What a man can do, they say, a woman can do better. 23-year old Uneku Atawodi began her journey into professional polo when ten years ago she fell in love with horses. Regardless of subtle discouragement from her family members, she proved determined and focused enough at becoming the best player that she could be. Today, she has played professional polo in over fourteen countries, represents Nigeria at the Federation of International Polo, and contributes to policy formulation at the Federal Capital Territory. In this exclusive interview with BN Editorial Assistant, Gbenga Awomodu, Uneku, who is currently the only active black female player in the world, shares beautiful tales of her journey thus far, revealing her love for business and travel.
Meet Uneku Atawodi
My name is Uneku Atawodi; people from the south call me Neku, and those from the north calls me Une. I am 23 years old. I am an equestrian, business owner, and starting recently, I also work for the government. I hold a BSc in Equestrian Science, with a British Horse Society stage 4 riding accreditation. I also have a Masters degree in International Business with Spanish. I grew up in Kaduna, and moved to Pakistan with my family when I was 5, and then we went to Brazil for a few years but my mother froze (pun intended) when the next stop was Russia, so we moved back to Kaduna for a couple of years. I attended college and university in England.
When did you start playing polo and how did you develop an interest in the sport?
I used to hunt in England when I was 13 and the smell of dirty leather really fascinated me. I was not a very strong rider then, so jumping hedges and following the hounds around new terrain really was a risk, I remember completely clenching tightly to the horse, which are a lot bigger than polo ponies, and just praying that if I fell, “nothing go jus tear come expose person dignity!” When I was in Kaduna, life sort of evolved around the polo club. Weekends were spent watching matches, my father ended nights there, and even chicken for the next day’s stew was got from the polo club! And yet, I was discouraged from playing partly because I was a girl. “Une if you get hit in your face, ba wanda zai aure ki!”(nobody will marry you!). A psychologist would say being told ‘no’ increased the urge to play… I think I just really, really, really wanted to play. So when hunting got banned in England, I immediately fell to polo. I met my coach David Anderson at 14; he had stopped coaching, but he agreed to coach me, and I got badly stung by the polo bug.
Despite discouragement from friends and family, how were you able to prove your capability and genuine love for Polo? My parents, though loving, were initially skeptical about me playing, especially as I wanted to play professionally, and I pretty much tested the level of their worries when I decided to study horses! I know now that it is their love and worry for me that brought about such fears. They stopped paying for the upkeep of my horses at 16, when they figured I was being headstrong. I did not let that deter me, and took up a job at Epsom Polo Club mucking out, which basically means packing horse s**t! At 6.00am I would wake up, put on double gloves on each hand, because the cold kept tearing into my skin when shovelling, and do about eight stables. It was actually great for keeping my arms fit for polo! I then partnered in a polo project in Argentina, and went on to own a small polo ranch breeding horses, so I had some sort of income coming in. When my parents saw my passion and determination, they eased off on me a bit, but I did have a tricky time with being judged for a while.
Why did you study for a B.Sc. in Equestrian Science performance, and how well has it paid off thus far?
I wanted to learn everything about these animals, inside and out – their nutrition, how they walk, how they reproduce, the diseases that affect them, everything. Studying Equestrianism gave me a whole new eye into the Equestrian world. I find that a lot of riders, especially in Nigeria, do not know a lot about their horses. I wanted to change that by educating people about this animal that is central to our sport. My degree helped me work in eight different countries including managing a polo club in New York, and giving high profile lessons in the state. My expertise is appreciated internationally, as well as in Nigeria. Studying Equestrian Sports Science also allowed me to train in other areas of Equestrianism; I practiced dressage, show jumping, and worked in one of the top race yards in the world during my internship. Introducing these disciplines to Nigerian riders is what I work towards.
How does it feel being in a male-dominated sport; and, have you ever been discriminated against in terms of race or gender?
Funny story. I was playing in Argentina some years back, and we were donning team colours – yellow and blue or something. This British lady who had been staring at me, came up to me with a yellow top in her hands, and so I asked her, “what colour am I?” She gave me the yellow top and replied, “You are black.” Then she realized what she had said and she was mortified: “I am so sorry! I meant yellow… I meant you are playing in yellow.” She apologized repeatedly and later told me that it was not because I was black, but because she was so shocked to see a black girl playing, and that it was the first time she had ever seen that. I have never experienced racial discrimination in polo; polo is such an international sport, and I find that players treat each other like family. What I do get after a game though, is a surprised, “oh wow, you are really good!” because most people see me and expect me to be some awful beginner. I don’t complain though because it gives me an advantage in the first few chukkers of a game, with me being completely unmarked, a few goals later, and the game play changes. You are the only female Polo player to have gone professional in West Africa and only active black female player worldwide.
In what ways are you encouraging other young black females around the globe to participate in the sport?
I have partnered with Tebazile, which creates strong beautiful jewellery, and am playing in high press events internationally. Together, we are able to encourage more people to get into the sport. I played in the Miami Beach polo tournament recently, and we had a huge crowd of African-Americans cheering me on, and asking how they can get into polo afterwards! I am playing in Chicago in October, where we are expecting Oprah Winfrey to get on a horse and hit a ball around. She was enamoured by the fact that I am black, and a polo player, and it has helped draw in an expected huge crowd for the Chicago tournament taking place on North beach this October.
