Ghanaian referee Barikisu Salifu

“You know what?”

This is Barikisu Salifu speaking from her room in Tamale.

Grey curtains punctuate the background. Her giant white headphones are strapped across her neck and envelope her ears like a disc jockey.

She’s beaming. And then she continues speaking. “We have a history of having great footballers who have played even at the World Cup. Shilla Illiasu is an example, what we do not have, is a Dagomba woman who is a FIFA referee.”

There’s a pause for what would follow. She is probably putting together her thoughts. It appears funny. She laughs hysterically, moves backwards and forwards, with a shy smirk as if her boyfriend just proposed marriage.

“I want to be the first Dagomba woman to be a FIFA referee. That is my target,” she states.

Eleven years have passed since this dream was nurtured. It was at the old Kaladan Park in Tamale, the cathedral of football in the Northern Region.

Kaladan is much noted for the global stars it has produced. Abedi Pele, three-time African Footballer of the Year, readily comes to mind. It is also much noted for the epic matches it hosted. The drama that surrounded those matches, memorable.

Former Ghana Premier League Board Chairman, Mr. Welbeck Abrah-Appiah, now Krontihene of Kwahu Mpraeso with the stool name Nana Abra-Appiah never forgets how he was made to sit on the floor to watch his team, Okwahu United play Real Tamale United (RTU).

There is also the famous “Mayhem at Kaladan, as Asante Kotoko officials run for cover” from the now now-defunct Soccer Ghana newspaper. On the front page, the late Alhaji Njie led the sprint after fans invaded the pitch when referee Jeffrey Amamoo yellow carded RTU player, Gafaru Alhassan.

GNA captioned it: “Hell breaks loose at Kaladan”.

There are many more of such significant moments. Moments revered, moments never to be forgotten — either tearful or otherwise. It might be known for being the hub of talent generation in the northern part of Ghana, or maybe, notoriously, a venue where you’d be molested no matter the outcome of the game. What no story has ever been told is the female referee it produced.

“I watched Mercy Tagoe officiate a match between RTU and Zaytuna in Tamale at the old Kaladan park,” Barikisu, with a photographic memory, continues,”…and I fell in love with it. Her boldness, how she was commanding, I just loved her and she became my mentor.”

Mercy Tagoe-Quarcoo, now, head coach of Ghana’s senior women’s national team, the Black Queens, remembers this day, too. But she didn’t know her command of the game left an indelible mark on a young girl who was part of the crowd watching.

It was a day that gave Barikisu a new leaf. A new opportunity. During her days at the Ghana Secondary School, she was an all-round athlete: she played volleyball, she did both short and long-distance athletics, she played football. Black Maidens coach, Mallam Baba Nuhu, who was her trainer then, ensured she was dedicated.

However, she would give up on all these after school.

Like most girls, the mindset towards active participation in sport was shaped by society to ‘settle down’. She was afraid marriage would scupper her aspirations.

“I have passion for sports”, Ms Salifu says “Initially, I started volleyball during my basic education level and when I got to secondary school, I started playing football, too. After secondary school, because I was still young I, didn’t know I could continue playing football”.

Marriage, in many parts of Ghana, is believed to be the dream of every young lady. Barikisu had similar dreams and still looks forward to that beautiful union, but even before it happens, she planned for the responsibilities it comes with and deserted her talents.

“To me, I thought if I get married, the football will go off,” she says. “You know marriage comes with its duties on you the woman – taking care of the house, if you give birth, you need to take care of the baby and all that. Childbirth also weakens you; I didn’t know you can give birth and come back, so I stopped after my secondary school,” she explained.

The desire to marry might have taken her away from the pitch and tracks, but destiny found her in a different mould back to the same pitch.

“I was out for a year until I met a colleague of mine who spoke to me about refereeing. I showed interest because of what Tagoe did in that match, it was still with me. I wanted an opportunity to do same, so when he asked me, I just felt this is a chance for me to fulfil my dream.”

“He asked me to apply, but on condition that I could run.”

And with her previous experience of being a track athlete, this was not a problem. So she took the opportunity.

“I went for lectures and refresher courses yearly. And, because I was a footballer before I joined, the learning process was easier for me. Fouls and incidents were easy to identify because I played the game. We wrote an exam in 2009, and I passed so I was promoted to Class Three.”

Despite this qualification, she was still in obscurity. But Barikisu was determined; she would find every means to officiate men’s inter-community matches.

When the GFA introduced the Women’s League in 2012, her choice – which her mother would later despise – took a new turn.

Though still on the sandy pitches as most Women’s League matches were played on God-forsaken parks, her career found a direction.

She got opportunities as an assistant referee and later, as a centre referee.

“I was daring”, she recounts. “Not even players who were my mates from school would be spared if they deserved a red card.”

Her exploits did not go unnoticed. In 2015, she was ‘elevated’ to join the Division One League as a referee. Matches involving controversial teams such as BA United, Mighty Royals, and many others saw her being part of the officials.

When the opportunity to officiate in Division One came her way, she also increased her knowledge to meet the demands, attending FIFA elite courses same year.

