Our latest Story from the Field comes from Lagos in Nigeria. Isimijola tells Common Goal member Daniel Didavi how her life has been transformed through coaching at Youth Empowerment and Development Initiative (YEDI).
Stories from the Field is an ongoing series in which Young Leaders share their stories, and the challenges they have overcome, with members of the Common Goal team.
My first moment on the pitch is very clear in my mind because it wasn’t actually that long ago. Before I joined YEDI to train as a coach I believed, like many other women in Nigeria, that football was just for boys. Thanks to God, I was proved wrong! Now I play regularly. Not 90-minutes-football, but still football.
My name is Isimijola Damilola Olushola — quite long, isn’t it? You can call me You can call me Dee-Girl, like the young people I coach do. That’s my nickname. I live in Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria. Some people say it has over 20 million people, but no one really knows. Nigeria is also the African country with the most people. Did you know that about every fourth African is Nigerian? We also have one of the largest youth populations in the world with half of the country under the age of 30. That’s about 90 million potential young footballers!
But enough statistics, let me tell you more about some of the incredible young people I get to work with every day and my journey to meet them on the pitch.
At YEDI, I began to see football in a different light. They trained us to use the game to communicate. Playing the game helps you to enjoy what you are doing. It also allows you, as a coach, to spread a message. On top of that, while my participants are getting this message, they are sending one back. It’s not just me facilitating, I get so much in return!
More about that later. Let me begin by sharing the message football gave to me.
When I started playing I realised that to play properly and successfully, you have to connect with everyone on the field. During a game I think about the next person, I have to watch everyone around me closely. If I am passed the ball I have to act responsibly. When I want to pass, I have to see who is ready to take the ball. If I am unable to take the ball, someone else will step in to support.
This was new to me. I was used to dealing with things on my own. While most families in Nigeria are large, I grew up as a single child. My father left the family early and my mother didn’t remarry: she concentrated on working hard to pay for us both to live.
I grew up in Ogba-Aguda on the edge of Lagos. My mum worked as a teacher during the day and went to church most evenings. While she was away, she left me in the care of one of our neighbours. He was a pastor, so she trusted him. As soon as she left the house, he would start to sexually abuse me. This went on for four years until my mother’s job took her to a different part of the city and we moved. Psychologically you can’t forget things like that. It stays with you forever. You just have to do something. But I didn’t do anything, I didn’t say anything. All I can say now is: ‘Thank God I escaped it in the end.’
I don’t want other girls to ever experience what I did, to think that they can’t raise their voice to stop what is happening, especially if it is being done against their will. Working as a coach on the SKILLZ Girl program with girls and women between the ages of 13 and 19 I can make a difference by ensuring that they know their rights and have the confidence to speak out.
But before I could be of any support to others, I first had to gain confidence myself. Though after finishing school, I managed to pay my way through university — selling this, selling that — and even got a degree in meteorology, I just couldn’t get a job. I had worked so hard, but it felt like I had done it all for nothing. I felt really low as if I couldn’t do anything. I know that I am not alone in this: unemployment is a big problem in my country, affecting even people with a good education. But, this on top of the bad feelings that were still lingering from what that horrible man did when I was younger, robbed me of all self-belief. Back then, whenever I looked at myself in the mirror, a worthless, ashamed person looked back.
I continued to make ends meet by selling make-up products and underwear, but I was searching for something more fulfilling. I didn’t want to live just for that. It was then that I heard about YEDI and decided to apply to become a volunteer coach. Successfully completing the application process and being accepted was the first thing that lifted me up, gave me a new sense of having something to offer others. It wasn’t just that I didn’t play football before YEDI, I also didn’t believe that I could be a coach, act as a role model to others. I was too busy dealing with my own issues.
At YEDI I began to play football. The game changed my orientation from wanting to do things all by myself to being a good team player. It also helped me to understand that working as a team can help you to achieve some goals better and faster. Football is a game of skill and calculation — two approaches I realised I could also use off the pitch. This helped me be more tactical about making choices in life, and to be confident enough to stand up and defend my choices.
I was trained especially for the SKILLZ Girl program and started taking sessions with groups of girls and young women. By sharing my story with them, I gained their trust. I came to realise that many of them had experienced or were still experiencing the same thing.
One day, I was packing up after taking a session at a school, when one of the girls came up to me and asked if she could tell me about “her friend”. As she was speaking, I slowly started to realise that she was actually talking about herself. Her friend, she said, was living alone with her father who had started forcing her into sex. “Can I meet your friend?” I asked. “No”, she responded, “she is not at this school.” But she agreed to let me help her friend through her. I asked if her friend could go back to live with her mother. She hesitated. Her friend’s father wouldn’t let her go, she feared. But we continued our conversations after the sessions and, over time, I felt her becoming stronger. In the sessions, my YEDI colleagues and I also taught the girls different tactics — like using particular body language — to stand up for themselves and be taken seriously. On the last day of the programme, she approached me with a smile: “My friend has moved back to her mother’s place.”
This made me realise just what I could do as a role model and a mentor. When I look in the mirror now, I see someone very different: I am strong, I am there to be a coach to my team of girls. Before I leave the house, I always check my reflection: do I look and act like a role model? When I have put myself in the right frame of mind, I can go out into the world. Working as a coach at YEDI has helped me to see this side of myself. I see myself from a different perspective: as a game-changer in my community. Whenever I make a decision now, I think of the people who will see what I do and say: “Look, that is our coach!”
I know that I will never work as a meteorologist, but my dreams have shifted. I see myself in a big NGO, not just as a volunteer. I want to be able to say: “I can’t count how many people’s lives I have touched.” I want to be able to say: “There are thousands of girls out there who can look up to me and smile and say: ‘Thank God for coach Dee-Girl’.”
My dream is big, it is not limited to Lagos and Nigeria alone. I am looking at the world now. We have a lot of people we can reach out to. You can go to India, you can go to China, there are so many girls everywhere who need people to support them. I see myself all over the world, touching lives.
Thanks to football and coaching I now know: the sky isn’t the limit. The sky is only the beginning!
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