Duchess of the month: Defying the odds; crossing the thresholds

by Joseph Omoniyi
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On the December 2022 edition of our “Duchess of the Month” are two powerful women who are defying the odds to provide inspirations to millions of people in their immediate space and across the world: I present to you, accomplished, multiple-award-winning, best-selling author, Sharna Jackson and the first African female to officiate at the FIFA World Cup, Salima Mukansanga.

Sharna Jackson

While other children of her age were busy with backyard plays and toys, Sharna Jackson was already fascinated by horror, mystery, romantic novels, medical encyclopedia books and the likes, quite early in her childhood. She was born and bred in Luton, lived in Brighton, London, Kent and Sheffield, but currently writes from her old ship – Anna Maria in Rotterdam, built in 1897.

The story began when Sharna asked for a diary as a gift on her 9th birthday and instead of getting a fun diary, she got a business-man journal, where she started writing some of her imaginations and stories, instead of writing about her day. However, it would take many years for her to become a published author when she was 30. But why?

Just like some of her characters, the threshold Sharna had to cross was within her – fear and doubt. Despite her exceptional talent, Sharna was ripped in fear and nervousness. She knew she could do it but was afraid and doubtful of putting her works out, to get paid.

One day in 2018, she got an external push. She was contacted by a diverse Publishing house in London who were charmed and convinced of her extraordinary writing gift after reading two art books she wrote while she was busy with a job she had to take to keep body and soul together in 2014. So, she was approached to work on her first professionally published book – the first book in Jackson’s series, High-Rise Mystery, which has Nik and Norva solve a murder in their tower block during the hottest summer on record. High-Rise Mystery was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2020. In the second novel in the series, Mic Drop, Nik and Norva investigate the death of an up-and-coming pop star TrojKat, who has fallen from the tower roof. Since then, she has gone ahead to set new standards with her works.

Sharna’s works are mostly inspired by books, people and things that have come before, like, Malorie Blackman OBE, a British writer who held the position of Children’s Laureate from 2013 to 2015, her parents, the way the younger generations use the internet, Sherlock Holmes. So, questioning things she reads, watch and asking how else they can be more interesting to her audience are how she get ideas for her stories – instead of having old white men, why not have little black girls and instead of having big country estate, why not a block of flats and that’s how she came up with “High-Rise Mystery”. According her, her characters are pieces of her and the people around her.

Sharna who thinks she is still ‘a child’, believes being ‘immature’ has also worked in her favour where her success with her works is concerned. The ability to write like a child has influenced her dialogues which sound child-like and draws in the kids.

Sharna is driven by the need to encourage and inspire children and middle-aged to get involve in art and culture, especially those from the brown and black community, and most recently was made the Artistic Director at Site Gallery, Sheffield’s leading international contemporary art space, and was on the board of Sheffield Doc/Fest in addition to being a member of BAFTA’s Children’s and Learning and New Talent committees and the Children’s Media Conference advisory board. She specialises in developing and delivering socially-engaged digital initiatives for children and young people across culture, publishing and entertainment and her work focuses on engaging diverse and disengaged audiences to participate in the arts locally, nationally, and globally. 

She is currently shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for her debut novel High-Rise Mystery, she is also the Southbank Centre’s Imagine A Story author for 2020, and the writer of Tate Kids British Art Activity Book and Tate Kids Modern Art Activity Book.

Salima Mukansanga

Salima Mukansanga made history, after she became one of the three women to referee at the ongoing World Cup for the first time since its creation.

The Rwandan joined France’s Stephanie Frappart, Japan’s Yoshimi Yamashita and 36 others to officiate the tournament taking place in Qatar. They were also joined by three other female assistant referees, Neuza Back, Karen Dias and Kathryn Nesbitt.

Salima Mukansanga was born in 1988 and has been a FIFA registered international referee since 2012. She was selected to officiate both the 2019 Women’s World Cup and the Tokyo Olympic Games.

More recently, Mukansanga wrote herself into the history books, becoming the first ever woman to referee in the Africa Cup of Nations and any men’s top footballing event. On that day, she led an all-female officiating team on to the field of play for the first ever time.

The 34-year-old had wanted to become a professional basketball player but was told she was too young to join the National U-17 basketball squad. After her secondary education, she then tried to register with the Rwanda Football Federation in an attempt to join a referee course but was again denied for being too young.

She would later be allowed to take up a course with them after learning the laws of football herself in her own time. At the start of her career, Mukansanga officiated men’s local amateur football matches and women’s national second-division matches in Rwanda.

She was an official at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. In 2022, Mukansanga became the first woman to referee at the African Cup of Nations, leading an all-woman officiating team of Fatiha Jermoumi (Morocco), Carine Atemzabong (Cameroon), and Bouchra Karboubi (Morocco) as the VAR. She has officiated at the Olympics, FIFA Women’s World Cup, Africa Women’s Cup of Nations, and CAF Women’s Champions League. In 2022 she was one of the three women referees selected to officiate at the FIFA World Cup to be hosted in Qatar. Mukansanga became the first female African to officiate at the men’s top football event.

Shortly after her Nations Cup landmark, Mukansanga – whose only job is refereeing – outlined some of the challenges she has faced to make it, ranging from sexual and cultural differences.

“We have our period – so sometimes you can’t be able to run or officiate. If pregnant – you can’t run. We give birth – so need time to recover, to prepare the body again for the next journey. Men’s speed is at a top level so sometimes I can’t run like men, but I can do more, push more to at least be on the same pace, have proximity with the players and a good angle of vision,” she explained.

In a field dominated by man and their physical show of strength, Salima had to double her work with training sessions and fitness tests which are conducted alongside men.

Having dealt with an initially cold reception in the men’s game, the Rwandan – who makes quick decisions on the pitch – has embraced the challenges of the job.

Salima Musankanga has done what has not been done before, something that speaks volume for refereeing and its development in Africa and beyond.

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