Beka Ntsanwisi wasn’t born a miracle worker or a saint. But most would agree she deserves either moniker for the many unexpected acts of selflessness and generosity she has bestowed 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 – gives everything she has and then some to improve the lives of others.
In a recent conversation, Ntsanwisi admitted with a laugh that, yes, she suffers from a lifelong habit of overextending herself. “If you sit with my parents, they will say she takes whatever she has and gives it to other people,” she chuckles before adding with a sigh, “sometimes helping people you end up being hurt.” Yet she also knows that her work is deeply appreciated. “Whatever I do, they say it turns gold.”
Ntsanwisi has cast a spell here in Lexington, too, over the women of Lexpressas, Lexington’s soccer mom league of 40+ year olds. In 2010, when all eyes turned to South Africa as host of the World Cup, Beka’s Grannies became a local human-interest story. As former Lexington resident Jean Duffy, recalls, she and her team mates became entranced.
“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,” Jean thought. “I googled and found Beka and her email address. She responded right away ‘Yes, we will come!’”
The women of Lexington learned quickly, however, that collective enthusiasm was little match for reality. Neither Beka nor the Grannies had resources of their own. Travel costs were high. Coverage had to be found for family and work duties. And then there was the paperwork – from passports to visas and other travel related matters – which was complicated and time consuming. But the women of Lexpressas were determined.
“There was no giving up,” Duffy says. “We couldn’t let them down.” She said it was truly a series of last-minute miracles that fell into place that resulted in 19 South African women streaming through the security gates at Logan Airport days later.
Duffy recalls that the Soccer Grannies had clearly packed their zest for life along with their bags. Moments after their arrival, a group of Lexpressas watched in awe as the elder South Africans draped a thin cloth onto the airport floor. Some of the elderly women lay down, some knelt. Then all began gleefully ululating, grinning, and dancing in an expression of sincere thanks and appreciation.
Duffy’s voice lifts as she recalls the sheer joy and emotion of that moment and the days after. “The Soccer Grannies won our hearts through their song and dance on the sidelines of the soccer field. We saw the joys [the game] brought to them and caught glimpses of what the opportunity of attending this tournament meant.” While they did not win any games during their visit, few were surprised when the Grannies headed home with the trophy in the women’s over-60 division for winning spirit.
In the dozen-plus years since, the women’s overseas relationship has deepened. The Lexpressas have been honored to visit the Grannies twice on their home turf, first in 2011 with just four players and some family members, and more recently, in March of this year when fifty women over 50 from the greater Boston area made the trip for Ntsanwisi’s dream of a Grannies International Football Tournament.
The team has also supported Ntsanwisi’s ongoing campaign to incubate more soccer ball-kicking Grannies. Mama Beka estimates there are now over 200 teams in South Africa alone, most of which took root thanks to her tireless legwork, as she walked hundreds of kilometers to carry her message of empowerment through movement. “Sometimes we don’t even know to sleep but I am doing my work,” she says nonchalantly, even when threatened by warnings of escaped wildlife from nearby national parks.
Ntsanwisi has helped form teams in other African nations, too, including Malawi and Zimbabwe, and begun outreach to older men. “I even cry,” she says, “because these old men have no soccer boots, so they play barefooted.”
Duffy and a handful of other women continued to support Ntsanwisi directly in her never ending list of other good deeds. To bring attention to Ntsanwisi, as well as a bit of additional financial support for her never-ending dreams, Duffy stepped out of her own comfort zone recently —“Me? An engineer, who had never written more than emails?” she laughs — to pen “Soccer Grannies: The South African Women Who Inspire the World.” The book is a short history of the original Grannies, their heart wrenching 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 of this year and members of Lexpressas have pitched in to sponsor a visit by Ntsanwisi next week for a series of book launch events (details are at jeanduffy.com/events.) including Cary Library in Lexington on June 22. Duffy hopes that readers and audience members walk away from the talks and the book as motivated as she has been. “I want readers to be 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,” the author says. “I want readers to be inspired that 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.”
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 that 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 Go Fund Me 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 for elderly women with dementia. “She also dreams of building a school,” Duffy adds. “Beka has no shortage of dreams!”
For Ntsanwisi, the ultimate goal of her visit is much more straightforward. “I am coming to say thank you to Jean, Alison, Catherine,” she says, her voice filling with love and gratitude. “They have been carrying me since 2009.”