‘I lived here, just three minutes from the stadium,’ says Gaelle Enganamouit as she gestures to beyond the training pitch walls. ‘In front of the house where my mum lives we have some space and we would make goals with anything we could find. I am happy to be back here to play in my area.’
Cameroon’s star striker talks as she receives a massage on the training pitch next to the national stadium in Yaounde, where the day before, on 19 November, she helped the hosts to victory against Egypt in the opening match of the Women’s African Cup of Nations (AFCON) football tournament.
The 24-year-old, who plays professionally in Sweden, is something of a poster girl for the competition and women’s football in Cameroon with her image and golden mane like hairstyle adorning billboards and receiving international success.
‘The national team is a real symbol and they now serve as a reference with their fighting spirit they show to inspire Cameroonians and young people,’ Minister of Sports and Physical Education Pierre Ismael Bidoung Mkpatt says.
The two-week competition involving the continent’s eight premier women’s teams is being seen as a landmark event for Cameroon, and many hope the tournament will help raise the profile of women’s football and its global development.
Just earlier in November, Gambian goalkeeper Fatima Jawara died in the Mediterranean on a migrant crossing, bringing into sharp focus the inequalities between male and female players pursuing football success domestically, as well as merging football with the problems that still plague African nations and global development.
'The tournament will create a huge awareness in their different communities and really send a message across that it will be like a stepping stone' – Collins Diony
Similar to many African countries, women’s football in Cameroon is often hard to enter and it provides limited opportunities. From an early age, family members expect girls to study or work, often in informal economies.
Girls in Cameroon are 10 per cent less likely than boys to complete secondary school, while around 50 per cent of working women in the country are employed in agriculture.
The youngest of nine siblings – seven sisters and two brothers – growing up in Yaounde, Engangmouit says she started playing football aged five but seeing girls playing on the streets was rare.
‘When I was a child I always liked to play football and be with men all the time because I like football and it was not easy to see women playing football,’ she says. ‘You know it is not easy for parents to let their children play football because they want everybody to go to school.’
Her growing talents didn’t go unnoticed and by the age of 14 she was playing with one of the few women’s teams in Yaounde and had been called up to the under-16 national team.
At age 19, the chance came to play in Europe with Serbian side Spartak Subotica. Enganamouit’s decision to leave school to pursue her dreams proved to be a difficult time for her parents.
‘I was studying at the Lycee but I was focused on football,’ she says. ‘They were not happy because they said I needed to learn something before I play football because [they thought] football was nothing.
‘In the past, this was how every parent thought. Now parents are starting to think football can be a profession.’
Since 2014, she has been playing in the Sweden’s professional league, winning the 2015 ‘Golden Boot’ award and shortlisted for the BBC African footballer of the year award this year.
The popularity of Enganamouit has spiked an interest for the women’s game. Together with a second-place finish at the 2014 edition and the debut appearance at the Women’s World Cup in Canada last year, her fame has put the Indomitable Lionesses on the map.
Yaounde’s Omnisports Stadium was a buzz of anticipation and excitement prior to the tournament kick-off on Saturday as thousands of supporters descended on the arena dressed in green and gold and carrying tooting horns and whistles around the arena.
‘I am really excited because I know Cameroon will win,’ 20-year-old student Cassandra Mamekem said while standing outside the stadium with a group of friends. ‘I am a fan of football and [women’s football] is really increasing, the rate of it is flying.’
The tournament, also featuring current champions Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa, has been a major investment for President Paul Biya’s government, and while corruption blights his tenure, significant infrastructure developments have been made.
Redevelopments to the Yaounde stadium cost in excess of $6.5 million, while $597 million backing from Italy and Turkey will contribute to broader sporting infrastructure projects ahead of the men’s Africa Cup of Nations in 2019.
However, investment in women’s football domestically remains muted. Six of Cameroon’s tournament squad play locally in an amateur league, the benefits from which are nominal and in stark contrast to the acclaim for Enganamouit and others in Europe.
It is a similar situation for many across the continent. Ghana’s Black Queens called a government bonus of $2,000 ‘unacceptable’ after winning the Africa Championships in 2015 – the year before John Mahama’s government flew $3 million in cash to Brazil to settle disputes over World Cup appearance fees with the men’s national team.
Together with the tragic death of 19-year-old Gambian goalkeeper Jawara, the disparity of treatment between male and female players highlighted the renewed need to raise the profile of women’s football in Africa.
One of those helping push the women’s game locally is the Cameroon Football Development Programme. While it offered football coaching and workshops for boys in the southwest of Cameroon before, the nonprofit organization has recently started running sessions for girls too.
They have formed eight teams across the area and run a small informal league aimed at promoting the women’s game in the country and altering traditional community views.
’ Due to cultural barriers, parents say that football is not a game for girls, so seeing girls from other countries play in competitive games at this tournament will give these girls a different perspective and an insight into what a young woman can do,’ director of operations Collins Diony says.
‘[The tournament] will create a huge awareness in their different communities and really send a message across that it will be like a stepping stone.’
It is one of several initiatives helping to boost sporting gender equality across Africa.
In Ghana, Right to Dream opened Africa’s first residential academy for girls in 2013. In South Africa, the Girls & Football programme uses football to promote education on gender values and violence, while AFCON tournament debutants Kenya just launched the first domestic league for women in the country this year.
In coastal Limbe, the tournament’s second city, the locals are out in force as Nigeria and Ghana play out an entertaining 1-1 draw. A Ghanaian lady dressed in her country’s colours tells me she has travelled 1,550 kilometers from Accra to support the team, while friends Justine and Agatha have attended both games so far in the new stadium.
Justine, a 45-year-old mother of eight with three daughters from Limbe, says parental support for women’s football is growing: ‘We see females playing here and I am very happy. [My daughters] do play – they want to be footballers when they are older and if they do I will be happy.’
Sports minister Mkpatt admits more needs to be done by government to back the women’s game and he says plans are in place to raise standards in the country.
‘The professional league will be created soon. Women’s football developed only recently and we cannot expect them to have specialised facilities – it takes time,’ he says.
‘Now we are talking about the Cameroon women’s team playing the Africa Cup of Nations and not talking about men this time around. It is an indication of the importance and symbolic nature of what women are doing in Cameroon.’
Stadium volunteer and budding footballer Suzie Massing, who is 21 and whose father Benjamin played for the Cameroon men’s national team in the 1990 World Cup, says the tournament can hopefully change some of society’s views towards girls playing sport.
‘If you want to work, there are jobs that as a woman you cannot do, but the tournament is important because it can help show that women can be like men in all areas.’
And with Enganamouit leading from the front as the Indomitable Lionesses aim to reach the final on 3 December – a semi-final against Ghana awaits on Tuesday 29 November – the young striker believes success will be a spark for the women’s game in Cameroon.
‘Now there is more support – before, when the women’s team played there wasn’t 100 people in the stadium. Today we have 40,000,’ she says. ‘We are so full of pride for this and the game today can help make this for the young girls who want to play professionally tomorrow.’