A childhood accident on horseback had left Nigerian Baba Ige terrified of horses.
Not exactly the best start for an aspiring polo player – a sport which involves charging around on a horse while hitting a ball with a large mallet.
But his father’s love of the sport finally drew the 20-year-old student in.
Ige got over his phobia and is now the only black player on the polo team at the UK’s University of Kent.
He also recently won the coveted most valuable player (MVP) award at a prestigious polo tournament in his home city of Ibadan, south-west Nigeria.
Now Ige is on a mission to turn the world’s attention to the possibility of more young Nigerians playing professional polo on the world stage.
“Every time I tell people that I play polo, they say: ‘You come from Nigeria and you play polo?’
“I know a handful of Africans my age who play polo, but everyone plays football, everyone plays basketball,” Ige says.
“There are a lot of skilful players in Nigeria. Even in Ibadan, you see players and say: ‘Wow! You should be playing next-level polo.’ But there is no awareness.”
At the Ibadan Polo Club, where Ige learnt how to play, he describes the outstanding skill of many young grooms employed to take care of the horses, but who will probably never be celebrated for their ability.
‘Grooms make better players’
The grooms are typically from rural and deprived backgrounds, poorly educated, and cannot afford to own a horse.
Ige notes, however, that similar backgrounds have not hindered the rise and progress of African footballers, who are often plucked from the continent to play internationally for big bucks.
He acknowledges that polo is an expensive sport with an elitist image but thinks a higher profile will bring more investment and more accessibility.
“Most of the horses in Nigeria are owned by wealthy people who regard polo as a pastime, and take time off making money to play. But the grooms spend more time with the horses and tend to play better,” Ige says. But they are excluded from the game because of their class.
The handful of polo clubs in Nigeria include those in cities like Kano, Katsina and Jos in the north, and Port Harcourt in the south.
But the most popular is in the commercial capital Lagos, which hosts an annual two-week tournament that attracts a mix of local professionals and amateurs, plus renowned professionals from other countries.
“They bring Argentine players to play at the Lagos tournament,” Ige says. “As you rise in polo, people start looking for you, and they will be paying you to play for them.”
He hopes that horse owners and professional polo clubs around the world will someday start looking to places like Nigeria for quality players.
This, he believes, will open up earning and glory opportunities for Africans like the young deprived grooms, who could then go on to dominate the game as many Africans have in international football and basketball.
Ige started learning to play polo during the Covid-19 pandemic.
He was at boarding school in the UK when the lockdowns began in 2020, and he returned to Nigeria.
In December 2020, he left home in Ibadan one early morning and went to the local polo club, where his father had been president at one point.
He was hooked.
“I used to go to polo like twice or thrice every day. That was the second wave of Covid, so I would finish online schooling and go straight to polo and start riding. From December till, say, April, I didn’t miss one day,” Ige says.
At first, his family thought it was just a fad. Then, they became worried about the aches and pains that sometimes made it difficult for Ige to get out of bed in the morning.
When he was about 12 Ige had gone to the club with his father and attempted to ride one of the horses.
The horse tripped, and he almost fell. That incident was the beginning of his fear of horses, and Ige subsequently resisted each time his father or anyone tried to encourage him to mount a horse.
“They would make me ride and I would say: ‘I don’t want to ride, why are you people forcing me to do what I don’t want to do?’
“But now, there are times when I am galloping at full speed and I fall, and I get up almost immediately, and jump back on the horse,” he adds.
Ige is still not sure what it was about the Covid lockdowns that made him decide to attempt something that he had dreaded since childhood.
“My school shut down. Randomly, I was just sitting in the room one day and I said: ‘I’m going to start playing polo.'”
He resumed his training in Ibadan whenever he returned from boarding school to Nigeria for holidays. And when it was time to choose a university, he applied only to places that had a polo team.
“First thing I went to find in Kent was their polo team.”
Ige soon noticed some marked differences between the way he was taught to play in Nigeria and how things were done in England. In Nigeria, the game was rougher with fewer worries about safety, for example.
“The British people have the skill. However, they seem afraid to be hard. They are too measured.
“Polo is a dangerous sport, a contact sport, but it seems that they want to play fancy, show polo without the roughness. Nigeria is totally different. You have a few that can play fancy polo and you also have the people that will run into you. That’s how I was taught,” Ige says.
Being at university in the UK makes it difficult for Ige to participate in as many Nigerian and international tournaments as he would like. His first major tournament was in Ibadan in December 2022. His team won, and he was awarded the MVP.
“I almost started crying,” Ige says. “I couldn’t believe it. That was definitely the highlight of my year. My first tournament… the youngest player in the club… Most of the people in the club – I call them ‘uncle’ out of respect for their age.”
The morning after his award, Ige was back at the polo club by 07:00, training as usual.
“All the grooms said: ‘Baba, you can rest. You’ve won the tournament.’ But I said: ‘It’s not just about winning the tournament. There are many places to go.'”
Ige is making plans to attend as many international polo events as he can whenever he is on holiday.
“I want people there to look at me and say: ‘You mean that there are more people, like you, that play where you come from?'” Ige said.
He also hopes that sharing his story will encourage young Nigerians to start playing polo, and to start early.
“Imagine if I had continued playing since I was younger, I would have been at a different level than I am now,” he says.
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