The History of Polo sports in Nigeria can be traced as far back as 1914; introduced to the country by European settlers and colonial officers.
The sport quickly gained popularity especially among the Northern elite and over the years, has maintained a certain reputation; especially as after independence, colonial officers went back to their home country, and interest in the sport was sustained by the military and Nigeria’s political and business elite.
Polo players especially in Northern Nigeria, are typically male; not because there are specific rules against having female players; but socio-cultural factors, including religion have kept the playing fields an all boys club.
The sport had to be infiltrated by a woman in disguise, before it was opened up to include women.
Sue Sally Hale, known today as the pioneer of women’s polo, in the 50’s and 60’s would pretend to be a man, wearing a fake mustache to compete in professional polo.
18 year old Aisha Ahmad Suleiman is Northern Nigeria’s only female Polo player and one of the very few black female polo players in the world. Her love of horses attracted her to the sport.
“Horses attracted me to polo“. She said while speaking to NewsWireNGR.
“I fell in love with the beautiful creatures before the game itself. I would normally go to the stable just to stare at them before I began riding and those were some of the best moments of my life. There is no polo without horses and before going into the game one has to develop genuine and unconditional love for horses.”
Born and raised in Kaduna, Aisha while enthusing about her love for horses, said she was introduced to the sport by her brother in-law and she took her first ride on a horse in 2017. That same year, she participated in a tournament.
“The first time i rode, i knew immediately that i wanted to be a Polo player. I had fallen in love with the game. I got in touch with a man named Husseini Muhammed who was the coach and trainers of polo beginners in Kaduna. He gave me my first mallet to play with. I played my first tournament on the 17th of December 2017, which happened to be my birthday. It was a memorable one.”
Female participation in Polo is limited by several factors; chief among them financial. Polo is an expensive sport. Popularly called ‘the sport of kings’, a professional player would typically need at least six to eight horses, riding gear can cost up to $1000 and club membership requirements and financial obligations are not for middle class pockets. According to Aisha,“most polo players are either from a royal or wealthy families, but in recent times, work is being done and changes are being made to make the sport accommodating for everyone to play.“
She is right. An NGO; Ride To Shine, set up by Nigeria’s only international female Polo player,and Aisha’s role model, Neku Atawodi-Edun, introduces orphans to the sport. In an interview with the Guardian UK, she expressed her desire to make Polo more accessible. “I want my kids to dream as big as they want to,” she said.
Apart from the financial constraints, the sexism and sometimes blatant hostility faced by women who get in to spaces that have traditionally been exclusively male, can be discouraging. Speaking about some of her own experiences, Aisha said the cultural and religious beliefs in Northern Nigeria is one of the major factors that hold women back.
“When I started playing polo I was insulted and discouraged by a lot of people. I was riding one time when someone shouted my name and called me “Er Iska” which means Prostitute in Hausa. I felt really bad and almost gave up chasing my dreams but then I remembered why I started and carried on turning deaf ears to all accusations made against me.”
Despite facing a myraid of challenges, Aisha says she isn’t allowing the obstacles slow her down or stop her.
“ I have also had few opportunities where I sat or spoke with some prominent people across the country and that has been really amazing for me and I pray that I continue to make progress in this and also inspire youths into chasing their dreams and not giving up.” she said
Currently playing for the Kaduna Polo Club, she has won several trophies including the Dantata and Sawoe Cup, Kano International Tournament 2018, The Governor’s Cup, Port Harcourt International Tournament 2019 and The Governor’s Cup, Kano International Tournament 2019.
Across the globe, women’s Polo is the fastest growing segment of Polo in the world. As reported by FORBES magazine, Duncan Huyler, CEO of the United States Polo Association says, almost 40% of the association’s members are women.
While women only tournaments are played around the world, Polo associations in Nigeria will have to be deliberate about creating enabling environments for inclusion.