Book Review: “Soccer Grannies” — A Marvelous Book About an Amazing Woman
By Bill Littlefield
Nobody reading about Rebecca “Beka” Ntsanwisi, aka “Mama Beka,” can feel anything but good. This extraordinary South African woman has built a network of soccer teams made up of grandmothers throughout her country.
Soccer Grannies: The South African Women Who Inspire the World by Jean Duffy. 231 pages, Rowan & Littlefield.
Soccer Grannies is a terrific book. If it were nothing but a “feel good” story, it would be terrific enough, because we need all the “feel good” stories we can get, but it’s much more.
Nobody reading about Rebecca “Beka” Ntsanwisi, aka “Mama Beka,” can feel anything but good. This extraordinary South African woman has built a network of soccer teams made up of grandmothers throughout her country. She’s also been responsible for aiding women in South Africa in various ways that have nothing to do with soccer. She’s organized the building of homes for women and children previously trapped in poverty. She’s comforted and helped support survivors of families decimated first by AIDs, and then by Covid. She dreams of establishing a home for elderly women who may not otherwise be safe. In some parts of her country, victims of dementia can be shunned and even attacked as witches.
Meanwhile, Mama Beka has herself survived cancer.
Mama Beka’s impact on the health and welfare of the soccer grannies and various others has been spectacular. Jean Duffy is among the folks who noticed that. She is also one of the leaders of a group of women in Massachusetts who managed, against ridiculous odds, to bring a team of soccer grannies, Mama Beka included, to the US to compete in a tournament, where, with their energy and infectious joy, the grannies won over not only the fans, but their opponents.
Soccer Grannies is, in part, an account of the adventure the soccer grannies enjoyed in the US, and the trip Duffy and some of her teammates made to South Africa a year later to renew their friendship and play some more soccer. But this exceptional book also provides a powerful summary of the history of Mama Beka’s country, where discrimination against everyone who wasn’t white was written into the nation’s laws. The point: the creation and perpetration of nearly hopeless poverty and degradation of the majority of the population.
Except that there was no such thing as “hopeless” for Mama Beka, her associates, and their role models, Nelson Mandela among them. Duffy’s deft handling of the triumph of the grannies against the grim, oppressive world in which they struggled lifts this Soccer Grannies well beyond the conventional “feel good” category. The grannies had to survive stunted childhoods and, in some cases, near starvation before they could prevail as joyous veteran athletes.
Admirable and charismatic as Mama Beka is, Duffy also directs the reader’s attention to several other soccer grannies, each of whom has a powerful and engaging story. Most of them are deeply religious. Some of them have been deserted by their husbands and have raised families by themselves. All of them are relentlessly loving and devoted to the younger members of their families … except of course when it’s time to go out and play soccer. As Granny Khune, the team’s goalie, puts it: “In my life right now, I am so proud.… Everything I am doing in the play field during playtime comes from my heart, and from my head. Playing football (soccer) has changed my life to be good.”
Duffy echoes that sentiment when she writes about how soccer grannies transformed the way she saw herself and the world. Their play propelled that impact, but Duffy was also entranced by the grannies’ singing, their dancing, and their determination to transcend formidable social pressures to stick to homemaking. “Witnessing this had changed me,” she writes. Nobody who reads this marvelous book will doubt it, and readers may be changed, too.
Bill Littlefield’s most recent novel is Mercy, published by Black Rose Writing in 2022. (Littlefield in Rowan & Littlefield is no relation to this reviewer.)
Tagged: feminism, Jean Duffy, Mama Beka, Racism, Rowan & Littlefield, Soccer Grannies
I am very proud of Rebecca Ntsanwisi and I can’t wait to see her being the president of Grannies Soccer representing our township (nkowankowa) at Tzaneen in Limpopo being one of the nine province in South Africa, halala mun’wanati hahani wa tihosi halalaaaa!
I have seen this amazing woman in action. Actually we had the honour of getting to know her better. From the dusty streets of Mashimong in Hammanskraal all the way to Paris, my mother 70 yrs old managed to touch the French soil because of her. Very humble, soft spoken with a heart of gold woman of God. We thank God for her beautiful soul and wish the world can accept her with open arms. We love you Mamabeka. Keep up the good work
Sounds like an inspiring book I must read! Thank you, Bill!