Mary Dawa wears a calm look in a chocolate baby face that models would admire with envy. At the tender age of 20, Dawa has a lot to face in the form of what fate has to offer. But all this has been summarised into a rolled-up piece of leather—a football—that brings her joy and dictates her future.
She has scaled up the ladder of South Sudan’s women’s football at an unforgiving price. Dawa, whose name could be loosely translated in Kiswahili to mean “medicine”, is one of the dependable playmakers in South Sudan’s national women’s team and Yei Joint Stars.
In an interview with The City Review, Dawa walks memory lane to reveal how she stumbled on her talent and had to go against the grain, defying even her family to be who she is now.
“My football career started simply and funnily. I never dreamed of it because where I grew up, by then there had not been women’s football,” recalls the Bright Starlet midfielder.
According to Dawa, her journey started when there was an under-14 school and a regional tournament and her school gave her a try.
As one of the jumpy girls in school and a netball player, she was just picked to train for the under-14 school team, despite not even dreaming of it. And off she went, realising a new potential.
“I thank my former school football coach, Mawa; he is the reason behind my football career.”
“At the age of 12, I remember when I was in primary six in Uganda, when he came and picked me up from class to go to the pitch, and it was the first time and the day I kicked what is called football,” she recalled.
Dawa was excited about the opportunity.
“I kicked the first ball and chased football when I was in my school uniform. I even laughed myself more than my colleagues.”
Dawa’s father, on the other hand, was not a football fan and never wanted her daughter to play a game he never believed was meant for women.
Her father’s resistance nearly dimmed her ambitions, knowing the kind of love that she had for him and the determination not to disappoint him.
“He always said that football was not for ladies. I would sneak to go for football practice.”
The trust by her coach Mawa paid off when she joined West Nile Region’s national team in 2013.
Following the national tournament, Dawa was also the only girl chosen from the entire region to travel to Gabon in 2014.
But for her to fly to Gabon, it took the persuasion of her coach to get permission from his father.
“When I returned from that journey, I had no idea what had occurred in my father’s thinking to now accept, and he became my big football fan,” she stated.
After Dawa’s involvement in the Gabon tournament, chances began to come her way.
She got her first school scholarship and other schools were even willing offer her free education.
In 2015, a Kampala-based school offered her free education.
“My father was relieved because he could no longer pay my school fees, and I was playing for the school.”
In 2015/16, Dawa joined one of the greatest football academies in Uganda, Isira Soccer Academy, which also competes in regional leagues.
She was registered with an elite team in Kampala in 2016/2017 before moving on to another club in 2017/2018 till the 2019 COVID-19 lockdown prohibited players from practicing football.
She then joined the Yei Joint Stars after the 2019–20 COVID-19 lockdown in 2021.
Here, she has guided the team to three YLFA South Sudan Cup titles and three South Sudan National Cup titles.
What the football means for her
For Dawa, playing football is not just about on-pitch excitement and having to engage the adrenaline for 90 minutes. It means a lot and has changed her life.
“Football means a lot to me, and it has changed my life.” It is more than simply sports. Football teaches me how to be disciplined; it teaches me about togetherness, it teaches me about collaboration, and it shaped me in so many ways that I can’t even begin to list them,” she said.
“In short, football educates a lot including owning the tough responsibilities.”
She tried to picture what her future would be without football and said perhaps she would be married and condemned to a life of a housewife under a restrictive husband somewhere. But thanks to football, she finished her studies.
However, Dawa acknowledged the challenges facing football in the country, among them lack of funds, which condemns players to living a miserable life.
But according to her, the joy of gracing the international stage representing South Sudan supersedes some individual needs.
“When you are summoned to present your country, it is always an emotional experience.
“Wearing the South Sudan shirt alone means a lot to me and that is exactly what we are doing right now,” she said.
She said that the love that supporters heap on the players and the display of patriotism from the stands normally serve a rare emotional moment. It is breathtaking!
“That is why we are fighting for it. First and foremost is our pride. That is not all about our dream, but I believe in me and hope to take my football into a better level than where I am now.”
“My football career started simply and funnily. I never dreamed of it because where I grew up, by then there had not been women’s football.”- Mary Dawa
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