It is in Yoff, in the northern districts of Dakar, on the western tip of Senegal, that the House of Rugby project was born. It all started with one man, a Frenchman called Gilles Marchand, originally from Chartres who also lived in Avignon.
It was at his home that the very first House of Rugby was born in a corner of the Senegalese capital where customs and traditions remain strong. It was here that a dozen children from Grand Yoff - the Arafat boys - got their first taste of rugby.
At that time, many young people referred to as vulnerable populated the streets. "There were many young people who did not study and who only knew fishing," says Edvige Manga, who arrived as an educator in 2011.
"When Guédel Ndiaye (president of the Fédération Sénégalaise de Rugby) asked us to open a rugby house, Gilles immediately found a house to rent in Yoff near his home. It is thus a project of the Senegalese Rugby Federation. At first, everyone said that renting was expensive and that we shouldn't put it in Yoff, but in the end we opened it."
Young people have found a "home"
The house is modest and warm. There are three offices, a computer room, a living room, a TV room, a store, a kitchen, sanitary facilities and a terrace. A small garden on the side is planted with beautiful flowers that the young people water. The sports field is only a two-minute walk away from the nearby beach.
The basic idea is still the same: to educate through rugby, to train children to succeed in school and to help them become model citizens. This is a daring idea in a country where team sports are dominated by soccer and basketball. But rugby is indispensable in this regard as it conveys strong values: commitment, respect, solidarity, friendliness and surpassing oneself.
"It was mainly curiosity that pushed them to come at the beginning," recounts Edvige. "It was the first time they had heard the word rugby and they wanted to find out what it was like. Many are also there because of their friends."
There are a few hundred young people from seven to 17 years old, both boys and girls, who have pushed open the doors of the House of Rugby to find a place of fulfilment through educational and sports activities. Promoting social diversity, equal opportunities and the quest for excellence through education and sport is the vision of this charitable organisation.
"Our mission is to improve the prospects for social integration of Senegalese children and youth through the practice of rugby, educational reinforcement, citizenship awareness, training and support for professional integration," say the project's promoters.
Nutrition, one of the keys to success
This includes help with homework, health monitoring of young people, good nutrition, training, professional integration and sports. They have recently added boxing and swimming to the program of activities.
There is one principle that does not deviate: when the children arrive, they are given a hearty snack. "Because some kids don't eat at home," confirms Edvige. "Some families only eat one meal a day, so we give them something to eat before they go to sports or school support. The young person feels at home, as if they are with their parents."
Inevitably, when the project began, some parents were mistrustful. But gradually they became involved, following their children's progress and participating in the activities.
"Gilles' idea was to make this place a breeding ground, to change the mentalities of some young people and some parents. He likes to help, that's what motivates him. And it worked. For example, at the beginning we couldn't go 10 minutes without young people fighting. We set up rules and today the values are anchored.
Edvige herself knew nothing about rugby when she was hired as an educator. "I didn't even know there was rugby in Senegal," she laughs. "I learned a lot, I took a rugby coach course, another for first aid and today I am in charge of training and professional insertion."
She played rugby for fun, "because I don't like tackles". And today, the House of Rugby has more girls than boys. "Because they are more competitive than the men," laughs the educator.
Solidarity as an engine of development
Edvige has been touched by the strong sense of solidarity that has developed over the years. Behind her desk, she likes to point to a large picture hanging on the wall. In the colours of Senegal, you can see dozens of names. These are the names of the young people who gave her a gift one day while she was on assignment with the Senegalese Rugby Federation. 'Mama Edvige', as she is known, had tears in her eyes.
This passage through the House of Rugby allows all young people to be on the same level, to find their place in society. With all character types showing up, all of the young players manage to find their true personality thanks to the rugby they play.
In the dozen years of its existence, the House of Rugby has changed the lives of hundreds of young people, some of whom have distinguished themselves at the national and international levels. For example, Sylvain Mané became a referee after having played for the Senegalese team.
Two educators are also high-level players: Mariama Ba and Dieynaba Camara. They were recently seen with the Lionesses at a sevens tournament in Alexandria, Egypt. In addition, most of the members of the Senegal U20 team have passed through the House of Rugby.
Given the success of this initiative, the federation is considering developing the model elsewhere and implementing it in all 14 regions of Senegal. "If we could have other schools, other Houses of Rugby in each region, it would be ideal. At least five, that would be good," Edvige dreams.
The first 12 years have proven how rugby can help give young people a better life. The way is paved for the future.