Sierra Leone has been in the news for only tragic reasons recently. I lived there for just two months, but during that period the laid-back, inviting and stunningly beautiful country captured my heart. Sadly, this isn’t the Sierra Leone that a lot of the world will ever know, instead visualising Ebola, blood diamonds and a horrific civil war when they think of the country.

Football is what I will think of when reminiscing about my time in Sierra Leone, having moved there to volunteer for a footballing charity during the World Cup and qualifiers for the African Cup of Nations. As I learnt quickly, football is central to the nation, uniting everyone from street children playing with stuffed plastic bags to men playing on their local dirt pitch every weekend.

I volunteered for the Craig Bellamy Foundation, a charity founded in 2009 by the former Wales, Liverpool and Manchester City forward. There are two sides to the charity – an academy and youth development league. The Academy is based in a small fishing town called Tombo; it takes in the most promising footballing talent from across the country, offering five-year scholarships to boys aged 11 and 12. Alongside this runs a nationwide Youth Development League that more than 2,240 children take part in every week; to be part of the League, they must attend school full time. If they achieve this, the Craig Bellamy Foundation will pay their annual school fees. It’s only £11, but this is still far beyond the scope of too many families, particularly for girls. 

During the 2013-14 League, school attendance among those involved in the league averaged 96% for girls compared with the national average of 33%. Boys and girls in the league also deliver monthly outreach projects on topics such as HIV, malaria, cholera and Ebola to their communities, and learn about ‘Fair Play’ to reduce youth violence. 

One of the girls who takes part in the league is 16-year-old Fatmata. She has realised through the Youth Development League that “education is a lifelong investment”. The combination of education, community development and football has persuaded Fatmata’s family to support her football – they have seen their daughter mature into a community role model who advises younger girls on the risks of teenage pregnancy, applies herself academically and dedicates herself to her passion: football.

Fatmata is incredibly enthusiastic about the schooling she and her teammates now have access to – many of her friends’ parents are regularly unable to afford school fees, meaning that the CBF League academic scholarships are providing them with an uninterrupted education for the very first time. When asked what she takes from involvement with the CBF League, Fatmata’s immediate response is “pride”. The confidence she draws from her achievements on the pitch, in the classroom and in the community has helped her develop the self-awareness to recognise the fundamental lack of gender equality in Sierra Leone, and the self-belief that she can be a part of changing it.

And she has an excellent role model to look up to. Sierra Leone has one of the world’s only two female football federation presidents, Isha Johansen1. A serial entrepreneur and household name in Sierra Leone, Johansen went head-to-head with Mohamed Kallon – often considered Sierra Leone’s most famous footballer, having played for Internazionale – to become Sierra Leone Football Association president in 2013. 

Isha Johansen is the owner and CEO of Sierra Leone National Premier League club FC Johansen. Founded in 2004, the original aim of the club was to use sport to provide hope to young people. She is a woman with integrity, opinions and courage.

Describe your journey to becoming the first female president of the SLFA.

Sincerely, I never mapped out a journey or a strategy towards becoming president of the SLFA. I grew up in a household where my father more or less ran a football club – East End Lions. He was a professional senior banker, but his intense passion for football resonated in our home. I grew up with my two brothers and being the only girl in the family then, what choice did I have but to be a typical tomboy.

FC Johansen happened to be my walking billboard and the legacy that spoke volumes for me during the campaign. Everything that I achieved for the club and ultimately the country is what was used in the presidential campaign and I guess it was a refreshing, rewarding and inspirational aspect to the campaign. The FC Johansen story is one of success above the odds; it’s a story that shows that honesty, integrity, patriotism and hard work will always reap worthy benefits. 

What has been your proudest moment as president?

There are a couple that really stand out. The day I heard my name being announced on national and international media as having made history as the first female FA president in Sierra Leone, and the second in the world, is up there as an incredibly proud moment.

