Sisters, united | Like mushrooms, women’s soccer sprouts in northern Malawi


Nkhata Bay Sisters United of Malawi in decommissioned kit from the Huntingdonshire FA.

Nkhata Bay, Malawi | In this zone in northern Malawi, bordering Lake Nyasa along the southern terminus of the Great African Rift Valley, rates of HIV/Aids infection among pregnant women reach 24 percent. Lack of economic opportunity and education, isolation, alcohol abuse and boredom all contribute to the epidemic’s hold in a breathtakingly scenic countryside that lures tourists to well-appointed chalets.

But football for women offers an alternative in which Nkhata Bay Sisters United persist, although they must travel 62 miles round-trip to play many of their opponents in a 16-team league based in Mzuzu. In a recent report on the FIFA website, captain Marthar Longwe Chinyanja, 29, explains how necessity helped inspire the Sisters’ formation (“Dream Theatres Born in Africa,” 11 Jan 07).

A lot of the girls around here have nothing to do. They don’t go to school and they end up going to bars at night and sleeping with men for less than two dollars. The men promise to help them but the girls end up by getting HIV/Aids. I wanted to make the girls see the light and change. To stop them selling themselves I try to teach them good ways and cure them of these vices. We need to stand up for each other. We can run and we can play football.

The side early in 2006 gained sponsorship from Africa Unplugged, a UK aid organization that toils with residents to help start microbusinesses in mushroom growing and organic gardening along with assisting in a local secondary school and building social networks for the elderly and widows. The group’s April 2006 newsletter describes how the team began with seven members, limited to a makeshift dirt field; boys had prevented them training on the area’s main pitch.


Fishing, subsistence farming and tourism form the main economic pursuits along the western shores of Lake Malawi, also known as Lake Nyasa. (paluu | Flickr™)

“[A]s a group of women,” reads the Africa Unplugged report, “they can show that they can do more than just feed [their babies], collect firewood and [do the] cooking and cleaning.” They have extended this principle to playing a local men’s team. “We needed to show we can stand on our own, that we can do what men can do,” said Chinyanja of a 2–2 result.

With a link to a county football association in England, Huntingdonshire, Nkhata Bay Sisters gained a set of surplus kit, donned 10 Oct 06 when Africa Unplugged field director Chris Ashton accompanied the side to Mzuzu for a friendly with St Peters.

As the game got under way, the sun was already high in the sky with temperatures reaching close to 90ºF. It started very frantic with both teams coming close; the new girls to the team held their own and were involved in a movement in which they came close to scoring. The scores were still level after 25 mins with the Nkhata Bay goalie making a couple of first-class saves.

Nkhata Bay ended up losing 1–3, but with standout moments such as a St Peters player striking the ball on the half-volley to score from 30 yards.

The women’s game appears to be building in Malawi and elsewhere in Africa from the grassroots. University of California–Berkeley scholar Martha Saavedra in a 2004 survey of the continent concludes that women play football in at least 30 African countries “and probably more.” “African women’s football is not invisible,” she writes. “Furthermore, [media coverage] is not nearly as often marked by surprise or ridicule as in the past, but more often shows respect and furnishes a straightforward account of events. Still, the men’s (and boys’) game in all its glory and infamy receives dramatically more attention” (“Football Feminine—Development of the African Game: Senegal, Nigeria, and South Africa,” in Soccer, Women, Sexual Liberation: Kicking Off a New Era, ed. Fan Hong and J. A. Mangan [Cass, 2004], 227).

One could say that development of women’s football in Malawi, judging by the Nkhata Bay experience, exhibits admirable independence, although facilitated by groups like Africa Unplugged and others. The game’s origins in Malawi, known formerly as Nyasaland, date to the influx of football-toting missionaries from Scotland in the 1870s and 1880s. As in South Africa, separate institutions for white and non-white football ensured segregated football as the sport developed before Malawi’s independence in 1966.

The women and girls of Nkhata Bay now seek their own independence, via thrice-weekly training sessions and linked classes on child-rearing and fitness. “School is free but I don’t have money for books so I stopped going,” Chikondi Love, 16, tells FIFA.com. “Nobody helped me before but now my sisters in the team have. If I weren’t playing I would probably go to the market and fight, argue and drink Kachasu,” a potent brew made from maize and sugar. Chikondi, along with Gift Mughogho, is viewed as a possible prospect for one of Malawi’s age-group women’s teams. The senior women’s side is ranked no. 123 among 140 national teams recognized by FIFA.

Updates

  • Seven Nkhata Bay players qualified for the senior Malawi women’s team at regional trials in Mar 08, Ashton writes (see 19 Mar 08).
  • In e-mail correspondence on 27 Mar 07, Africa Unplugged field director Ashton says Nkhata Bay Sisters continues to struggle with the organizational aspects of training and traveling to games. “Unfortunately, because Nkhata Bay is a long way from the hub of the football fraternity for women,” Ashton writes, “little support and guidance is given.” The Malawi FA has not responded to requests for assistance and, as to FIFA, Ashton says that “we are a bit lost” with regard to finding the proper contact.

    More positively, the women’s team has been able to use the main football pitch in the area despite men’s earlier objections. Since playing friendlies against men, Ashton writes, “[M]en have been much impressed and now give both advice and support.”

    In Aug 07, Ashton writes in a newsletter that Africa Unpluggled is reluctant to support the team. Players have become “a bit big for their boots,” straying from community responsibilities. But he continues, “[R]ecently things have started to change, and the girls are training again, and with many of the younger girls being included, so it will now be down to the girls to show what they are worth.”

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] Unplugged in Nkhata Bay, Malawi. A revival of the charity’s Nkhata Bay United Sisters FC (see 15 Jan 07) involved several players participating in regional trials for the Malawi senior women’s [...]

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