I am in Rio de Janeiro at the moment for the 2014 Fifa World Cup. I have been here with vakhegula vakhegula (grannies, grannies), whom, among other people, Coca-Cola South Africa has taken to the World Cup.
Vakhegula are grandmothers who play football. Yes, grandmothers and great-grandmothers who chase and run after a soccer ball and score goals. These unassuming gogos have done something remarkable.
The atmosphere in Rio is not what I expected at all. It is festive but not as electric as I anticipated. After all, Brazil is the spiritual home of football even though the British invented the game (Shame, we all know that the British are very good at not winning sports they invented – rugby, cricket, tennis. Perhaps they should not invent any more sports).
Unfortunately, I cannot avoid comparing what happened in 2010 in South Africa with Brazil 2014. The one thing they have much better than we had is the weather. In all my travels, Rio is the only city I have fallen in love with. I have never thought I could live in any other country I have travelled to but South Africa because in my mind home had the same things to offer. Rio is different. I would move here in a heartbeat.
We have seen vuvuzelas being sold on the streets and have heard a few inside the stadium – even though they are banned. It sounds like South African football culture has successfully infiltrated global soccer, and vakhegula vakhegula have infiltrated the hearts of many soccer fans. Just about every person that has come across them has wanted to take pictures with them. A couple of South American journalists have taken an interest in the grannies after hearing their story.
When we spoke to them a few months ago for a documentary, we found out the challenges the grannies had to face. Rebecca Beka started the team, which consists of grandmothers 50 years and older. The oldest member they had was 87 years old. Beka said that she wanted to change the stereotype that grannies are supposed to be “dignified” and not seen running around. Vakhegula did not listen to those unwritten rules.
Even while playing soccer, however, they still adhere to their traditional roots. They play while wearing doeks (headscarves) – they always cover their heads. They don’t expose their legs so wear extra-long socks, which go all the way up under their long shorts.
Like them, I realised I am a traditionalist because I could not call them by their names. I grew up in a village and I never knew old people actually had names. For example, people would never call my grandmother by name, they would say, ” Umakhulu kaKhaya [Khaya’s grandmother]”. I only realised at my grandmother’s funeral that she had a name other than khulu, short for makhulu. Her name was Nofour.
The five grannies Coca-Cola have taken to Brazil are Modjadji Chrestina Machebe, Mudhadjia Mokondo, Phuti Mhuntane, Nyathela Ndobela, Rebecca Ntsanwisi and their team manager, Timothy Madibane.
They speak about ailments they no longer have because of soccer and how their grandchildren, who did not lead active lifestyles, are now also playing. After seeing vakhegula play, I no longer feel insulted when I am told I play like a granny.
On our first morning in Rio, I found them on the beach playing soccer with young, shirtless Brazilian boys. I overslept because of jet lag. They put me to shame.
Vakhegula really prove that soccer is everyone’s sport. It doesn’t matter who or where you are, the language of football is the same all over the world.