Between Aisha Ahmad Suleiman and horses, it was love at first sight. At the Kaduna Polo Club, where she had gone with friends to watch a tournament for the first time, she was fascinated by the animals. She knew immediately, as she watched the horse-riders gallop in their helmets and boots, chasing the ball around, that she wanted to work with the horses, to be a polo player.
After the match, she made quiet enquiries on who to talk to, how to sign up, where to begin training. She did not disclose her new-found interest to anyone in her family. Through a friend, she met a man named Hussaini Ahmed, the coach for beginners in Kaduna. He took her to his stable and, for the first time, she saw an Argentine horse. “It was so big,” she tells me on the phone in March. “Instantly, I fell in love.”
She told Hussaini Ahmed that she wanted to be a polo player and he asked her only one question: “Zaki iya?” Can you do it?
“Zan iya,” she replied. I can.
It was 2016. She was a few months away from turning 16. He asked her to come back the next day at 4 p.m. to begin training.
She trained for a long time with a calm horse named Prince. It was Hussaini Ahmed’s personal horse. But over time, she grew bored of it and wanted something that would challenge her. “I wanted something that would make me struggle on the saddle,” she says. And so she switched to a bigger horse. She trained every day in the morning and at night, until one day, Hussaini Ahmed gave her her first mallet.
It wasn’t until she played in her first tournament that she became aware that she was the only woman in the club. “That was when the commentator announced it,” she says. “It never occurred to me that I was the only one. All I wanted to do was just play, ride horses, be happy.”
But not only was she the sole woman playing in her club, she was the sole woman playing polo in northern Nigeria, and one of very few in Nigeria. The only other notable name in the country has been Uneku Atawodi, also the first female polo player in Africa. Atawodi became the first Black woman to play international polo in Africa at age 21.
The first documented polo match in Africa took place in 1874, when the Cape Mounted Rifles faced the 75th Infantry of the Line Regiment in South Africa. In 1917, the sport entered East Africa with a match at Nairobi.
Polo arrived in Nigeria in the year of amalgamation, 1914. It was first established in the country’s south. The first match was held in Lagos by British naval officers. It was not until the 1920s, when Muhammed Dikko, the then emir of Katsina, made a trip to the Hurlingam Club in London and saw the game and began to develop it in Katsina on his return, did polo come to northern Nigeria. He and his four sons made up a polo team, then proceeded to create awareness among the city elites. His team gained dominance in the 1930s. The sport then spread to other northern cities like Zaria, Kaduna, and Kano.
Polo has always been referred to as “the sport of kings.” Historically, it has always had very little room for women, so little that Sue Sally Hale, the most famous female polo player had to disguise as a man for 20 years during her career, starting from the 1950s. In 2017, Shariah Harris became the first Black woman to play in US polo’s highest league. Notable women of colour who play polo include Monica Saxena, from India where there are less than ten women playing the sport, and Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, from Dubai.
Although there are few models available for Aisha Ahmad to follow, at age 20, she has now played in nine tournaments. She won the Dantata and Sawoe Cup at the 2018 Kano International Tournament, the Governor’s Cup at the 2019 Port Harcourt International Tournament, and the Governor’s Cup at the 2019 Kano International Tournament. At the 2020 Northern Pandora Awards, she was named Sports Woman of the Year. In March, Forbes named her among “30 Inspirational Women” for Women’s History Month.
Usually, Ahmad trains either at a polo club or in a private farm. She readies her boots, her white trousers, her helmet, her mallet, her hand gloves. When she gets to the club, she meets the horses. She hops on one and begins to play with other players. But when there are new horses, she does not just hop on them immediately. She takes time to get to know them first. What do they like to do? What do they not like to do?
“A normal Polo chukka takes about seven minutes,” she explains. “And a normal Polo match has four chukkas. After every chukka, we are supposed to switch horses with one another, drink water, and then get on the next chukka.”
Ahmad did not feel ready when her first tournament came on 17 December 2017, the very day she turned 16. But she scored her first official goal and her team also won. Her family and friends were all there to witness the match and cheer her on. She recalls it as the happiest moment of her life. That first tournament remains her favourite and proudest polo moment.
When she first started the sport, she kept it from her parents, not knowing how they would take it. Eventually, she confided in her mother. “Of course, she wasn’t supportive about it at first. She’s an ‘African mother,’ so I wasn’t really expecting anything else,” Ahmad laughed.
Her mother’s worries were about how unsafe it sounded to play a game that no other woman from the north was playing. A game that involved racing at extremely high speed on the back of a horse, chasing a ball in a pitch with other people, sounded very dangerous.
“I did my best to convince her that I would be fine,” Ahmad says. “I let her know that all I needed was her prayers and support. And because she knows how far I can go when I really, really want something, she eventually gave me her support.” Her father later got to know when he saw her on TV. Both of her parents, who are from Kogi State but had and raised her in Kaduna, are now in full support of her career.
Ahmad is also a photographer and an entrepreneur. This year, she ventured into acting, joining the cast for a documentary about Queen Amina of Zazzau, in which she was to play the Queen.
She admits that it takes a lot of courage and strength to play polo as the only woman from the north. “I look forward to playing someday with another woman,” she tells me. “The future is female.”
Edited by Otosirieze Obi-Young.