Sunday, November 15, 2009

"A search for opportunity" (Kristen F. Konkol)

She looks up from the washing and rests her weary hands on top of the bucket to see where all the sound is coming from. As she walks out beyond the gate and down the path to the small patch of red dirt the sounds become louder and more familiar. When she reaches the area where the sounds were emanating from, she steps forward with uncertainty to the small group gathered. As her calloused and tiny bare feet come into the circle, all eyes are upon her. The sounds she heard were familiar ones…those of the neighborhood boys playing and kicking around a make-shift soccer ball in one of any number of informal spaces in the area. But when she approaches, she is met with many looks of displeasure, restlessness and discontent. The cackling and sighs under their breath make their feelings transparent. The “ball” rolls to her feet, and with one touch she unlocks a palpable sense of vigor and excitement. Small posts made of sticks and old bottles are put on either side of this makeshift (garage-sized) space and the competition begins. Although the first days and weeks of ‘toeing the line’ to be just ‘one of the gang’ [who used every spare moment to play] were brutal and sometimes defeating, she remained persistent, focused and simply tried not to screw up and hear the demoralizing criticisms with arms raised in her direction. She is eager to hold on to this rare opportunity.

Born in a rural area of KwaZulu-Natal (at the time simply Natal), she was already faced with challenges that continued to test her and try to keep her down. As one of 6 children born to her mother and father, her life was quickly turned upside-down. With her father out of the picture from the beginning, she then faced an uphill battle as her mother died before she had reached two years of age. She and her siblings were then taken to an aunt in the Edendale Valley (just outside of Pietermaritzburg), where she still lives today. At the age of 5, she spent nearly a year of her life in the hospital fighting pneumonia for which they were told to plan a funeral. Today, her father, brothers and one sister have perished at very young ages (most presumably from HIV/AIDS) and one of her two remaining sisters is currently battling serious ill health. Her immediate family is all but gone. But it was from her father that she said that God placed this love and gift into her body…the physical gifts, love and passion to play the game of soccer. She knew she had to create that opportunity to shine.

Growing up in the Edendale Valley, she took advantage of any opportunity to play soccer. But as like many places in the world, opportunities for young women and girls to play sports (especially those “traditionally” for boys) was limited and she knew every time she got the chance to step out and compete with the boys that she had to prove herself. But she always asked herself, why? Why do people not want me to play? Why are there no girl’s teams? Why do they (the boys) get all the opportunities? As she got older, she heard that there were some girl’s teams in the country, but had no idea or resources to participate. It wasn’t until she was playing with a boy’s team that she was “seen” by someone in SAFA (South African Football Association) who had contacts with the likes of female teams. As her aunt had no phone and no way of really reaching her outside of finding the school she attended, she was a relative unknown. Her talent was not taken advantage of for lack of opportunity, exposure and ability to locate her. Then the call came in to the school…

Bayana Bayana (the female national soccer team) called her to come and train at a camp and play some matches with them when she was 15 and 16 years old. It was not long before that she was given her first pair of soccer shoes. To put on the national uniform in the relatively new democratic country was an amazing feeling for her and opportunities she says she will never forget. Although the experiences were meaningful, she wondered what was next in store for her career, as there still remained relatively few opportunities for females to play in the area. ‘Here I was playing for Bayana Bayana and now I come home and it’s back to playing with the guys.’ Although she admits that playing with males helped her with her skill, speed and toughness, she always wanted the opportunity to compete with and against other females.

It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that an organized league for females in the area was available. She has been playing on this team (Maritzburg City) since its inception and feels very happy that it was created. Although, she says, that part of her always wishes that these opportunities came earlier in her life as opposed to the latter stages of her career. Above all, she remains determined to create and encourage opportunities for female players today that she herself did not experience.

She remains with the local women’s team, and continues to play at a very high level, although the gray hairs on her low cut style are apparent. She spends many a weekend working with and coaching the next generation of female players and continues to assist SAFA with scouting of female players around the region. Her goal is to provide the opportunities and encouragement for young girls that she always yearned for. Although the days of females getting kicked off the soccer pitch by male teams and being scoffed at when arriving to play against male or female teams still happens (and did while I was there), strides are slowly being made.

It has been my privilege and joy to be able to call the person in this story my friend. We have not only played together in practices and games, but coached young girls alongside one another from all over the surrounding areas. Walking alongside and accompanying one another in mutual respect we have learned so much about not only each other but also about one another’s country, language and culture. Above all, the passion that we share is for women and girls to have the opportunity to compete, participate and enjoy the gift of games and matter what sport that is or where in the world that female may be!

With peace and blessings,