Celebrating women around the world

August 2023

With the Women’s World Cup underway, we’re celebrating women from around the world. Also women of all ages. To that point, I invited my friend Jean Duffy to write a guest post for this month’s newsletter because I don’t know anyone better equipped than she is to write about such women. Her book, Soccer Grannies: The South African Women Who Inspire the World, has just come out. Now I’ll turn it over to Jean to tell you about Beka Ntsanwisi of Limpopo, South Africa.

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Beka Ntsanwisi was 35 years old when she was diagnosed with colon cancer. This woman who has dedicated her life to helping others in Limpopo, South Africa refused to hear the doctors tell her she was about to die. Instead, she redoubled her efforts building houses for the destitute and helping kid with school fees. While in the hospital undergoing cancer treatments, Beka looked outward rather than focusing on her own suffering. She saw ailing grandmothers with aching joints. Beka summoned these women to join her for regular exercise.

One day while limbering up at the edge of a field, some boys accidentally kicked a soccer ball toward the grandmothers. One woman booted the ball. The other women laughed as the ball skittered in the wrong direction. She tried again. More laughter. Beka asked the boys to show these grandmothers how to kick the ball properly. The next day, one of the women called Beka and told her, “We want to play football again. It was nice.” And so, the Soccer Grannies formed a team in defiance of social norms telling them they belonged at home caring for the grandchildren.

Like the Soccer Grannies, I found my way to the soccer pitch in my mid-40s in Massachusetts. In 2010, when South Africa hosted the World Cup, I saw a news reel about the Soccer Grannies. I felt an immediate bond with these women halfway around the world. I connected with Beka and our sister soccer teams have since met to play the beautiful game on both sides of the Atlantic. That experience inspired me to write a book to share their story.

In my thirteen years working with Beka I have learned three things.

1. Dream big. In 2010, I invited Beka and the Soccer Grannies team to the U.S. to compete in an adult soccer tournament. Without hesitation, she replied, “We will come my sister,” ignoring any obstacles. Five months later, nineteen grandmothers streamed through the Boston airport. But Beka dreamed on; “Before I die, I want to host a Grannies World Cup.” In March 2023, sixteen over-age-50 women’s teams from across Africa, the U.S. and Europe convened in Limpopo. From the opening parade to the closing ceremonies in a stadium packed with adoring fans, an extraordinary celebration of older women with a shared passion ensued.

2. Lead with love. As a young girl, Beka shared her bread with fellow schoolmates who had no lunch. As a young woman, Beka was a radio talk show host connecting call-in listeners with assistance. A wheelchair for one. A proper burial for the relative of another. Now Beka walks many kilometers to remote villages. The revered Mama Beka listens intently, sleeps on the floor, and then walks home carrying the burden of the stories she heard.

3. Others will follow. Fifteen years since that first Soccer Grannies team, over 200 teams of grandmothers play soccer across South Africa. That’s countless women empowered to improve their health and build a supportive community. Beka visited the U.S. a few weeks ago. We were interviewed by a California podcast host. The host told us that her eight-year-old niece had asked her about the “Soccer Grannies” book, which she explained. Later the same day,her niece returned from a field trip and told her aunt she had shared some of her money with a girl who did not have enough. Beka’s reach is boundless.

Beka Ntsanwisi meeting with other grandmothers at a house construction site, July 2022. Photo credit: Tessa Frootko Gordon

Jean’s Lexpressas team with Beka Ntsanwisi in the stadium in Nkowankowa, Limpopo, March 2023. Photo credit: Kate Duffy

When she’s not writing, Jean can be found on the soccer field in Lexington, Massachusetts where her team has been playing for some twenty years. When she’s not attacking the keyboard or flubbing a shot on goal, she might be doing crossword puzzles with her husband at their home in Somerville, Massachusetts. More at jeanduffy.com.



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