Hours away from the Fifa World Cup 22 in Qatar, my eyes and thoughts are focused on my neighbour and sister, Salima Mukansanga. You already know my standard defence against accusations of my inordinate interest in women. “Je suis un homme normal,” (I am a normal man), as the Malgache poet, Flavien Ranaivo, taught me to say.
Indeed, I see no reason why a normal man should look anywhere else when there is a woman in the picture. But there is more to Mukansanga than what first meets the eye. She is East African, and Rwandese, you see, and I have told you I have many Rwandese relatives. She could be one of them.
More importantly, however, Salima Mukansanga is a history-maker. A Fifa-certified football referee, Mukansanga was the first woman ever to judge, or centre referee, a match at the finals of the men’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon 21), in Cameroon, in February this year. Now she is listed as one of the 36 referees to judge the finals of the men’s 22 Fifa World Cup that starts in Qatar tomorrow.
That is another first for Mukansanga, the first African woman to be there, and one of only three women in that elite group. The other two come from France and Japan. That, for me, would be the best reason to watch and follow the super tournament even more closely and enthusiastically than I might otherwise have done.
Women’s football, soccer, has come a long way, and it is now a stadium-packing spectator sport. We witnessed this at the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup finals in France, where our Mukansanga also officiated. Still, the sport as a whole remains an overwhelmingly male-dominated affair.
This male domination is even more evident in the organisational aspects of football, like administration, team management, coaching and refereeing. This is why a breakthrough like that of Salima Mukansanga deserves acknowledgement and applause.
Moreover, this 33-year-old woman’s performance is all the more impressive as it smashes the sinister stereotypes of the shy, self-effacing African woman. Football is a patently extrovert game, and judging between two squads of stalwarts bristling with raw “attack and defence” instincts is no job for the faint-hearted. I watched video footage of Mukansanga’s refereeing of the Afcon match between Zambia and Guinea, in Cameroon, and I thought she was the essence of decisive assertiveness.
I can hardly wait to see how she will deal with the characters in the Qatar tournament. You have no doubt heard of the overwhelming and overweening egos of some of the players heading for Doha. Then there are the diehard sexists, who will come with their fixed prejudices about a woman judging a men’s match. I am sure the joke will be on them.
Boss on the pitch
Apparently, when Mukansanga dons her Fifa ref’s uniform and slings her whistle round her neck, she is boss of the pitch. In the Afcon match, she dished out quite a few yellow cards, and I was mesmerised by the firmness with which she handled those lads towering over her. Nor am I the only one impressed by Mukansanga.
Our very own Nicholas Musonye, longtime Cecafa boss, and arguably our region’s most seasoned sports administrator, is full of praise for her. He was reported as saying, “I worked with Mukansanga at many CECAFA tournaments all across the East African region, and I can tell you I knew straight away that her star was on the rise.”
Another feather in Salima Mukansanga is that she is not only a superfit soccer ref, all brawn and no brain. Salima is a trained health professional, with a degree from Gatwe University. Strength, power, intelligence and education: what more could one bring to the World Cup?
Accolades aside, however, Salima Mukansanga’s meteoric rise to world fame, is full of gems of inspiration and challenges for us idling in our comfort zones. What excuse can we give for our mediocrity in front of a simple village girl, born and bred in a small country, struggling from the horrors of civil war and genocide, who rises to the pinnacle of her career? No accusations here, but I feel a lot of us East African middle classes could make far better use of the opportunities available to us than we are doing now.
A little thought that crept into my mind, especially as I remembered Angela Okutoyi, our current Wimbledon tennis champion, is why we cannot hit the top in other sports. Our women runners have stamped their mark on international athletics. Why should we not be able to send a women‘s team to the next Fifa Women’s World Cup?
I also get satisfaction from the presence of Salima Mukansanga and her female colleagues, Stephanie Frappart from France and Yoshimi Yamashita from Japan, at the centre of one of the world’s sporting events. It will send a clear message to male chauvinists, who use every excuse, including faith, to deny women their rights. Denying people the right to education, simply because they are women, is bad enough. But when it threatens to stretch to even take a walk in the park, the woman becomes a truly endangered species.
Mukansanga’s daring break into a career that many still regard as a male preserve is a powerful signal to our sisters and to all of us. With a little more courage and imagination, we can get what and where we want, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or other such definitions. What Mukansanga is achieving in football can be replicated in academics, aviation, politics and any other worthwhile field.
This, of course, calls for systematic and consistent encouragement from our leaders, especially the current predominantly male rulers and policymakers, to all of our citizens. Rwanda’s current leadership is well-known for its enthusiasm for sports, especially football, from which they are now reaping fruits like Mukansanga.
Most importantly, gender equity has been a predominant concern and proactive policy in Rwanda since the mid-1990s. I believe Rwanda is the only African country, so far, to achieve a genuine 50-50 balance in both its Legislature and Executive. Powerful Rwandese women are visible both at home and abroad.
They include Louise Mushikiwabo, whom I told you about some time ago. She is the Secretary General of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (the equivalent of our Commonwealth). This in spite of Rwanda being officially Anglophone, and a member of the English-speak Commonwealth to boot.
Rwandese women, properly empowered, will never cease to amaze. But I am not an impartial judge. In any case, it need not be only the Rwandese.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]