When Uneku Saliu-Atawodi started Ride to Shine—a charity that trains orphans in Nigeria to play polo and compete for prize money to endow its education fund—she says most of her fellow players supported the cause. “You know, just lending me horses, some signing on to sponsor specific kids’ academic careers,” she explained. “But there’s always that tiny 10%.”
Referring to the small subset of Nigeria’s elite that would prefer the country’s polo fields remain “an old boys’ club,” the 26-year-old (who goes by Neku) says she faced some resistance. “It’s weird to me, ’cause it’s children, you know?”
The daughter of a fighter pilot who represented Nigeria around the world, Atawodi grew up among a globetrotting, moneyed set. Born in Nigeria and raised in the northwestern state of Kaduna where she first learned to play polo, she moved to Pakistan, then Brazil with her family. In England, she earned her degree in equestrian science and a British Horse Society stage 4 riding accreditation, which certifies her to manage fields and stables and care for multiple horses. She currently owns the boutique Bamboo Hotel in Abuja, among other holdings.
While Atawodi says that many of her contemporaries got into polo for “status,” her nomadic childhood and affinity for horses sparked her passion for the sport. She thinks exclusionary attitudes about who should and shouldn’t be playing are shortsighted.
With 61% of the nation’s 172 million citizens living on less than one dollar a day, if the mentality remains only billionaires can play polo, the sport cannot grow. The clubs and fields will eventually shut down. The revenue polo generates will be cut off too.
“We raised $200,000 in, like, two hours,” Atawodi says, offering a bygone polo exhibition as an example of the sport’s fundraising capacity. The Ride to Shine model trains talented kids to compete in polo exhibitions, with monies raised from corporate sponsors going into a trust fund.
“Whether we choose you to ride or not, or whether you’re part of it,” she explains, “if you want to go and study in Harvard, but you can’t pay for it, you can apply to the Ride to Shine Trust Fund.”
Atawodi speaks of the endowment being open to any West African child in need, but just seeking consensus across Nigeria has been difficult enough. “I’ve been trying to get the Ministry of Sports to acknowledge equestrian sports as part of our sporting constitution,” she explains. “And to do that you have to… convince every sporting commissioner.” Each of Nigeria’s 36 states has a different sporting commissioner.
Working to create policy with Nigeria’s government hasn’t given Neku Atawodi immunity from what she calls the “extreme bureaucracy” of civil service. “That file might be sat there just for weeks before someone signs it, and then moves it to the next place,” she says.
When conversation veers to Nigeria’s government, Atawodi chooses her words carefully. Her father is now a politician, and in her own capacity as a government employee and Ride to Shine founder, she’s increasingly cast in the role of armchair ambassador.
“Before, it was just, ‘We just want to talk to you about your polo,’ ” she says. But a mantle has come with the opportunities she’s sought out to spread the word. “You’re always thinking, ‘Am I saying the right thing?’ ” But she’s learning to take advantage of her platform.
Citing inspiration from the #BringBackOurGirls campaign—which used a hashtag to raise international awareness about 276 girls kidnapped from their school, and by extension, the terror that has plagued Nigeria for years—she says, “I was so, so impressed with my [generation]. We came together and created a voice, and that voice got the international community to start racking on about it. And it put a fire under the government to just act quicker and move files quicker. It created, like, a catalyst. So they’re acting, and it’s good to see.”