But most recently, a day that stands out was when I was able to secure a country that would allow the Sierra Leone national team to play our home match for the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. Almost all other nations had turned us down [due to Ebola]. DR Congo came to our rescue in a very emotional and difficult time.

What are your greatest challenges as a woman in a male-dominated sport?

I honestly do not see my challenges as stemming from the fact that I am a woman; remember I am not a newcomer into football administration in Sierra Leone. The challenge is not being a woman, but for others, dealing with a woman with firm principles on morals and work ethics. 

I also believe that men in general are slowly coming to terms with the fact that there are some very determined and most importantly efficient women in our society. I would never advocate for giving a woman a top position simply because she is a woman. She has to earn it and be given the opportunity to earn it just like any other candidate in her position. 

While women’s football has developed a lot over the past decade, there’s still a long way to go to make it a level playing field in terms of salaries, sponsorship and coverage. What do you feel needs to be done to help achieve gender equality in football?

Developing women’s football in Sierra Leone – both in terms of administration and the game of play itself – has a long way to go. This SLFA administration has one main school of thought and that is that we have to put in structures if we as a nation are going to go anywhere with this beautiful game. Women’s football is going to have to be introduced in schools so we get them young. We have already started running young coaches programs with a few female coaches on board. We have four C-licence female coaches and a few female referees also. This is a far cry from what has existed in the past. It is going to be a long road to success, but this we are prepared for, as long as we are all committed to starting from basics and not to try to invent any shortcuts for it simply does not work that way. I am hopeful that gradually people are beginning to understand this.

You are a great role model to a lot of women in Sierra Leone – in terms of your entrepreneurial spirit, career history and the respect you have gained among your peers. What would your advice be to them in achieving their goals and dreams?

Every woman knows that the one thing we cannot afford to comprise is our integrity. That is what makes us women; that is what stands us apart (I hope) from most men. Our word is our honour – at least, that is what our mothers taught us. If you strongly believe that a certain path is one you chose to go down, and you chose that path because you honestly believe you can bring about the change that is needed, and most importantly you chose that path because it is your choice and not the choice of others for their gain, then go for it regardless.

You’ve done a huge amount for youth football in Sierra Leone – what do you feel football offers young people?

Football is a great sport for our kids, both boys and girls, and hopefully we will see more girls participating in football in the not too distant future. However football should, and under this administration will, be used to educate both academic and social skills as well as behaviour. 

Most of the challenges we face with grown players and even some club administrators arethe lack of social skills and behaviour. Football is not just about ball skills – at least not anymore. Football is a whole new mindset and social behavioural aspect. We have had cases of our African players who, talented as they may be, have struggled in European clubs. It is because there is a breakdown of social and behavioural skills. 

I hope that one of the biggest legacies I can leave behind after my tenure of office will be that of the ‘Dawn of a New Era’ of football in Sierra Leone. This applies to the new breed of players and the new mindset of administrators in Sierra Leone football.

The sports minister Paul Kamara has called you an ‘Iron Lady’ before – a title also applied to the UK’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Who is your global female role model and why?

I had a lot of respect and admiration for Margaret Thatcher irrespective of her political stance. She was firm and decisive, but most importantly she took responsibility for her actions rightly or wrongly. 

My role models? I admire women who are able to stand up for what they believe in, I admire creative women, women who are not afraid to break barriers, women who are not afraid to be the first in whatever they set out to do regardless of whether they succeed or fail, women who are not afraid to fail and if they do fail, women who will be ready to dust themselves down, stand up and be ready to take on the challenge again. That kind of woman is my kind of role model woman.

It is hugely apparent that football has the potential to be a positive vehicle for change in Sierra Leone, not least among girls and women. The understanding that football and education can go hand in hand, is having life-changing consequences for so many girls like Fatmata, providing them with the platform they need to become tomorrow’s role-models and leaders.

While Ebola has tragically put a halt to so many activities, including football and schooling, it hopefully won’t be too long before the start whistle can be blown again. Crowds will resume to watch matches, children will return to school, families will piece themselves together again and the spirit of the country will return.