On a recent overcast afternoon in the Monrovia suburb of Chocolate City, 25-year-old Joy Kollie laced up her sneakers. Then she grabbed the hand of her younger sister Love, 22, and the pair began to warm up for a training session.
“I train twice a week,” Joy said as she stretched. “I love to run. When I run, I feel joy in my heart.”
Running might elicit the kind of happiness for which she was named, but becoming a top athlete in a country like Liberia is no easy feat. Since Joy began running marathons in 2013, she has won two third-place medals in the Liberia Marathon. But in a country like Liberia, where sport is largely seen as the reserve of men, she has also faced stigma and logistical challenges.
Born in 1992 to a mother who once played soccer at a national level, Joy’s deep love for sport began in her childhood. But in Liberia, the mid-1990s were plagued by fractious conflict, and as the country descended deeper into war, Joy’s mother moved the family to Lagos, Nigeria. “In Nigeria, girls can play sport,” Joy said. “They play like men.”
When her mother died, Joy and Love decided to return to Liberia, moving to their childhood community of Chocolate City, on the western outskirts of the capital, Monrovia. By then, Joy was 20.
“When we arrived, I realized that Liberia was far behind Nigeria … no water here, no lights, no good roads,” Joy said. “When people see girls play soccer, they say, ‘Don’t play, oh!’ They say soccer is only for men. But I say, ‘Who told you that?’”
Discouraged by these reactions – especially in a country led by Africa’s first elected female head of state, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Joy turned to running, pounding the pot-holed streets in the early mornings before the day became too hot. In 2013, she ran her first Liberia Marathon, winning third place with a time of 34:19:28.
She began training in earnest for the next marathon, due to be held in 2014. Then the Ebola outbreak hit, and the organizers had to cancel the race.
At the time, Joy had her own Ebola scare. “My skin was hot and my mouth was bitter,” she said. “They tested me for Ebola and after three days the results came back negative. I was alright; I only had malaria.”
But she was not immune to the stigma associated with the illness, and resorted to photocopying her result papers to prove to other members of her community that she had not contracted the virus.
“Nobody wanted to talk to me,” she said. “They said, ‘We thought you had Ebola: Why did you come back here?’ Nobody believed me.”
Taking advice from the Liberia Marathon organizers, Joy poured her energy into her training, going on to win third place in the 21km race of the 2015 marathon.
She dreams of racing internationally, but she doesn’t have any sponsors. In Liberia, sponsorship opportunities are rare. In 2016, the Liberian Olympic Committee was forced to take out a bank loan to ensure its two-person Olympic track team made it to the games in Rio de Janeiro.
Without sponsorship, Joy can’t afford to travel to races. Like many young Liberian women, she doesn’t have a steady job. Instead, she relies on small business opportunities in the informal sector, such as selling goods on the street, or on handouts from family members to get by.
“Female athletes have not been given equal opportunities to their male counterparts, not even half of it,” says Martina Brooks, a Liberian sports journalist. “Not much attention has been given to female athletes across every sphere in the sporting arena, from soccer to basketball to athletics. We always hear that there’s no money, there’s no money, there’s no money.”
In the future, Joy hopes to train young female athletes. In her Chocolate City community, there is already a group of young girls eager to follow in her sneaker-clad footsteps.
“I encourage them. I say, ‘Run! run!,’” she said. “But if they start, who’s going to help them? Who’s going to sponsor them? After training, they ask me for money. They say, ‘Aunty, I want to buy water. Aunty, I want to eat.’ And I just can’t help them with that.”
Still, some of them could have a shot at greater sporting opportunities. In 2016, the Monrovia Football Academy – the first school in Liberia to combine soccer training with the standard Liberian curriculum – opened its doors to 30 boys and 20 girls under the age of 13.
Love, Joy’s sister, says her heart is in soccer and she harbors the hope that Liberia will one day start to take female soccer seriously. The women’s soccer team has not been active since 2014, when the Ebola outbreak brought national sports to a halt. The Ebola crisis is over, but funding and organizational problems mean the team has not been able to kick off again. There is, however, a women’s national soccer league that was relaunched in 2016. Love plays for one of these teams, called Blanco FC.
As Johnson Sirleaf finishes her term in office in January 2018, Joy said she hopes the president will be succeeded by a leader who encourages female athletes, be they runners like herself, or soccer players like her little sister.
“We want leaders who will encourage people to do sports,” she said. “We need it.”