The real story behind viral photo of Senegalese women basketball players is so inspiring

Over the weekend, actor-musician Doc Brown (aka Ben Bailey Smith, Zadie Smith’s brother) took to Twitter to admire a photo he’d found, writing, “Can we just have a moment for this Senegalese Women’s Basketball team.”

It is a beautiful photo — five fresh-faced young women, looking confident and happy, with traditional West African prints juxtaposed against their Nike shirts and sneakers. Without context, it’s easy to see why the post earned 51,000 likes and more than 17,000 retweets. With context, it’s so much better.

Five students from the Seed Academy Girls in Senegal have gone viral with this photo shoot. (Photo: Folasade Adeoso for Seed Project)
Five students from the Seed Academy Girls in Senegal have gone viral with this photo shoot. (Photo: Folasade Adeoso for Seed Project)

Many of the people who commented on Smith’s post (and others who have posted it on their own social media accounts and Reddit in recent months) have made some mistaken assumptions about the photo. They think this is Senegal’s national team (it isn’t). They guess that it’s actually an ad for Nike (it’s not). They question whether the women play basketball in long skirts and head wraps. They wonder if the girls are being “exoticized” by corporate America.

Here’s the real story: These five girls aren’t pros (yet). They’re the five students with the highest GPAs at Seed Academy Girls, a boarding school in Thiès, Senegal, where 20 students receive free scholarships to study and train in basketball. Back in February 2016, Nigerian-American artist and graphic designer Folasade Adeoso took the photo and several others for a project called “Picture Us Ballin’” to help spread the word and raise funds for the school. (Because the girls are underage, SEED decided not to make their names public.)

“Additionally, we wanted our students to show the world how they wanted to be seen,” Noah Levine, executive director of the Seed Project, tells Yahoo Lifestyle of the shoot. “Too many people see Africa through the eyes of outsiders, and our girls wanted to show everyone what they think is beautiful.”

Seed Academy girls. (Photo: Folasade Adeoso for Seed Project)
Seed Academy girls. (Photo: Folasade Adeoso for Seed Project)

All of the students helped with this shoot, from designing the Senegalese wax prints to doing their makeup and choosing the locations. And no, Nike didn’t pay for the shoot, exactly, but it is a sponsor, providing the students with gear and some of their clothing.

“We also want to show that young women deserve just as much of an opportunity to study and play sports as young boys do,” Levine says.

The Seed Project, a nonprofit based in the U.S. — which also has an academy for boys and provides after-school programs throughout Senegal and Gambia — emphasizes academic study as much as sports. But Levine says the girls’ No. 1 goal is to play college basketball.

“In Senegal, girls are less likely to attend school, more likely to drop out to tend to household chores or prepare for marriage, and rarely encouraged to re-enroll,” reads a statement on the Seed site.

Photo: Folasade Adeoso for Seed Project
Photo: Folasade Adeoso for Seed Project

Despite the erroneous assumptions that some have made about the photo, it is resonating with people the way Seed intended it to.

“I think the image has received a lot of attention of the past year because most people don’t expect young, African women (and most of our students are Muslim) to play sports!” Levine shares. “Our girls are really, really, talented both on and off the court. In fact, we have nine students playing college basketball in the U.S., France, and Africa.”

Levine hopes that people take their admiration to the next level making a donation at to help support these girls.

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