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.

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