How friendly is the game of polo for females?
When you are a polo player, you are a polo player who happens to be female. Not a female, who plays polo. When you are a polo player, who happens to be female, the men forget you are a woman on the pitch, and they just play. Polo is EVERYONE-friendly, if you respect it as much as it respects you.
You represent Nigeria in the Federation of International Polo (FIP), and work closely with the President of the FIP. What does your work on both fronts entail and how have you influenced policies and the development of the game at both levels too?
I worked for a season in Chantilly, France, which was the base of the FIP. It gave me more of an opportunity to travel and meet some truly unique people. I got to play in Morocco, and meet their king, who is a super cool dude. The FIP strives to develop polo in new countries, and the work that the current president, Patrick Guerrand-Hermes, with the help of King Mohammed VI has done in Morocco is truly inspiring. Patrick flew to Nigeria in 2009, the first time an FIP president had ever visited Nigeria. I had a television show then, sponsored by the FIP, which covered polo in countries around the world, and we got to cover the Kano polo tournament, which is a huge crowd-puller. My contacts also allowed me to impact in small ways on projects I was passionate about. In 2006, I convinced Disney to give a soft toy to every child in Great Ormond Street Hospital on my behalf; I could not believe I wrote in a request, a Christmas “wish” from me, and they actually did it! That was one of my proudest moments.
In how many countries have you played polo, and which would rank as your top three tournaments so far?
I have played in 14 or 15 countries now, and counting. I loved all the tournaments I played in, got to meet new people, and see how the game is interpreted in other cultures. My top experiences are when I played snow Polo in Switzerland. I lost my passport in Kenya, which I stopped in for a day to play a tournament, on the way to Geneva, and had the most stressful time trying to get a travel waiver issued in Kenya to go to Switzerland. So it was such a relief when I finally made the game. Another is teaching the football great, Zinedine Zidane, to play polo in Dubai. I know, not a tournament. But I found it very humbling that someone so legendary in football was actually listening to my instructions. The accuracy with which he hit the ball, and the speed at which he picked up the sport of polo, was a joy to experience. He came down to the polo club with his whole family, and they were as excited to watch him learn as we all were to teach him! Third one is the Miami Beach polo tournament, where I was sponsored by Tebazile, and we got to do a fashion show, and play amazing polo on South Beach. That ranks pretty high! I also got to play elephant polo in India, and though the elephants were super slow, we won, and I get to say I played polo on an elephant! I also loved playing in Jamaica…the people there are SO happy, and the whole polo community is one big family. I loved the accents. I spent about four months working there, and my afternoons spent exercising the horses with the grooms were amazing. The stories told in patois! I laughed so much!
10 years from now, would you still be actively playing Polo?
Bet your bottom dollar, I will!
What other (business) ventures are you actively involved in?
I own a hotel in Maitama, Abuja, called Bamboo House. It is a nature-inspired boutique hotel, with a beautiful outdoor space that is heavily influenced by my travels. We are the only place you can find a true 8-oz burger in Abuja! I also work for the Ministry of the FCT, for the Permanent Secretary. I started working there to impact a development change in Abuja. I told my boss I wanted to use the little I have learnt from working in so many countries, to impact on the development of our nation’s capital. It is important to work with someone that values your opinions; I have some out-of-the-box ideas for Abuja, and they listen to me. What are some of the peculiar challenges you have had to deal with in your business endeavours? It is hard to find good dedicated staff in Nigeria. Bamboo House is new, and it is still a bit early to say how I rank any of them yet, but some of the atrocities I have come across while running the business are jaw-dropping. We however work hard to deliver good customer service, and I try to make the staff feel like family. We pray together, and we try to eat lunch together when I am around; that way, I believe the loyalty to the business is slightly increased.
How would you describe your ideal man?
I am lucky to be with my ideal man, I am teaching him polo, and he is a natural sports person, so we spend evenings after a polo match discussing tactics, and what play I botched! It is great to be with someone that just completely gets it.
What are the most important lessons you have learned so far in these past years of active polo?
Keep your eyes on the ball! You travel a lot. How do you relax, when you are not travelling or riding horses? I am addicted to watching shows. Any show. When I have some free time, I sit in and watch anything I can get my hands on. I love Jersey shore. I know, a book just committed suicide, but, fist pump!
What would you like to tell our fabulous readers?
“Eyes on the ball”- never lose focus of your aims. Keep your eyes on the ball! Look up at the goal, see the prize, snap a mental image of the goal, focus on the ball, and the ball WILL go into the goal!
Thanks for your time!
Gbenga Awomodu is an Editorial Assistant at Bainstone Ltd./BellaNaija.com. When he is not reading or writing, Gbenga is listening to good music or playing the piano. He believes in the inspirational power of words and pictures, which he explores in helping to make the world a better place. He blogs at Gbenga’s Notebook (www.gbengaawomodu.com).