"I'm so proud of the opportunities Ireland gave me and of the woman I am today" - Linda Djougang
"I remember sitting down with my dad and telling him I had my suitcase packed up. I was like, 'Okay dad, my holiday is over now. I want to go home!'"
Growing up in Douala, the second largest city in Cameroon, Linda Djougang remembers the massive school she went to, hanging out with the neighbours' children and worshipping her mum, Julienne.
"For me, there was nobody else. We did everything together. That is who I got my sporting personality from. Mum was really into sport, and fitness. I remember, every Saturday they would have a mother's football club. All the mums would go along and play football. All the kids would be watching and we'd all run on the pitch with water during breaks.
"My mum used to always score and everyone used to go, 'Oh your mum is so cool'. I would say, 'I know!'. She was so proud of me and I always told myself, 'I want to be like my mum'. I was lucky enough to grow up and have her as my hero."
Sofianne made the heart-breaking decision, when Linda was aged 9, to send her daughter to Ireland to live with her father. Already working away, here, and with a new partner, it was decided to send Linda to Dublin to give her what they considered would be the best opportunities at life.
"I was nine when I flew to Ireland, and I was on my own on the plane. It was scary flying by myself but, at that age, you don't really ask questions. I was just told, 'You're going to see your dad'.
"I tried to tell myself that I was on holiday and after (a while), I was like, 'I need to go home!'"
Gradually, by going to school at Rush & Lusk Educate Together National School, looking after her step-siblings and connecting with her father and his partner, Djougang settled into life here. She remembers herself and her siblings being told by her father not to respond to any racist comments or to be provoked into any fights.
Racism is not something that occupied her thoughts, growing up, but the odd throwaway comment would sting and she vividly recalls playing football with some of the boys from her class when a student cruelly remarked, 'Linda, black people don't play with white balls'. "I had to learn it was like sticks and stones may hurt, but words will never hurt you.," she says. "That's when I was little but it's only when you grow up and you tell yourself, 'This is not okay'."
Being fluent in French while trying to learn English was frustrating to start but it eventually paid off, academically, once she got to secondary school.
She was not obliged to learn Irish, but she says she loved the language and often asked to sit in on the classes. She ended up doing Honours Irish all the way up to her Leaving Cert mocks. "I loved the language and I always wanted to speak it," she says. "I would love if it was something that was spoken more here. It is such a beautiful language."
All the way through school, though, P.E was Djougang's favourite subject. It used to fall on a Friday so that was the day of the week she most looked forward too. Football and volleyball were great fun and she helped set up an athletics club when she went to secondary school - taking part in shot-puts, 100-metre and relay events.
"I had to grow up very quickly. I had to learn new habits and take new opportunities. Learning a new language was a big thing for me... but now I look at myself, at the age of 24, and I'm so proud of myself. I'm so proud of the opportunities Ireland gave me and of the woman I am today."
Djougang freely admits she did not have the first clue about rugby when she was first approached to play tag rugby when she was attending Trinity College. Over a short period of time, she lined out for Wanderers Rugby Club and then Belvedere as a marauding back-row. Ireland Women's head coach Adam Griggs was the one that pushed Djougang into the front row and she has not looked back.
The Leinster tighthead made her Ireland debut two years ago - two years after first showing up for Leinster trials - and she can still recall every moment around her international debut.
"Oh my God, yes! Definitely. When I talk about it, I still get goosebumps because I had watched a lot of Ireland games and, as a kid, you always dream of just singing that national anthem. I remember I’d be singing it in my room, and I remember the night before my first cap, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me.
"But it has always been, not even my dream. It’s been a dream of my parents, my grandmother. It’s a generation of dreams and I’m lucky enough that I can make it happen, and to make it happen in a country where I grew up and where I feel I’ve been accepted. And to sing it out loud, I couldn’t be prouder."
Djougang's sixth, seventh and eighth senior Ireland caps came earlier this year - as did her second Test try, against Wales - but the Covid-19 pandemic put a hold on the rugby season. It was over the past four months when, as a student nurse at Tallaght Hospital, her contribution to her adopted country would go above and beyond.
Linda Djougang...What a HERO!!👏👏👏 Linda is used to a busy routine, when not normally fighting panedmics, Linda juggles being apart of the @IrishRugby team & a final year nursing student! We stay at home 🏘 for her! So thankful for all our #HealthcareHeroes #COVID19ireland pic.twitter.com/qvq9FsUwpI
— TAP (@AccessTCD) March 26, 2020
Through the Trinity Access Programme, Djougang got the opportunity to shadow nurses and see how they worked. It convinced her that this was the route she wanted to follow. Currently in the final year of her placement, the past four months - during the pandemic - have been equally tough and rewarding.
"Having studied to be a nurse over the past few years, you don't really have a choice. You have to go and be a nurse. I was able to do that and I'm so proud of that." Djougang adds:
"But we should all be proud of ourselves. We had to work as a nation, we had to work as a country and everyone had to play their part. This is the result, now, that we're able to open things again and slowly get back to normal."
Djougang says she would have lost patients she was dealing with during the past few months and that 'everyone working here during Covid has had a difficult time and saw a lot of things happening'. Perhaps most poignant were the moments when Djougang or one of her colleagues were the last people a dying patient got to speak to.
