Even though the 2023 Women’s World Cup is hosted down under in New Zealand and Australia, you can bet soccer aficionados from all over the world will follow the action, including the Soccer Grannies of Limpopo, South Africa. Community activist Beka Ntsanwisi, also known as Mama Beka, founded a soccer club for grandmothers Vakhegula Vakhegula F. C. in 2003, nicknamed The Soccer Grannies, and the women have been kicking ever since.
Senior soccer fever began in 2002, when a group of grandmothers ages 40-82, were itchy to get on a field and kick the ball around, even though they had to play in skirts and dresses. At the time, it was a no-no for women, especially grandmothers, to play soccer, let alone wear shorts or regular kits on the pitch.
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. – Robyn Dixon, L. A. Times
Meanwhile, across the globe in Lexington, Massachusetts (Lexpressas), San Diego, California (Prime of Life Women’s Soccer League) New York City (DragonMoms), and in different pockets of the USA, women over 40 took to playing soccer because they were sick of watching their kids play, or they were looking for camaraderie in sports, or when the roller-coaster of menopause hit them hard. Mama Beka will be the first to tout the health benefits of running and kicking a ball, especially for older women. South African grandmothers are often drafted back into childcare when the parents work out of town, sometimes caring for multiple sets of grandchildren at once, which often causes health problems.
Many grandmothers succumb to exhaustion, which often results in hypertension, obesity, asthma, heart disease and lots of stress. – Beka Ntsanwisi
Mama Beka began persuading grandmothers with health issues to try soccer. Soon grandmothers flocked to the pitch, and by 2022, Mama Beka had jumpstarted 84 teams of soccer-loving older women across all nine provinces of South Africa.
Jean Duffy, a Massachusetts ex-soccer mom turned player at age 46, wrote a beautiful heart-warming book called Soccer Grannies, which maps the journey of how Team Lexpressas from New England met up with the Limpopo Soccer Grannies to play the beautiful game.
The 2010 FIFA World Cup was the first time the games were held in Africa. The Soccer Grannies were thrust into the international spotlight as a charming human interest story in the lead up to the World Cup. My women’s soccer team in Massachusetts had connected with the Grannies, formed a friendship, and convened on both sides of the Atlantic to play together. – Jean Duffy
For the 2010 Veteran’s Cup in Boston and then again in 2023 in South Africa, the Grannies and Lexpressas met for tournament competition replete with referees, trophies, and loads of fun. The players share fundraising resources for families in need, cook and dance together, and simply play for the love of the game.
Duffy’s book, Soccer Grannies, tenderly chronicles the lives of individual players such as Granny Omo, age 70, Granny Rossina, age 82, and Granny Bull, age 80, which in turn sheds light on the dark history of apartheid and how it affected their families. Duffy artfully weaves into her women’s sports story the brutal impact of government-initiated racism.
Crazed with fever dreams of racial purity, the government proceeded to wreak havoc with people’s lives, forcibly relocating three and a half million South Africans to the remote territories because it had been decided they were Black, an evaluation so arbitrary that families were often broken up based on the hue of their skin. (Would a pencil stay in your hair when you shook it? You’re Black. Would it wriggle free: You’re “Coloured” the historical term referring to mixed race South Africans. Would it immediately and easily slide out: You’re White.) Given little time to pack, armed police escorted them to their new “homeland,” where they might find a collection of one-room pre-fabricated houses and rations of maize to eat, effectively plunging the majority of South Africans into instant state-induced poverty. – Jean Duffy
By 1954, The Federation of South African Women was created to end apartheid and promote the rights of women. Along with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, women across the country played an important role in ending apartheid. On August 9 every year, South Africa honors the twenty thousand women who protested in 1956 when they burned their passbooks and sang a warning, Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo, uza kufa, which means:
When you strike a woman,
You strike a rock.
You will be crushed and die.
Mama Beka has been affectionately named Mother Theresa of Limpopo because not only is she a community activist and popular radio show host, she also orchestrates building houses for people in need.
So they come to me and tell me that they don’t have a house. And it depends if it is a family or she is alone. Most of the time it is a woman and some children who lost their parents and they are alone. Remember, perhaps a child of 15 years is the head of the family, watching siblings who might be age 5 or 4. They are not in a safe place. Maybe they are staying with relatives, perhaps living with a family. I investigate first and work with a social worker. If the land is theirs verified with the government officials and social workers, I get women. We buy cement. We make bricks. Some will volunteer to help build it. Some need money. Maybe one of my supporters will come and help to pay them. Building a house is not easy. It needs a lot of things – cement, doors . . . Roofing is expensive. Water pipes to the house. Electricity to the house. They look at me as their mother who will help them. The kids are suffering. When I have some money I take the little that I have and I can pay a little every month. – Beka Ntsanwisi
In 2019 a combined 1.12 billion viewers tuned into official broadcast coverage of the FIFA Women’s World Cup across all platforms, and this year, Mama Beka will surely be watching. Soccer Grannies is a must-read book for anyone who has a soft spot for the beautiful game. And get ready to be immersed in the amazing stories of South African grandmothers who are the backbone of their communities. The Grannies may be elderly but they have an instagram presence #soccergranniesbook with portraits of the players, including these words of wisdom from Mama Beka.
In old age sometimes the only thing you’re looking toward is death. We’re not looking at death, we’re looking at making ourselves happy. -Beka Ntsanwisi
To contribute to Beka Ntsanwisi’s building fund and healthcare programs:
Top photo: Soccer Grannies in 2023 Limpopo tournament