If some people wonder how Paule Ella Guei was able to quickly impose women's rugby in Ivory Coast, the answer is simple: it's because she is Unstoppable. She is also inexhaustible when she talks about her career and how women's rugby came into being in this corner of West Africa. She has also become unmissable in the eyes of many.
Guei was not born into rugby. She discovered the game in 2010 when she was a student at the Institute of Sport in Abidjan, thanks to her sports teacher. Guei was playing handball at the time.
“I came to training one night to see if I was going to like it,” she said. “And there, I saw the atmosphere that reigned and I said to myself: 'Wow!' I had never experienced anything like that with handball. And I came back every time, just to watch the vibe. And by dint of watching, my teacher suggested that I should try and that's how I came to rugby."
Guei finds it hard to describe this atmosphere, although it was one she felt strongly, deep within herself. “It was something very fraternal. It cannot be explained, we need to live it to understand," she explained.
"You see people who, after grappling in a match, come back with a smile, greet each other, get together, even apologise for what they did during the match! And then everyone gathers around a drink. It really touched me and that's how I started to get a taste for it and stayed there."
But away from playing, it was in the direction of officiating that Guei was quickly turned. “The same teacher who had guided me towards rugby then offered me [the chance] to promote the game in refereeing," she said.
"But, it's not the same at all! It was really complicated for me at first, but he reassured me by telling me that I was a great lady, that I had a big heart ... and a strong behaviour."
So, Guei did not let herself down and took up the challenge. She began to learn with young players, then was sent to the seniors where she started on the sidelines.
But, when the union decided to put her "in the middle" things did not go as smoothly as they had hoped.
"Surrounded by strong guys and me very small? Honestly, I didn't think I could do it,” she laughed. “The first time, the outcome was not what I expected, because when men saw a woman in the middle of the field refereeing the match, they were not happy.
"They wondered what I was doing there. They made fun of me. Men were saying: 'What will she teach us? We are already experts in rugby. It's not worth it, the place of women is in the kitchen, with their plates!' The supporters laughed and laughed. In fact, they just came out of curiosity to look at me."
But by dint of encouragement from her coaches, determination and being debriefed on each of her matches in order to improve, Guei managed to win. “Once, after a match, young girls approached and they said to me: 'Big sister, we saw your journey and despite everything that is said, you never gave up, you're never discouraged, you have always come. How do you do that? We would like to be like you, take part in women's rugby, be referees'."
Those words gave her wings. This story triggered the second stage of her adventure.
Rugby sections in every school
In October 2020, when Rugby Africa launched a search for its own 'Unstoppables', during the second phase of World Rugby's 'Try And Stop Us' campaign, the unions worked hard to find the right ambassadors to spread the right words.
The Ivorian Rugby Federation (FIR) found in Paule Ella Guei the ideal candidate. The sports teacher had until then insisted on staying in her home town, 45km from the capital city Abidjan, coming to referee her matches in the city before leaving just after to return to her province. But her new Unstoppable status changed everything.
“It really boosted me. I didn't know I could do so many things,” she admitted. “Today, as an Unstoppable, I travel through all primary and secondary schools, I set up rugby sections in every school, college and high school because rugby must start at a young age. I meet principals, sports teachers.
"The projects are on track. And through my work, people noticed that a women's rugby commission existed in the union. This is how I got the prize."
Ivorian Rugby Union referee honoured with SportsPlus Award in recognition of her #Unstoppable efforts to promote and advance women’s rugby in her country 🏉👏🇨🇮.— Rugby Afrique (@RugbyAfrique) January 26, 2021
👉 https://t.co/jsnny3U1cD#TryAndStopUs #Unstoppables #WomenInRugby #Africa #Rugby @CIVrugby
The prize is the SportsPlus Award, which has never recognised the game of rugby until now. In a few weeks, Paule has thus become a media figure, the face of women's rugby in Ivory Coast.
Her dynamism, her joie de vivre and her repartee have made her essential, unmissable for promoting the game.
A few weeks afterwards the 'Break Down Barriers, Experience the World of Rugby' tour was launched as an extension of the highly successful Ivory Coast Rugby Project, and took her to many Ivorian towns.
'People didn't know that ladies could also play rugby'
“I would like to thank all the people who initiated the Unstoppable project because it allowed me to discover who I really was and what I could do. Today I do things that I didn't think I was capable of,” Guei said.
“I did not expect to be welcomed like that because it is a sport that was unknown by people. People didn't know that ladies could play rugby too. When they saw a lady who was so mediatised, who was Unstoppable, in addition to be an ambassador of women's rugby, they were stunned. Today, women come to see us, they call us in numbers."
The television shows are calling for her and Guei relishes it because she can get her message across: no, the place of women is not only in the kitchen. “I tell women that they can do more than I do, go beyond what I do today. And on hearing that, they scramble to come and learn, play and discover,” she smiled.
Projects are linked to initiate women's rugby in all Ivorian territories, such as the ignition of a women's tournament, with the full support of the union and its president, Dr Elvis Tano, who looks with envy at the progress made in not much time.
“I'm not just going to see the girls to take them to rugby. I also meet the clubs to tell the girls: don't limit yourself by playing there, try to set goals, think big, think high. Come and play, but also be regular in training.
"I was able to talk to the various coaches and managers to boost the girls because until then, there was lax training; they lacked motivation. The goal is to put the girls in condition: they need to work hard, but we also have to create good conditions to set up elite teams. For example, Ivory Coast will participate in the qualifiers for the Olympic Games."
To fulfill her new commitments, Guei was forced to adapt her work obligations. The sports teacher changed supervisory ministry, moving under the flag of sports rather than that of National Education.
"A team at the union level will train quality educators to be able to reach out to children," announced the young woman who, in addition, was co-opted on the Communication & Public Relations sub-committee of Rugby Africa’s Women’s Advisory Committee in January 2021. A total commitment.