Feature | Karate

Burkina Faso's karateka and activist Gloria Guissou: "I want to be number one in all that I do"

The African Games bronze medallist is using her karate platform to raise awareness on gender violence and discrimination, and boost the participation of women in her sport.

By Evelyn Watta ·

Gloria Guissou was delighted when she was first selected to represent Burkina Faso at a major international karate event.

But she was also stretched, studying for her master's degree in water, hygiene, and sanitation in the international cooperation sector, one of her other passions.

In addition, the 24-year-old also spent time away from the karate arena to fight for gender equality within and outside sport.

But she surprised with bronze at the 2019 African Games, a performance that made her dream of becoming one of the first Burkinabes to qualify for Tokyo Olympics where karate makes its inaugural appearance on the Games programme.

Her path to the Olympics may not be clear for now but her conviction for her sport is resolute.

"I always want to be number one in all that I do. That can be difficult sometimes," she told the Olympic Channel.

Guissou has not only mastered the moves of her sport, but also the art of fighting bias and prejudices throughout her athletic career.

"When you do what you love, whether people support you or not, it's not a problem." - Gloria Guissou

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Told karate "not for girls"

Growing up Gloria Guissou knew she wanted to do karate, inspired by her father Clement Guissou, a karate master who coached the sport.

But her formative years were disrupted as her mother was reluctant to let her train in the sport, which she considered unfit for her daughter.

"There were a lot more people who wanted me to stop. They were more than the ones who supported me. My mother too wanted me to stop and that's why she sent me to a boarding school outside the city! Had I stayed and practised I think I could have been better than I am now," she rued.

"I was good while in school, but my mum reasoned that (later on) men won't accept a woman who does karate and who can potentially hit them." - Gloria Guissou on her fight to practise karate

"It hasn't always been easy. In my close family, a lot asked for me to stop since I was a woman, it would be hard for me to find a husband," she said.

She picked up the sport again in her teen years and has had to play catch-up ever since.

"I was delighted to be back, though I found my teammates had progressed a lot.

"I had to work twice as much to gain the trust of the masters and also not to lag behind because martial arts is a bit like the army. There is great respect for the one who is more senior than you. So when you are back to the game, they order you around especially when you are a woman."

Gloria Guissou with her father, karate master Clément Guissou. (Photo: Gloria Guissou)

The big break

Guissou quickly demonstrated her status as her country's rising star and for the last five years has been the national champion in the 68kg category. But it has been a real fight on and off the mat to cement her position in the team.

"When the time comes to select the athletes to go for a major competition, they tend to select more men than women. You have to fight for a place," she explained of one of the major challenges facing women in sport in her tropical country located in the heart of West Africa.

"Despite statistics showing that girls bring twice as many medals as boys, they always send twice as many boys as girls." - Gloria Guissou

"When you train, you fight against boys, so you need to work even harder, so the boys don't crush you. But this sometimes works to our advantage, we are stronger," Guissou added laughingly.

She caused a sensation in her country when she took bronze at the 2019 African Games in Rabat, Morocco, her team's only karate medal at the tournament.

"That medal was super important. The whole national team was training for weeks in the Stade du 4-Août (in Ouagadougou) twice a day. But I was doing my internship for my Masters, so it meant training only once, and I wasn't so focused as I was working.

"I think out of the whole team, I was the person everyone banked on the least. Then out of the 11 karate athletes (three women and nine men), I was the only one who got a medal."

"The one who trained least brought back the medal that saved the honour for the discipline, especially because it was the first medal for Burkina Faso in karate at the African Games."

Gloria Guissou meets the Burkinabé president Roch Marc Christian Kabore following her bronze medal at the 2019 African Games. (Photo: Gloria Guissou)

That performance ignited her dreams.

She had hoped to further boost her rankings in 2020 before the pandemic struck and forced the cancellation of several events and the postponement of the Tokyo Games. She is realistic about her Olympic chances.

"I was 11th in the African ranking at some point but I don't think I can reach the qualification now. There were some competitions, but our federation could not afford to send us due to lack of money," she said.

"I wanted to reach the Olympics, but if I don't make it, I will work hard to ensure an athlete gets where I couldn't get to… maybe Paris 2024?"

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Fighting prejudice

Guissou also feels her sporting success could have been bigger had she committed more time to her sport and gained international exposure.

"If I had managed to get a scholarship in 2014 or 2015, I wouldn't be married yet. I would focus only on karate. When women don't get any international medals by the time we are 22, 23-year-olds, it gets difficult to focus only on the sport."

"Of course, it hasn't always been easy. In my close family, most people asked me to stop and focus on being a wife. I'm lucky my husband supports my passion," she added of her fight against prejudices in her society.

"The first question you are asked is if one day, there is a misunderstanding, would you hit your husband? But look, you don't get married to fight! I think this is the opposite as you manage to control your emotion thanks to the values of martial arts." - Gloria Guissou on overcoming misconceptions

But it is not only her expected priorities as a wife that keeps her away from competing most of the time.

The kata star is also an active career woman working towards becoming an expert in water and sanitation, partly driven by the adverse conditions in her country.

Of the 800 million people who do not have access to clean water and sanitation over 40% live in Sub-Saharan Africa. That includes Burkina Faso, where barely half the population have access to facilities that meet minimum standards.

Inspired by the power of the karate values, she has embraced the role of being both athlete and activist.

"I owe my role as an activist to karate. To defend the things you believe in. I have difficulty staying (quiet) in the face of injustice."

She has become a voice against gender-based violence and inequalities that affect thousands of girls and women in Burkina Faso who are weighed down by restrictive norms and attitudes.

"Everything that touches the topics of women's rights, I participate in. We have a lot of people that say what a woman should be or what a woman should not be. It's like the woman is not a human being and she is just there for pleasure or a decoration," she said from Bamako, Mali, where she was working on a water and sanitation project.

"For instance, the insults women drivers face in traffic! A woman behind the wheel is assumed to be driving the man's car or if it's her's she has earned it through prostitution."

"And at competitions, the reward for a top female athlete could be a small motorcycle and for a man who has achieved the same, a motorcycle whose value is worth twice as much," she continued, adding that she is currently working on bringing together female athletes in her country in a united front against abuse and bullying in sport.

Guissou's karate success has made her a sporting icon for girls in Burkina Faso. She now runs a school karate program and is the head coach of a women's team at a local club.

"Sometimes, we need to see it to become it, like in the cartoons where there are women who are superheroes. When they see us, they dream, but if they are only surrounded by successful male athletes, when they reach a certain level, they retire because they feel they have no chance," she said.

"It's important because we become role models for young girls. "