June 21, 2010

SOUTH AFRICA: They kick like grannies, proudly

LOS ANGELES TIMES / Collections / Soccer / June 21, 2010 

Frail, elderly women in South Africa started playing soccer as a joke. Now they are running and competing on the field, leaving cultural expectations in the dust.

By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
Reporting from Nkowankowa, South Africa

The grandmothers gather on a lumpy piece of grass as the late sun paints a golden light. Their long, demure skirts, bright kerchiefs and flat rubber shoes are like a uniform of old age.

Then one peels off her shirt, revealing a sturdy, flesh-colored bra. Another shirt comes off, and another and another. Everywhere are sensible bras and plump skin.

They pull on T-shirts and drag tight nylon shorts on under their skirts. They shimmy their skirts to the ground.

And lace up their soccer boots.

Some of the women stump stiffly onto the field. Others are limping. Some move as quietly as water in a slow-moving river.

The coach blows a whistle and the game begins.

In a rural South African township with staid values, the soccer grannies are quiet revolutionaries.

When the elderly women began kicking a ball around three years ago, they nearly caused car accidents as drivers craned to see them. People walking by stopped to stare. Gossips in this stretch of small houses, taverns and dusty streets in Limpopo province, in the north of the country, passed the word along: The grannies are playing soccer! Come and see!

"People laughed at us," said Nora Makhubele, at 84 the oldest player. "They said: 'You don't even know how to walk properly. How are you going to play soccer?'"

In the beginning, the women weren't even sure themselves.

It didn't help that no one seemed to approve. When they squeezed into their shorts, some locals were outraged; others thought them funny, in an unkind way. And some women shunned the team rather than wear short pants, normally associated with small boys.

In the local Tsonga culture, elderly people are honored and respected, but they are also expected to be "dignified," said team organizer Beatrice Tshabalala, 47.

The harshest critics?

"It was men mostly. Old men. They were saying, 'Why are old grannies wearing shorts?' In our tradition, an old lady is not supposed to wear shorts. They didn't like it. They saw it as disrespectful. Old ladies must be at home taking care of their grandchildren."

But it wasn't just the men. Makhubele was ridiculed by female friends and neighbors she had known for years.

"Even my grandchildren would laugh and say: 'Granny, you can't play soccer. You're too old.' The more they said it, the more inspired I became. I wanted to show them that I will play soccer and I will never leave soccer."

She spent about $12 for a pair of soccer boots, a lot of money for a pensioner like her.

The team started as a joke.

It grew out of a "healthy living" project for older women in townships and villages around the city of Tzaneen founded by Beka Ntsanwisi, a community worker and radio personality. She was given one of South Africa's highest national awards, the Order of the Baobab, in 2008 for her work in rural communities.

Ntsanwisi, who was born in Nkowankowa, got the idea of helping elderly women when she was being treated for colon cancer in 2003. She spent months in and out of public hospitals and met many sick women who were older, lonely, unfit and unhealthy.

"It was a bit tough. I was in a wheelchair," she said. "I saw that people, especially women, in public hospitals were not exercising."

After her recovery in 2005, she launched a program here to visit the women, many of them struggling to bring up grandchildren orphaned by AIDS, and give them support. Then she introduced a light exercise program.

"It's better they exercise than sit around doing knitting all day," she said.

In 2007, the project morphed into a soccer team.

"One day I said, 'Let's play soccer.' I was just joking and they were just laughing at me. They said, 'Mama, we can try this.'"

The women went to a football field with Ntsanwisi, who strode up to a group of boys playing the game while the women stood around shyly.

"She talked to the boys and said, 'Show these women how to kick a ball,'" said Angelina Hlope, 70. "They learned us how to kick a ball. They said, 'Kick like this, shoot the ball!'

"When we came out of the ground that first day that we were playing football, people wanted to know why the old ladies are kicking the ball, because football is for the men, not the ladies."

Ntsanwisi wasn't sure the women would come back for more after that. "The first day it was just joking. They were just laughing at themselves. The second day they called and said, 'We want to meet for soccer again.' They started to practice. They were the ones who decided to practice every Tuesday and Thursday."

In a nod to the national team, Bafana Bafana ("boys boys" in Zulu) they called themselves Vakhegula Vakhegula ("grandmothers grandmothers" in Tsonga). More than 40 women regularly take part in the practices. Other teams in surrounding villages have sprung up, and matches are held regularly in a local stadium.

The women of the Vakhegula Vakhegula soccer team, ranging in age from 49 to 84, warmed up before a game last month near Tzaneen, South Africa. Kim Ludbrook/European Pressphoto Agency
Courtesy: The New York Times.

People began flocking to see the games — including the men.

Now, with South Africa hosting soccer's World Cup, they're in the spotlight, even though the team's hope to play a tournament curtain-raiser came to nothing. The women have been invited to participate in the United States Adult Soccer Assn. Veterans Cup in Lancaster, Mass., next month and have raised money for 15 players to attend. But Ntsanwisi said the team was still well short of its fundraising goal to send everyone.

The women slide gently into their practice session. They sit on the ground chatting while the latecomers straggle along. They warm up by walking and jogging up and down the pitch.

Coach Romeo Nzako, acting as umpire, blows the whistle to start the practice match.

Knots of players dance up and down the field, waltzing around the ball, nudging one another aside. It scuttles between their boots like a frightened animal looking for a hole to hide in. No one pays attention to the offside rule.

"Kick the ball!" yells a second coach, David Maake, 23. "No, not like that!"

It's not all fluid, magical movement. Sometimes the players look a little stiff. Yet on the field, the women transcend the boundaries that hem them in: the opinions of what a grandmother should and shouldn't do; the lives of poverty and deprivation.

Nora Makhubele worked all her life as a domestic servant for a white family who treated her kindly but paid a pittance. The day she retired to be with her family about 30 years ago, when she was in her early 50s, she had no savings.

"I felt tired. I felt bad in my heart that I had worked for so long and didn't come home with anything. They were white and had money. What could I say to them?"

With poverty, disadvantage and poor healthcare went illness and frailty. But now, the women's health and fitness have so improved through soccer training that some of their former critics are asking to join.

Mercy Mathebula's awkward, stiff-legged gait is almost painful to watch. But to locals, she's one of the team's most amazing stories.

"She couldn't walk like that before," said the team organizer, Tshabalala. "It was very painful for her to walk. She started practicing and it helped her to walk better."

Hlope had high blood pressure, ulcers and arthritis in her knees. Doctors gave her a series of painful injections to try to repair her knees, but it didn't help. She walked on crutches for so long she thought of them as her old friends. After three years of hobbling, she joined Ntsanwisi's exercise group and eventually threw away her crutches.

"I didn't know how to run. I didn't know how to sit down on the floor," she said. "Now I can run, I'm running everywhere. I'm healthy. I have no pain in my body. The ball has helped me. I've put my life in soccer."

The grandmothers' practice match goes on until dusk.

Afterward, they wind down with some goal shooting practice. As the evening light dies, the practice session dissolves into laughter and song. It's time to go home, back to their lives of cooking, cleaning and looking after their grandchildren and their men.

They hug and knot arms, swaying gently and dancing off the field, singing a song of praise.


Copyright 2010 Los Angeles Times