Monday, June 24, 2024

“Soccer Grannies’ by Somerville’s Jean Duffy was published in May.

Beka Ntsanwisi wasn’t born a miracle worker or a saint. But most would agree she deserves either tagline for the many ways she has bestowed unexpected acts of selflessness and generosity upon those she has met along her way. One example: She transformed a group of impoverished, inactive, often unhealthy and disempowered elderly women from her hometown of Limpopo, South Africa, into an internationally recognized league of beloved “soccer grannies,” all while operating from a wheelchair after being treated for colon cancer.

She continues to build homes for the unhoused with resources she somehow scrapes together, has trekked overnight just to offer emotional support to a needy elder and has provided some of life’s most important incidentals that many older South African women are forced to live without. “Mama Beka” – or Mother Teresa, as she is often called by her fellow countrymen – so often gives everything she has, and then some, to improve the lives of others.

Somerville resident Jean Duffy never imagined herself an athlete, much less a fellow soccer granny like Ntsanwisi. As a child, she says, “I did nothing beyond gym class. My parents did not do any kind of exercise, so I had no role models. No older siblings for role models either.”

She never dreamed of writing a book, either. “Me? an engineer who had never written more than emails?” she laughs.

Jean Duffy. (Photo: Tessa Frootko Gordon)

But Duffy says almost from the moment she learned of the internationally recognized Ntsanwisi and her team of “Soccer Grannies” – in 2010, when South Africa hosted the World Cup – she sensed there would be more than one inspiring story to tell.

Duffy and her teammates from Lexpressas, a nearby women’s soccer team of “very casual” 40-plus-year-old moms tired of watching the fun from the sidelines, heard about the Grannies and Ntsanwisi from a BBC feed.

“We were inspired because [the Grannies] were even older than us! We felt an instant bond with them because they loved the game for the same reasons we did.” A soccer friend suggested they invite the South Africans to attend the Veterans Cup, an annual adult soccer tournament being held in Massachusetts that year. “How cool would that be,” Duffy remembers thinking. “So I googled and found Beka was founder of the team and found her email address. She responded right away ‘Yes, we will come!’”

Soccer players Lily of team Zambia and Jean of the U.S. Lexpressas take a TV interview. (Photo: Kate Duffy)

After logistical wrangling, scrounging to raise $40,000 in travel fees and more than a small amount of hand-wringing, 19 grannies arrived at Logan Airport just days later. A deep and lasting bond was formed.

The local hosts learned quickly that the grannies’ stories were as wrenching as they were motivating. Ntsanwisi’s alone was inspired: a single mother of two (one daughter, 32, recently crippled by a car accident; another aged 14) and grandmother of a 12 year-old boy, head of household, newly diagnosed with colon cancer, without a home or any resources of her own – “If you sit with my parents, they will say she takes whatever she has and gives it to other people,” Ntsanwisi says lightly – had wanted to help some of the other, older women she met while in treatment physically, financially and emotionally. Her chosen entry point: soccer. Duffy and her teammates soon learned “Mama Beka,” as she is often called, had directed everything she had and then some to improve these women’s lives and the lives of others.

More than 10 years and two Lexpressas visits to South Africa later – the most recent in March for Ntsanwisi’s first fully international soccer tournament featuring 16 teams from across Africa, Europe and the United States – the sisterhood has blossomed along with the women.

The Grannies’ founder has launched more than 200 teams in South Africa alone, often doing outreach by foot, over hundreds of kilometers. “Sometimes we don’t even know to sleep but I am doing my work,” Ntsanwisi explains – even when threatened by warnings of wildlife escaped from nearby national parks. She has begun outreach to older men, too. “I even cry,” she says, “because these old men have no soccer boots, so they play barefooted.”

Duffy and a handful of other women have done what they can to support Ntsanwisi’s other good deeds. “I have no home,” Mama Beka states matter-of-factly, “but I have helped build hundreds for others.” She has ongoing medical needs as well, due to her cancer diagnosis. And of course, there is the care and feeding of herself and her family.

To bring attention to Ntsanwisi and, hopefully, provide some financial support for her mission and her never-ending dreams, Duffy stepped out of her comfort zone recently to take writing classes and ultimately pen “Soccer Grannies: The South African Women Who Inspire the World,” a short history of the original team members, their captivating stories and their journey into the hearts and minds of the women of Lexpressas and so many others.

The book was published in early May, and a short local book tour featuring Duffy and a rare visit from Ntsanwisi starts next week – including a stop at Porter Square Books at the Seaport at 7 p.m. June 20.

During their public events, the two women are certain to reminisce and simply to relish the time together. Always one to look ahead, Ntsanwisi is also likely to talk about her vision for the next Grannies International Football Tournament, which she hopes to host in 2025. Duffy describes the plan as “bigger and better than the first one,” which also means more in the way of financial and in-kind support. “We have established a GoFundMe to assist Beka in meeting her dreams,” Duffy says to encourage others. Ntsanwisi may also touch on another vision she has: to build a retirement community to keep elderly women with dementia. “She also dreams of building a school,” Duffy says. “Beka has no shortage of dreams.”

For herself, Duffy hopes that readers walk away from their conversation and the book “inspired by these South African women who are strong and resilient women, who carry forward despite significant hardships and who find the joys in life. It is not too late to take up a new activity – whether it be soccer or writing a book or anything else that might strike your fancy.”

For Ntsanwisi, the ultimate goal of her visit is simpler. “I am coming to say thank you to Jean, Alison, Catherine,” she says. “They have been carrying me since 2009.”

Beka Ntsanwisi and Jean Duffy are at Porter Square Books at the Seaport at 7 p.m. June 20. The Soccer Grannies online fundraiser is here.