How one project in West Africa gives African girls the right to dream

On each new day, hope is expected to rise with the sun for all and sundry. But in many villages across Africa, there is the dreaded scourge called poverty depriving kids of their ‘right to dream’. And many a time when sacrifices are to be made, the girls pay the price.

“Basically I didn’t look forward, I never had a plan. Then out of nowhere, Right to Dream came along.”

Those were words from Louisa Essuman, one of the first generation of girls who joined the first and only residential elite football girls’ programme in Africa. While battling tears during her graduation speech, Louisa added: “You helped me to believe in myself. I was the only girl in the class. You helped me to stand for my values.”

According to Louisa, who has been on scholarship at the prestigious Hotchkiss School in the United States of America since September 2016, “to those guys who say the sky is the limit, what about the countless galaxies that exist above the sky? Chase after that”. Football aside, the intelligent and talented teenager has also ventured into basketball and athletics since joining Hotchkiss School from Right to Dream and was awarded 2017 UPSON Prize for distinction in Scholarship, Athletics and Citizenship.

Louisa Essuman

Since 1999, Right to Dream – through football, character development and top class education – has led many African youths to believe in themselves by providing pathways for them to strut their stuff both on and off the pitch.

With the aim of moulding future leaders and role models, the fully residential football academy and Cambridge accredited school, which is located in the Eastern Region of Ghana, boasts of a purpose-built facility with eight grass pitches, dormitories, gymnasium and a LEGO Innovation Studio.

“The academy has produced over 20 male internationals for Ghana and over 35 male professional players in Europe and the USA, signing for clubs like Manchester City, Fulham, Lorient, Spartak Moscow, Chicago Fire, and LA galaxy. Meanwhile over 40 male students have won academic scholarships internationally, worth over $12million,” Lucy Mills, Right to Dream’s Global Foundation Director, told LadiesMarch.

 

Girls are just as important as boys

Girls became a part of this transformation process in 2013 and have been integrated within the Right to Dream impact model, a cycle that monitors players/students until they develop into having professional careers and giving back to their communities.

“In the early days Right to Dream worked with boys only and indeed had phenomenal success, but over time a question that was repeatedly being asked was: where are the girls?” Mills, who is also the Group Head of Women’s Football, revealed to LadiesMarch. “It became increasingly obvious that we could not be an organisation which is about giving people the right to dream and only focus efforts on boys, so for some years before the official launch in 2013, plans for the girls’ programme were in motion.”

“During this time, Right to Dream embarked on extensive consultation and analysed the landscape, potential opportunities and challenges. Overwhelmingly the response was that it just could not be done – it wasn’t possible to bring girls from across West Africa to reside and school at a football academy! It took perseverance and commitment from board members and staff to make a statement and say, yes, we really are doing it.

“Right to Dream is a long-standing, reputable football brand in West Africa, so it was a powerful statement when we came out and said ‘we believe in investing in girls’ – people took notice and took us seriously,” Mills said.

Right to Dream has since the inception of the girls’ programme awarded full boarding scholarships to 19 girls ($20,000 per girl, per year) and Louisa Essuman is one of five that have gone on to win student-athlete scholarships in the USA (amounting to $500,000).

Fuesina Mumuni, who represented Ghana at the 2014 FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup in Costa Rica, is a Right to Dream graduate. She was the youngest player at the tournament and subsequently featured at the 2016 edition in Jordan.

 

The recruitment process

Spotting these talents from across West Africa has required a thorough recruitment process and to this end, Right to Dream has a recruitment team that ensures over 75 football events which attract 25,000 boys and girls. Right to Dream also maintains partnership with girls’ clubs, many of which are where the current Right to Dream students came from.

“For girls, in particular, the Recruitment team runs girls’ only trials and tournaments in locations throughout the region. Right to Dream assesses girls on 3 criteria: 1) their athletic potential in football events, 2) their academic potential through cognitive ability testing, and 3) their character – both on and off the pitch,” Mills explained to LadiesMarch.

“The recruitment process also includes inviting girls and their parents to the Academy for a longer trial. One of the major factors in getting girls to show up to recruitment events is whether coaches identify and bring girls to the events. Right to Dream has a network of 1300+ community clubs throughout West Africa and sent a strong signal to these clubs that girls are just as important as boys. We now have coaches including girls in their clubs on hearing about a trial and going to find girls in their community to bring along.”

