DAKAR, Senegal, October 22- Every day, children in a northern neighborhood of the capital Dakar come to play ball in the House of Rugby, a centre launched two years ago as the sport gains ground in this football-loving nation.
Rugby is a fringe activity in the west African country, introduced by French soldiers only in the 1970s. But it has become a lifeline for many disadvantaged children as they also learn reading and other life skills from volunteer tutors.
Alioune Diop, 17, towering over two metres (6.5 feet), quit basketball in April after discovering the House of Rugby and has not played anything else since.
“Here, there is discipline and respect. It’s like a home, where one is among brothers and sisters,” he sweatily told AFP in the middle of a training session.
He is one of dozens of youths, aged 7 to 17, who bustle across a stretch of sand under the watchful eye of their trainers, Senegalese Djiba Papis Konde, and Frenchmen Gilles Marchand and Anthony Granja.
They are volunteers at the House of Rugby, a project financed by Prince Albert of Monaco and supported by a French association called Les Enfants de l’Ovale, a group aiming to transmit what they call “rugby values ” of generosity, courage, risk-taking and team spirit.
All children live in Yoff, a former fishing village that is now a beachside neighborhood on the outskirts of Dakar, and most come from poor families.
There are workers, students, and orphans among them, along with some so-called “talibes”, poor children from Koranic boarding schools forced to beg by their teachers to pay for tuition. The school accepts everyone, says Konde, 29.
“Whatever their level, they all play,” said Anthony Granja, a volunteer from Senegal’s rugby association (FSR). “There are even disabled children, which poses no problem, anyone can play rugby.”
“They can use rugby as a tool, because the game’s rules create cooperation and solidarity,” he added.
After children coming to the sand-colored House of Rugby receive a medical check, they can take advantage of various opportunities in addition to sports training.
Tutors “try to teach street children how to read” while volunteer firefighters give them first-aid courses, said the organisation’s founder Guedel Ndiaye, who is also the head of FSR.
A library offers cable channels showing rugby games that are not available on local television.
“Children absorb rugby rules and values more easily,” said Marchand, 65. “They will tell you that playing rugby is for life, that they are like family.”
The game has already changed the life of 15-year-old Ndeye Ngone Bassene, who followed a friend to join the club in 2009 despite never being involved in any sports. Since then, she has not missed a single practice.
“My parents couldn’t believe it,” said the young girl in a red T-shirt and blue bandana, adding that she wants to “become a pro”.
Senegalese sports are dominated by football and wrestling, with up to 85 percent of the sports ministry’s budget going to football alone.
Still, Ngone Bassene’s dream might very well come true, say her coaches.
The country now has a dozen rugby clubs, both 1st and 2nd division, including seven girls’ teams, and scores of little league schools for junior players, all in all there are about 1,500 children that play the sport, said Guedel Ndiaye.
“Senegalese rugby is on its way to a bright future” with these young players, and “the Senegal flag might soon make it to African and global rankings,” said coach Papis Konde.
He pointed to the continent’s sole major rugy team, South Africa, which won the last Rugby World Cup in 2007 but was knocked out in the quarter finals in the 2011 competition, in which France faces off against hosts New Zealand in Sunday’s final in Auckland.
“We might not be at the level of South Africa by 2016-2018, but we’ll keep pushing,” Konde said.