get back in the saddle. The club was extremely welcoming and her cousin, Hayatu Ahmed with his own team D’Hayat, provided her with constant support. Fatima was on her way to become Abuja’s only female polo player.
Women in Polo
There are still very few female polo players in Nigeria. Neku Atawoodi-Edu is Africa’s highest handicapped female player and plays in Lagos, as does Natalie Allen. Aisha Sulaiman plays in Kaduna with Fatima starting out in Abuja. I asked the reason for this. The answer was "Accessibility and culture". While Fatima explains she has been encouraged and supported by her family this would not be the case for the majority of young girls. Especially in Northern Nigeria, horse riding is deeply entrenched in hundreds of years of tradition. It is still seen as a male space. A deliberate effort on the part of Nigerian Polo Clubs to attract women players is something Fatima would like to see. In fact she’s determined to do all she can to encourage more female participation and hopefully establish the first Nigerian fully female polo team. Her energy and ability certainly make her the right person for this. Apart from establishing her own consulting agency, she has just launched a luxury lifestyle product and service company catering for the polo/equine enthusiast. This was the result of difficulties experienced in getting good riding equipment in Nigeria. It looks as if this could become an even bigger part of her life as she ventures more into the equine industry. Great news for polo enthusiasts, as Nigeria has incredible local talent, a number of splendid players on the international scene and a long tradition and love of horses.
It’s humbling to think that I had perhaps provided a spark that had slumbered until the time was right for Fatima to complete the circle. I wish her all the very bettor luck and am grateful for……her story.