Right to Dream also has girls from Ivory Coast and Nigeria, and according Mills, “recruitment in these countries outside of Ghana run similarly… Getting the girls to Ghana is more of a logistical, transportation challenge!”

The girls that are awarded scholarships after a thorough recruitment process will then proceed to the academy at the start of the academic year in September.

“A typical day for girls starts at 5.30am with multi-faith devotion, chores, football training and breakfast. School starts at 10am and there are 5 hours of formal education, including Maths, English, Science, ICT, French, African History (IGCSE curriculum). In the evenings, students have homework group sessions or enrichment activities such as coding, music and cooking. At the weekend there are football matches and/or events. Every Tuesday afternoon the girls lead the outreach programme in three nearby schools where they deliver football and life skills sessions to other girls. This is part of their leadership and giveback which are key components taught in the Right to Dream Character Development Programme,” Mills disclosed.

 

A new hope for family and the next generation

But how has Right to Dream managed to win the heart of parents in a continent where – as is well known – girls are hardly encouraged to kick a ball?

“We have pastoral officers who regularly communicate with and visit the girls’ families. The majority of parents, especially mothers, are very happy that their girls have been given this opportunity and believe their future looks bright. Some parents did not have the chance to go to school and would have loved to have had the same opportunity. Seeing their daughters in Right to Dream marks the beginning of new hope for their family and the next generation.

“Furthermore, the girls in Right to Dream have strong identities in their families and communities, and have earned respect from others. The fact that Right to Dream is a football academy has rarely triggered a negative response – because there is such a strong emphasis on the girls completing their education alongside playing football,” Mills affirmed.

The girls at Right to Dream, Ghana, went on their first international tour in the summer of 2017, competing in two tournaments. At their first ever tournament, the girls scored an incredible 41 goals as they clinched the Danish Cup No. 1. Then they went on to lift the play-off tournament at the world’s largest youth football tournament in Sweden, the Gothia Cup. Mills has revealed that the girls will go on their second international tour in the summer of 2018.

In October 2017, Right to Dream and FC Nordsjælland announced the launch of a Women’s football academy in Denmark, starting in 2018. The academy, which will provide a nurturing experience for Right to Dream graduates going on to play professional football, has set sights on establishing an elite side that will compete in the Danish 3F league by 2019 and enter the Women’s Champion’s League by 2023.

“What this means for girls in Right to Dream is that they are now twinned with this girls’ academy in Denmark! In 2018, we will bring the two academies together for an “International Academy” where girls from completely different cultures and contexts will be united through football to exchange, co-compete at training camps/tournaments, and gain enriching international exposure and perspectives.”

When asked if there are plans to establish RtD academies in other parts of Africa, Mills said: “It is undeniable that the Right to Dream model is needed in other parts of Africa and indeed the world. Organisationally, we are working to ensure the sustainability of the business model before scaling to other regions.

“In the meantime, Right to Dream has supported several other academies and shared its Character Development Programme over the past few years. There are trailblazing academies in Malawi, Uganda and Lesotho that integrate education and character development alongside elite football, and that are now investing in their girls’ programmes. We want to continue contributing to this pan-African movement and help nurture even more African athletes who inspire their generation on and off the pitch.”

As a child, Jalia Musa always dreamt of the day she would “be in a plane” but today she is “travelling up and down, playing matches and then bringing cups back to my school and I am very happy about that”. The 15-year-old from Northern Ghana was part of the team that went for the European tour in the summer and she recently earned a scholarship to study in the US.

Jalia Musa has five brothers and a sister, but they all had to drop out of school. No money. Her sister even got pregnant while she was going to school.

RtD has however, in four years, shaped Jalia into becoming an inspiration to her peers.

“I’m trying my best. Whenever I go home I try to advise them, tell them that they should go to school because school is everything.

“If I become a role model I will influence others to follow my footsteps not to sit back and say ‘I can’t do it’. They will look at me and say ‘as far as Jalia can do it then I can do it’,” Jalia Musa stated.

 

Photo Credit: Right to Dream

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