TOGO, WEST AFRICA, 10th July 2012: BENEATH a mango tree in the village of Kasséna, in the slim, tropical West African nation of Togo, a cluster of elders gathers around a tiny transistor radio. All of a sudden, the men emit a collective cheer and punch the air. The village team has just won the local football match - and the players are all girls.
"When they win, you hear the name of our village everywhere on the radio and TV," smiles the village chief. "Nowadays, we're so proud of our girls."
Thanks to a 'Girls in Leadership Through Football' project initiated here by children's rights NGO Plan International two years ago, girls' football has gradually become more and more popular in central Togo.
Nowadays, village communities eagerly await the local girls' match schedule. This year, says the chief, the villagers organised a special bus to transport spectators to the championship final, because noone wanted to miss out on the game. Raucous scenes ensued as grinning girls dressed in brightly coloured football kit were born aloft by their male team colleagues; normally bashful teenagers got up and grabbed the microphone, addressing the crowd. Never have village girls in Togo been so vocal or so active; never have their smiles been so wide.
There are now 12 girls' football clubs in Togo with 36 members - comprising not only girl football players, but girl referees, sports reporters and illustrators. Regular tournaments and a 15 match community championship are organised and supported by the national sports authority. The girls are trained by 24 coaches, 13 of whom are women. As part of the programme, they receive team kit, footballs, trainers and arm and leg guards. Six girls from the project have already passed their exams to be professional district referees. Two girls have been recruited to the capital Lomé and will attend the National Football Academy.
"Girls are our power," says the mother of one 'joueuse', Kadidja Kadambara. "Thanks to girls' football, we have seen an important government minister visit for the first time ever. That's amazing - and it's down to the girls."
'Everything I know about morality and the obligations of mankind, I owe to football,' said French novelist Albert Camus, and the Africa-phile would surely have been heartened by the sight of these eager Togolese girls who are gathering important decision-making and judgement skills; the art of fair play, team work and diplomacy. Through off-pitch education sessions focusing on poetry, songs and journalism they are also being educated about their rights, health issues and the importance of school. In the purest sense, through football they are gaining education, morality and confidence.
"This project has effectively made our girls love school," says the headmaster of the local school in Morétan. "They're so happy to come to school and take part in the football club. For two years, the girls in schools nearby have wanted to change schools to come and enrol in this project. It's an initiative that we should encourage, to promote and maintain the success of girls in our communities."
"The project has created a revolution in local attitudes," adds the president of the Parents' Association in Langabou. "Before this project, no-one would have believed that the girls had such talent to give to football or that they could talk through a microphone with such confidence to a huge, crazy crowd!"
At the 2012 Olympics in London, only two African women's teams will feature among the 12 nations competing. Last year, a plucky women's team from the diminutive Central African nation of Equatorial Guinea hit world headlines during the women's football World Cup in Germany. The triumph of becoming a woman footballer in what is still very much a man's world seems all the more extraordinary in Africa, where tradition dictates girls must cover up, making football kit unusual to say the least, and often pushes teenage girls out of school into early marriage and a future of household chores and childbearing. For a girl brought up in such a society, the very act of playing sport is radical and courageous.
The point is perhaps most eloquently put by an Imam from the village of Koussountou: "With this football project, Plan has managed to change fundamental attitudes towards girls. For the first time, I've seen men carry a girl aloft to celebrate her achievements. This is truly a vision of the future."