"Not Even Rugby Enabled Me To Forget" Interview in Rugby World
France flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo reveals why he would trade all his rugby honours to have grown up in the bosom of his family at home in Africa…
Why me? Twenty-four years after arriving in France, Fulgence Ouedraogo still wonders why. Why he has never known the thrill of playing a game of rugby with his loved ones in the stands. Why he could not have grown up like any normal child in Burkina Faso. And why at the age of three his parents chose to send him away to live with a French foster family near Montpellier.
With his regal poise and extreme athleticism, and as captain of a vibrant Montpellier side, Ouedraogo is today recognised as one of the finest flankers in France. During the Marc Lièvremont era, his aerial skills in the lineout and his speed to the breakdown often made him the automatic choice on the side of the French scrum, figuring at one stage in the starting line-up in 19 out of a possible 23 Internationals.
Having chosen one of the few positions where the competition for places with Les Bleus runs white hot, however, Ouedraogo has occasionally had to step aside. In the 2011 World Cup final, for instance, with Thierry Dusautoir, Julien Bonnaire and Imanol Harinordoquy lording it over the All Blacks, he was the only French sub not to make it onto the pitch during the nail-biting face-off at Eden Park. “Why me?” Ouedraogo might be tempted to ask. For some people, not being able to get on the field in the most important match of their career, or losing the World Cup final by one point, would be a crushing blow, a bitter disappointment. But life has taught him to put things in perspective and, in the light of his own heart-wrenching destiny, such things are a mere bagatelle. “Yes, I was disappointed, but you have to respect the coach’s decisions,” he reasons. “It’s never something that I dwell on; it’s in the past and if I have learned anything in my life, it’s the ability to overcome the obstacles that get put in your way.” As far as obstacles go, Ouedraogo has had more than his fair share. He was born in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a former French colony in West Africa previously known as Upper Volta. But his life came to a dramatic turning point at Christmas in 1989. Having already lost their first two children, Francine and Brice, to illness at a young age, his parents Berthe and Antoine Ouedraogo decided to try to break the cycle of affliction. They wanted to offer their next-born child the chance of escaping Africa to a brighter future, by sending him to live in France, with foster parents Colette and Gérard Massuard, in the tiny Provençal village of Saint-Jean-de-Cuculles. “Life is more difficult in Africa, two of my sibling had already died, and my parents thought I would have a better chance in life if I grew up in better conditions,” remembers Ouedraogo. “They thought that if I grew up in France, I could get a better education, maybe get a degree, then come back to Burkina and help make a difference.” Whatever the reasons for his parents’ choice, for a three-year-old Fulgence it was as if they had abandoned him, exiling him to a foreign land. And no matter how well the Massuards cared for him, nothing could replace the love of his parents and a sense of family. “I couldn’t understand it at the time,” he murmurs, still visibly moved by the memory. “Why me? Why couldn’t I be with my family? It’s important for a kid to be able to grow up with his parents. It just wasn’t normal.” Nevertheless, at the age of six, Ouedraogo joined the local rugby club, Pic Saint Loup, where he immediately struck up a lifelong friendship with a certain Francois Trinh-Duc. The perfect solution, one surmises, to help him forget his troubles? “No,” he insists. “Not even rugby enabled me to forget. Yes, it enabled me to make many friends, to build my character and to mature as a person. Rugby taught me the values to make me a good citizen, the solidarity, the selflessness and the sense of self-sacrifice. But nothing ever enabled me to forget.” Trinh-Duc, the Montpellier and France fly-half, recalls an introverted young Ouedraogo, who never spoke of his problems. “When he was young he was very timid and kept everything to himself. We knew a little bit about his story because we knew his foster parents. But ‘Fufu’ never really confided in us,so we never knew how hard it was for him, and how much he just wanted to be with his family.” If the first feeling of abandonment wasn’t enough, however, worse was yet to come for the young Fulgence. In 1996, at the age of ten, as he had already done on two previous occasions, he returned to Ouagadougou for his holidays, spending a carefree summer playing with his brother Valère, only one year his junior. "We were very close, there was an incredibly strong bond between us, like there can only be between two brothers.“ But shortly after his return to France, he received a letter from his parents telling him that Valère had died suddenly after contracting meningitis. For Ouedraogo, it was the final straw, as if the curse of Africa still held his family in its power. Despite his young age, he decided to break all contact with his biological family and swore never again to return to the land of his birth. For almost 15 years, the letters and messages from his parents and siblings all remained unanswered. As Ouedraogo grew to adulthood, as he came up through rugby’s ranks - playing for the Montpellier first team, winning the 2006 U21 World Cup aged 19, winning his first full international cap against the All Blacks six weeks before his 21st birthday - there was still never any contact. Until one day in the summer of 2010, when he finally replied to an email from his father, opening up the lines of communication again. So why the sudden change of heart? "There was nothing specific,” explains Ouedraogo. “Maybe it was just because I was getting older and with the maturity I was able to put things a bit more in perspective. I just felt this desire to recreate the bond with my family, to be less self-absorbed and more communicative about how I felt.” So it was that in the summer of 2012, on his return from the French tour of Argentina, Ouedraogo took a flight from Paris to Ouagadougou for the first time in 16 years. His Burkina nationality having lapsed when he became a French national at the age of 18, he was obliged to ask for a visa and he no longer speaks the local Mooré language. But when he fell into his mother’s arms on arrival, it was - almost - as if he had never been away. “There are no words to describe what I felt at that moment,” he says. “All I know is that it was important for me to see my family again, and just to be with them."
When Ouedraogo returned to France, after spending ten full-on days with his parents, his sister Mireille and his brother Césaire, it was as if the scares of a lifetime were completely healed. Almost For although at 26 Ouedraogo says he has come to accept and to understand his parents’ actions, he has yet to forgive them. ”Je comprends mais je n'ai pas pardonné" he insists. But surely his life in France, his successful career in international rugby, the fame and adulation in his home town of Montpellier surely that makes up for it? “No,” he says curtly. “No it doesn’t.” Not even his current total of 32 international caps, not his U21 World Cup winner’s medal, or sitting on the bench for France in the 2011 World Cup final? Non, non et non.
“If I’d had the choice, which I didn’t, I would have stayed in Burkina,” he insists. “I would probably never have played rugby and my life would have been completely different. But I would have been with my parents, I would have grown up surrounded by my family. And that is something that no one can ever replace.”