Berjona Mbemba has ignored prejudice and followed her passion. As a player and coach, football has taken her to other parts of Congo as well as other African countries.
The certified sports instructor is a coach at CF Gothia and assistant manager of the Congo women’s national football team.
“I meet both guys and girls who say, ‘Keep going, what you’re doing is good and important!’” she says.
“Coach! Coach!” The guys Berjona Mbemba is training at Gothia Cup’s sports school in Brazzaville, CF Gothia, are between the ages of nine and eleven and they eagerly try to get their leader’s attention to show off the latest feint or trick they’ve taught themselves. But when the 24-year-old takes a tone and gathers the team, the boys stand quietly as if at church, and listen to their coach.
Berjona Mbemba is 24 and has been a leader at the school for three years. When she stopped playing herself, it was only natural to continue as a coach.
“There are a lot of things I love about football, especially that football allows me to meet a lot of people both in Congo and outside of Congo. You get to know other people’s moods and mentality, and see their behaviour. You learn how to be in a group and how to lead a group,” she says.
She began playing football on the street in the neighbourhood where she grew up and one day, a man approached and asked if she would like to play on a real team.
“Football has helped me a lot in my life. Because I was able to join the club as a player, while I was studying I was able to return and do my internship there, and that led to the assignment as assistant manager. Thanks to football, I’ve also gotten to be on TV, when Africa News interviewed me in Pointe-Noire when I was coaching. The whole world can see that in Congo, there’s a girl who is a coach, like a role model.”
Do you feel like a role model?
“I can truly say that I do. There are a lot of girls who say that they want to be like me. They come up and ask what I did to get here and what they should do to get there.”
Berjona wants to be the role model that she didn’t have, when she chose to become both a player and a coach. She has faced plenty of prejudice through the years.
“In Congo, women’s football isn’t very developed; as soon as someone sees a girl playing there are comments: ‘Why are you playing football? You’re wasting your life! You’ll never amount to anything!’ I don’t respond; I just let them chatter. But it hurts inside. Because in a way, I know that they’re right, that we haven’t gotten very far with the preconditions for women’s football here, and that makes me sad.”
She says that football has helped her grow as a person, even off of the pitch.
“During training and matches, I have to trust myself, that I’m making the right decision at the right moment, which has strengthened my self-confidence. And I’ve learned how to lead a group – I’m not afraid to lead and talk in front of a group, because I’m used to it from football and I feel secure in that role.”
Berjona Mbemba thinks that CF Gothia’s work to bring in more female leaders is important in order to send the right message to children at schools.
“We talk about gender equality in the project and that means we have to show it, too. It can also help us get more young girls to sign up. The rumour will spread: ‘There are female leaders over there; we’ll go there and start playing.’ They can see that girls can be coaches and that makes them think, ‘We could be coaches, too.’ CF Gothia is an important role model for girls.”
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