Women's rugby is yet to take off in the village of Ambatondrazaka, located in eastern Madagascar, nearly 300km from the capital city, Tanarife. However, among the 50,400 inhabitants lives one of the sport's most passionate ambassadors, Ando Niaina Herimahefa.
She has just been entrusted with the role of women's rugby manager by the Madagascan Rugby Federation. A beautiful challenge that this young, dynamic and smiling 27-year-old woman intends to take on.
In Ambatondrazaka, even Herimahefa's parents know nothing about rugby, even less her two sisters. “I had watched it on TV, but never practiced it,” she admits. “I asked my daddy how it was played, but he didn't know either.” But none of this mattered, as her parents advised her not to play regardless.
At that time, Herimahefa played basketball and handball, and took part in national school competitions; it was in sport that she found her way and rugby was the sport she would soon choose. Her move to university would prove decisive for the rest of her story.
'Rugby is a passion'
It was in her first year at university that Herimahefa found the world of rugby for the first time. “A friend invited me to join his club, but I knew my parents were never going to accept. But another opportunity presented itself and that's when I decided to take a match official's training. I became a referee, then head of referees, then in charge of the development of school rugby,” she says.
Herimahefa became a sports teacher. “I loved playing with boys. For me, rugby is a passion.” In the meantime, her parents changed their minds: because a referee has less physical contact with other players, they accepted Herimahefa's growing love for rugby.
In less than 10 years, Herimahefa has risen through the Madagascan rugby ranks. “In Madagascar, rugby is not like football. Everyone here knows about football. Rugby is mostly in the capital city, but almost not in the villages,” she said.
Together with the humanitarian organisation Terres en Mêlée, a partner of World Rugby's Spirit of Rugby and Get Into Rugby, Herimahefa is now working to popularise the sport among young people, especially young girls.
“My job is about the development of women's rugby, how to attract more female players, more female coaches, more female physios, more female referees,” she explains. The union trusted her and, in the spring of 2020, Rugby Africa has supported her in her application to World Rugby to get a Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship. In charge of women's rugby at Rugby Africa, Maha Zaoui provided her with all the support necessary to help her reach this incredible challenge.
'I would like rugby to become the benchmark for women's sport in Madagascar'
“I was so happy to have this scholarship! My dad heard about it through social networks, I didn't even have time to warn them!”
One of Herimahefa's greatest assets on this journey has been the experience in communication she has gained as a sports teacher. “As a sports teacher, it's easy to work with other colleagues. It's easier to create a relationship.
“We have organised training for teachers in schools to teach children. It's been three years since we had a school rugby championship in Madagascar. Yes, women's rugby is less popular than men's rugby, but that's the challenge. I would like it to become the benchmark for women's sport in Madagascar,” she says.
“Our biggest problem is that in the villages few parents know exactly what rugby is, what its values are. We have to make them understand that this is not a danger for girls but that it will help them in their education and in their life.”
Herimahefa is living proof of this. “At first, my family could not imagine that it was thanks to rugby that I had succeeded in my studies. Rugby has helped me develop, it's really exceptional.”
An example to follow
Shy and humble, Herimahefa recognises why she can be seen as a leader, a model for other young girls to follow. “I would like to set up managers in each league so that rugby is more developed in the provinces. Maybe there are women who don't yet realise that they can become leaders like me. My goal is to train a team with whom I can work to develop rugby,” she says.
“For me, it's already a dream to become the manager and I would like to persevere. I will do my best to help the girls reach their full potential. I would like women's rugby to be the benchmark for women's sports in Madagascar. And why not in Africa.”