Challenges

Football is a male-dominated field, a sector many believe is destined for only masculines, and the abilities of females who dare ‘infiltrate’ the sector are questioned.

Actors – administrators and players – hardly lose the opportunity to reprise the perception of the majority no matter how hard she tried.

“There are so many challenges”, Barikisu says. “When you are assigned to matches, no matter your output, people still have this mindset that because she’s a lady, she didn’t do a good job.

“They try to intimidate and harass you and call you all sort of names just to break you down, especially in local matches. I have been called ‘ashawo’ [prostitute] and all sort of insults have been yelled at me, but since I made up my mind refereeing is what I want to do, and I make sure I do the right things, backed by the law, I’m not perturbed. I do my duty and walk out.”

As human as she is, some things might get to her, but she’s developed a thick skin, and she’s ever willing to accept her fate.

“When I go for games and I am harassed, I get frightened, but I have psyched myself in a way that, whatever comes, I chose to do this”.

Despite these, Barikisu and sports are inseparable. Her mother and siblings made efforts to discourage her, taking the frustration to new heights. They could not comprehend why she was always in the middle of 22 boys, running into spaces as they chased that spherical object and blowing a whistle.

She was described as ‘a lazy girl’ and ‘a tomboy’.

“Initially,” she began another narration of a challenge, that was too close to her, “when I joined refereeing, my mother was against it. She didn’t want me in there because they said I was wasting my time.

“My senior brother kept telling my mother to stop me and let me do business that would help me make money. My younger sister also claimed that if I am not stopped, I will not grow again. I didn’t care much about what people outside were saying, but mum and siblings got to me.”

“I was told I cannot give birth. People said all manner of things about me, but now I know I can. I gave birth and within three months, I was back to officiating high profile matches. Yes, childbirth weakens you, but it doesn’t stop you from doing what you love.”

“You see,” she draws my attention with a passionate facial expression again, “I am someone who likes sports, the more I tried to stay away, the more I was getting close and always wanted to be at training every day, so I made sure I finished my house chores before I go for training. Attempting to stay away showed me that I had [an] interest in what I was doing,” she noted.

But, how was she going to be permitted to be on the pitch daily doing her first love?

How her family accepted her choice

Telecom giant, GLO, and Anthony Baffoe would change how she was perceived by even loved ones.

She had officiated some of the most volatile matches. Derbies others were afraid to step in became her playground. And she often left with applause from both ends. FC Utrecht and Dynamos at the Aliu Mahama Stadium annex, Tanga FC vs Bolga All Stars, Bolga All Stars vs Tano Bofoakwa. She officiated all these.

Her status as a centre referee soared when she rose above the threats and insults and delivered. When Glo organised a youth football tournament in Tamale, she was the obvious choice.

“My opportunity to get my siblings and mum convinced about what I was doing came when Glo organised a youth football tournament in Tamale. My local association chose me to officiate the match.

“The game was on video, I was interviewed and people were talking about me. My mum never had the chance to watch, but other market women, who are her colleagues, saw me on TV and told her and she was happy.”

This was not it. The icing on the cake was the opportunity to take a walk with Baffoe, a former Black Stars defender, Bundesliga legend and now CAF official.

Onlookers could not believe just blowing a whistle could draw one close to such an iconic figure. That stroll and an invitation to a party were the defining moments.

“After the game, I was with Baffoe [now CAF Deputy Secretary-General], and people looked surprised because I was with a big man. Mr Baffoe invited me to a party put together by the organisers. I went with my sister who never liked the idea of me being a referee. When she saw the people at the party, she said ‘I won’t tell mum not let you go again!'”

“Since then, my mum never stopped me from doing what I love to do. I had the support of all of them when they realised I was not wasting my time as they thought”. She heaves a sigh, of relief and of pride.

When you turn your passion into your profession, you make a living doing what you enjoy doing. For Barikisu, being assigned by the FA to officiate matches does not feel like work, it is fun that is not just a living for her, but it pays part of the bills.

“When I am assigned to matches [by Ghana FA], I get paid for them, when people organise local tournaments, I get paid and I use that for myself and also support the family. It is a hobby, but it is a hobby that has become a profession with benefits beyond just entertaining myself”.

Future aspirations

Ms Salifu is a Class One referee, the only Dagomba female referee to attain such class through what she personally describes as ‘fun and entertaining’, and she has sights on extending what entertains her weekly to the world stage by becoming FIFA referee.

“I have got seniors who have come in and have left the scene, but where I have reached [Class One], I am the first-ever Dagomba woman to get there, but my goal is to be a FIFA referee.”

Barikisu has become an example of braving the odds. The girl many described as ‘lazy’ and ‘tomboy’, the girl her mother, and siblings never supported until Glo and Baffoe came her way, now focuses on becoming a FIFA referee.

When women’s football finally resumes this weekend after a COVID-19 induced 11 month hiatus, watch out for Barikisu Salifu, the Dagomba girl who has broken the glass ceiling but wants to break more, with the FIFA refereeing badge her next target.