Had Anna Preira’s mother not found work as a cleaner in a French military base in Dakar, women’s rugby in Senegal might not have evolved as it has in the last 15 years.
It was at her job at the facility in the city’s Hann Bel-Air arrondissement that she first witnessed a group of soldiers throwing around an oval ball.
Later, while doing some exercises on the beach, she “saw kids with the same ball, this weird shape” and guessed that they were playing the same sport.
She approached the children to enquire if what they were practicing was indeed a sport and whether it was possible for her own daughter to play it in Senegal.
“The kids were like ‘Yeah, it’s rugby’,” Preira explained.
“So, my mum told me I should try and discover this sport, rugby. At the time I used to do athletics and handball but I agreed to try rugby and the day I started I was hooked.”
A noble sport
It was the start of a love affair between Preira and rugby that continues to burn bright today and has helped to drive the growth of the women’s game in the west African country.
Preira was still a baby when she and her mother were forced to flee the Casamance region in the south of Senegal in 1985 due to a conflict that continues today.
The family ended up making the 400km journey north to the capital Dakar, where she excelled at academics – having started school aged 10 – and sport, while she sold donuts on the weekends to help her mother make ends meet.
But it was the companionship offered by this exotic new sport that reeled Preira in.
“It’s the camaraderie and meeting so many girls, and then it’s the collectiveness of the rugby,” she replied when asked what attracted her to the sport.
“It’s a noble sport, it has values.”
An iron lady
Through rugby the young Preira was also coaxed out of her shell, giving her the confidence she needed to trust people and open herself up to them.
“Rugby has helped me in many, many ways,” she said.
“It’s thanks to rugby that I have become an iron lady. Before rugby I used to be insecure and shy, and since I started playing rugby I feel more confident and like I can overcome any obstacle.”
The first hurdle that needed to be navigated by Preira was where, and with whom, she would play.
There was no female team for the then-19-year-old to join, so instead she signed up to a men’s side – the Sharks.
It was not a straightforward introduction to competitive rugby, but it was one that came with important lessons, both for her and the men she was playing against.
“They were surprised because I was fighting back,” Preira admitted.
“It wasn’t easy, but it taught me even more. Physically I developed more and [gained] the confidence from being able to be an example, a role model.
“It taught me even more [than playing against women]. It wasn’t easy but by the end it was easier because I became a more confident person.”
Soon, and having had a baby of her own in 2005, Preira was able to use her newfound skills to play with and against women. It was thanks again to her mother who set up Senegal’s first female rugby club, the Amazons.
The foundation of the Amazons in 2006 is regarded as the birth of women’s rugby in the country and it was while playing for them, four years later, that Preira was selected for Senegal’s inaugural female national team.
“The first woman who ever created a women’s team in Senegal was my mum,” she said with a wide smile.
Legacy lives on
“When the girls would see me play they would be curious and ask questions about it. I would tell them that it was for all shapes and sizes and it’s for everyone.
“Most of the girls were looking for something and whatever they were looking for they found in rugby.”
Unfortunately, the Amazons disbanded following a period of ill health for Preira’s mother in 2013, but the team’s legacy lives on.
Many of the players who had been introduced to the game thanks to the club have gone on to set up their own teams elsewhere, with Preira herself joining the Panthers in 2014.
Her influence on the women’s game in her country has only grown in recent years. She sits on the medical committee of the Senegalese Rugby Federation having studied first aid, player welfare and strength and conditioning.
Preira has also set up her own academy for aspiring female rugby players and is proud that nine of the country’s 14 regions now boast access to the game for girls as young as seven.
“I’m trying to develop rugby myself in Senegal,” she said.
“We’ve developed a ‘house of rugby’ where you have teams from every age group, and we are trying to promote women’s rugby as much as possible.”
Being a visible sportswoman is important for Preira in a country where negative attitudes towards females in sport persist.
“In Senegal there is lots of stigma around women playing sports in general, and rugby even more,” she said.
“In society, also in general, there are things about religion and the colour of your skin but it’s a shame because once a woman plays sport they forget about all that.
“They forget about skin colour, religion, background and everything else.”