Book review: "Soccer Grannies: The South African Women Who Inspire the World" By Jean Duffy (Rowman & Littlefield)
A dozen or so years ago, I took a group of Over-40 men to a tournament in Miami for a weekend of six-a-side soccer and unlimited socializing. When we got there, it turned out that we were the only Over-40s team to have registered, so we were placed in the Over-30s bracket. We played four, lost three, and tied one. We took home two trophies - one for being the 'top' Over-40s team, the other for Goal of the Tournament. All 10 of us who made the trip still talk today about how we won two trophies that weekend in spite of not winning a single game. And what a good time we had celebrating our improbable success.
Around about the same time, a far more important team was visiting the USA to take part in a veterans' tournament in Massachusetts. Flown over on the initiative of a local team that had been captivated by their story, the Vakhegula Vakhegula ('Grannies Grannies') from South Africa were a most unlikely bunch of sportswomen from the province of Limpopo. They too failed to win a game, but for their courage and spirit were sent back home with the tournament trophy. At a certain age, participation is way more important than the scoreline.
Jean Duffy, who plays on the team that forged bonds and friendship with the Vakhegula Vakhegula, tells the story of how the South African women escaped their roles as home-bound, full-time caregivers to their grandchildren, and began to garner the benefits of playing regular sport, despite having only taken up the game in the later decades of their lives. Once they got involved, they noticed that their "mobility and strength had increased from the exercise. Beyond the physical benefits, they were also enjoying laughter and friendship — which in turn improved their mental health. They were sleeping better too."
The book quotes a Los Angeles Times report on the team: "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. 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."
Duffy digs deeper into those lives with individual player portraits between chapters. Many of the women do not know how old they are because they were deprived of an education, or had it cut short when, in one case, they had to tend to the family goats. A common thread is an arranged marriage (often as a second wife), followed by domestic servitude and children (including several heart-breaking tales of their mortality), and then a suddenly absent husband - leaving his wife or wives to cope and earn alone. For escape, solace or companionship, it's church, song, dance, family and - eventually - soccer that help them through.
Granny Nora, 67, narrates her own view of the benefits of joining a soccer team late in life: "I am proud of being involved in football. I started with Vakhegula Vakhegula right when they first formed. It changed my life. I used to get tired early, but since I have been playing football, my body is so strong, and a lot of aches have gone. I have been a happy woman since I have been playing football. My fellow sisters - we take care of one another. I am living so well. My soul has settled."
At the heart of the book is the team's founder and driving force, Rebecca 'Beka' Ntsanwisi. Since that trip to Massachusetts in 2010, she has founded 84 teams in total across South Africa's nine provinces, helped by publicity generated by the U.S. trip. She has also since taken her team to three FIFA World Cups to play in locally organized games or tournaments. "These grandmothers are increasingly appreciated as a vibrant, integral part of their communities," Duffy writes. "Admired for remaining strong and healthy, having fun."
"It always seems impossible until it's done," is a Nelson Mandela quote that pops up at the start of one chapter. Providing education and access to sport for all, though, should not be impossible. These are basic human rights, taken for granted by those of us who can fly to Miami for a weekend's recreational soccer. This is the kind of book that should inspire communities, institutions, individuals and policy-makers alike to prioritize such rights as the absolute minimum goal for every living human being.
• "Soccer Grannies: The South African Women Who Inspire the World." More information HERE & HERE & HERE.