Zainab Alema: From neonatal nurse to inspirational rugby player

October 25, 2021

Smashing Stereotypes Like a Bulldozer

I am happy to welcome Zainab Alema, known as Zee or The Bulldozer. In 2020, she was named the Sunday Times Grassroots Sportswoman of the Year. The year before, she set up Studs in the Mud, a charity providing equipment and funding to help and encourage women to play rugby. 

Zee is a British-born Ghanaian, a wife, and a mother of three very young children. After her career playing rugby and working at night full-time as an intensive care neonatal nurse, she is now focused on rugby full-time, playing for Richmond, and aspiring to represent her country.

She has gone through much change and seeks to be an agent of change, breaking through stereotypes in the world of competitive sport and beyond. 

Zee fell in love with rugby at the age of 14, when she didn’t even know women played rugby. She has played ever since, with highs and lows along the way. 

She was different from her teammates and at times felt lonely, so she nearly quit, but knowing that there are other black female rugby players in the world, such as ​​Maggie Alphonsi, helped her keep going and move forward.

Zainab shared with us how she managed to create her own path, the one that no one took before her. Today things have changed and she plays in the most diverse team she has ever played.

We talked about the importance of Ghanaian culture to Zee and how it adds another dimension to her identity. She explained her nickname Bulldozer, both as a rugby position and a metaphor for her ability to smash stereotypes.

Zee also shared her biggest challenges and how she managed to find the balance in her life. Currently, she is working on her dream of playing for England, whilst inspiring many people of different colours, cultures and beliefs to chase their dreams as well.

Key Takeaways:

  • Admit your goals to yourself
  • Stating your dream or your goal out loud – makes it real
  • Change and the capacity for change can be found in most incredible and also the simplest of places

There’s something powerful about knowing who you are and your identity, no matter what situation you find yourself in, you can cope because you know who you are.

Zainab Alema

Points of discussion:

  • Introduction (01:25)
  • The moment you fell in love with rugby (01:55)
  • Almost giving up at University (03:06)
  • How did you find the physicality of being on the pitch? (05:38)
  • Did you ever want to no longer wear the headscarf in order to fit in? (08:13)
  • What sort of reception did you get as a young person on the field? (10:40)
  • Are people more inclusive and accepting today? (13:37)
  • Ghanaian tradition and background (15:31)
  • About smashing stereotypes (17:22)
  • Do you think you are re-inventing rugby? (20:06)
  • How do you feel when you are on the pitch? (21:45)
  • What was the biggest challenge for you? (22:18)
  • About balance (23:17)
  • What have you brought from your nursing career to the pitch? (25:16)
  • Being a role model (26:29)
  • Dream of playing for England (28:12)
  • How do you think taking the leap has changed you? (32:55)
  • Where do you think you will be in 5 years? (36:59)
  • Do we need more change? (38:50)
  • A piece of advice (41:20)
  • Key takeaways from the interview by Dee (43:00)

Additional Resources:

Follow Zee on Linkedin

Learn more about Studs in the Mud

Listen to all of the amazing Change Sessions interviews