"It was definitely not easy," she says, "the things we had to experience as nurses and students. It's not something we were prepared for but we really just worked together. You were even seeing doctors and nurses that had retired all coming back to work. We all had a job to do.
"It was really difficult for patients, especially, not having family and relatives there. We had to act as a relative to them while, at the same time, ringing the families on phones, getting them on iPads or Zoom videos. That was so important."
Djougang is quick to state that the Covid-19 crisis is far from over but she is pleased that so many of her colleagues have been recognised for the work they have done in recent months. "When your country is calling you and you are a frontline worker, you don't think twice about it. It's just something that you have always done and you know it is right... but it's not even us. We needed you guys too."
On the day we spoke with Djougang - for Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby - there were five new Covid-19 cases reported in Ireland and six Covid-related deaths. Phase 3 of the Irish government's roadmap to reopening the country commences from Monday, June 29.
While there is a sense of relief, with mini get-togethers now happening all over the country, Djougang has sadly noticed numbers rising elsewhere in the world. America is now registering more daily Covid-19 cases now than it did in March, April and May.
America has also drawn the world's gaze for the Black Lives Matter movement, which really took off in May after George Floyd was killed during an arrest in Minneapolis. Floyd's death has sparked a surge of protests and rallies in America that spread worldwide and included a march to the United States Embassy in Dublin, earlier this month.
"George Floyd’s death hit everyone," says Djougang. "Black or white, it hit everyone.
"It’s unfortunate that someone’s life had to be taken and that he had to be take away again, another black person. He’s not the first. It’s unfortunate that someone has to take his life and that it has to be seen. Because, usually, if it’s not seen it’s like racism has never happened. The fact it was recorded and everyone kind of went like, ‘Oh, this is happening’. In 2020, we shouldn’t be having this conversation. And it’s unfortunate that we’re still having this conversation about race and diversity.
"But it did hit me really hard. It’s such a hard… and people have made it a hard topic to talk about, which it shouldn’t be. Racism and talking about race, that topic shouldn’t be hard for people to talk about. And I think it just really hit home because of how it happened. Obviously America is different, but other countries are experiencing the same thing; it’s just not being highlighted in the news, or it’s not being filmed, all over the world."
"Things just need to change," Djougang continues.
"We’re all the same. Everyone is all the same. We all should be treated equally. The only thing that is different between you and I is my colour. It’s my melanin in my body. That’s the only thing different. But we are all built the same, we are all born the exact same, we are all equal, and people need to understand that.
"Race shouldn’t be… we shouldn’t judge someone because of the colour of their skin or where they come from, or their culture because we all have that. We all have a culture, we all come from a background and that shouldn’t limit our ability in this world.
"It’s something that… it is especially what I was thinking during this whole lockdown, and families being together, it’s such a great opportunity for families to have that discussion, and talk about it, especially in the lockdown, about race and this topic. It needs to be spoken about, it needs to be highlighted – that it’s not something we should be ashamed of talking about."
"The more we talk about it," Djougang adds, "the more comfortable and we’re able to make a change. It’s important that we highlight it, and we keep talking about it. Because I know it’s #BlackLivesMatter and that hashtag is going to go if you don’t talk about it. If something is not coming up as a topic, people are going to forget about this matter, which is a big subject, it’s a big thing.
"Change needs to happen. Children shouldn’t be scared to express themselves… and it’s unfortunate. I know this is not America but it’s Europe, it’s happening everywhere, it’s happening England, UK, everywhere really worldwide. That’s unfortunate, you know, that somebody’s life needs to be taken for people to realise that there’s a bigger issue. Bigger even than yourself. I think it’s time that things change, for the next generation. It needs to change now."
As someone who made that tough journey from Douala to Dublin but then grasped every opportunity that was afforded to her in Ireland, Djougang is a walking example of someone we should feel proud to embrace as unique yet one of our own.
She would love to see more black history taught in schools and for race and equality to be everyday conversations in Ireland.
"You’re not born racist," she says. "It’s something that you pick up. And if we’re not teaching young kids, growing up, about it then we’ll never understand others… because Ireland is such a diverse country. There’s so many black people, Asian, so many. So it’s important for kids – the next generation – to know that we live in a country that is diverse and accepting of their race, their culture."
Our conversation ends by discussing UFC star Francis Ngannou, who left Cameroon in his 20s to pursue a fighting career in France. Ngannou went from sleeping in Parisian car-parks, in 2013, to fighting for the UFC heavyweight title in 2018.
Ngannou smiles when 'The Preadator' is mentioned. "Everyone has their own story. With me, I think it’s a thing that really makes. His story and what he’s had to go through to be who he is now has shaped him into the man that he is.
"My experiences make me unique and that’s important to me because that’s what I intend to find myself as. But, yeah, back home it’s a big thing and you get people calling me about rugby.
"And it’s always been a dream of mine to go home and use my rugby, and introduce rugby back home because it’s not as popular as football or boxing, but I have a lot of kids trying to talk to me about rugby and my journey. I try to explain to them, but what I can do is bring rugby back home and that’s it. That’s a project of mine for the future, and I’m quite excited!"
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