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COLUMN ONE

They kick like grannies, proudly

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.

June 21, 2010|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.

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

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