Xifaki, A South African Soccer Granny

“I am eighty-six years old. I don’t know what my mates say when they look at me. Most of them do not even believe that I am that old. They think I’m exaggerating.” The wiry Xifaki perches on the stadium bleachers in the rural town of Nkowankowa in Limpopo, South Africa. She wears a red-beaded headband and a traditional blue wrap tied across one shoulder. “It is because of soccer and exercises. Even now, I am telling you if I start running, you will not believe your eyes.”

Xifaki belongs to a squad of older women, affectionately known as the Soccer Grannies, who started playing in 2007 to improve their health. At first the women played in skirts because it was not appropriate to wear short pants. Townsfolk scoffed and told the women that they belonged at home caring for the grandchildren. But the Soccer Grannies were having too much fun to abandon their new passion.

I, too, discovered soccer as an adult. I transitioned from a 40-year-old soccer mom cheering on the sidelines to a player huffing and puffing as I dashed up and down the field. I learned of the Soccer Grannies during the leadup to the 2010 World Cup that was hosted by South Africa. The Grannies team was thrust into the international spotlight as an endearing human interest story—just the kind of story my Massachusetts soccer team devoured. Drawn together by our common passion and a few miracles, our teams met to play on both sides of the Atlantic. I would eventually come to hear their inspiring life stories.

“Soccer has changed my life,” Xifaki declares. The benefits of regular exercise have enabled these women to jettison walking canes. Some have eliminated medications. What’s more, the team camaraderie and mutual support helps them face and conquer life’s challenges in this impoverished area. The Soccer Grannies are stronger together.

Xifaki grappled with poverty throughout her long life. She was the first born of seven and the large family often did not have enough food. “There was a lot of hunger in the country,” she says. “We mostly got by with what mother plowed.” From a young age Xifaki worked shoulder to shoulder with her mother preparing the soil, seeding, and grinding the harvested maize. While her full name is Gingirkani Mirriam Mushwana, her family and friends have always called her Xifaki. Her nickname means ‘mealie’ or ‘maize’ in her native Xitsonga language—a testament to her skills growing the life sustaining crop.

“I remember when my father left home to seek work. He just left with nothing in his possession. When he finally found work, he stayed there because it was too far from home.” Although Xifaki’s father sent food through the postal mail, it was never enough.

Besides helping to grow crops in the field, young Xifaki also cared for donkeys, goats, and cattle—a job usually done by boys. “We also went to the grazing land to collect cattle dung.” The manure would be mixed with water, and once softened, would be lovingly applied as plaster to the floors and walls of her home.

The Tsonga people had thrived in Africa for centuries by hunting, fishing, and farming across their communal property. The arrival of Europeans in the early 1800’s would disrupt their traditional way of life. Traders were followed by missionaries and settlers who established farms in the most fertile areas. Over time White landowners put up fences and took possession of large tracts of land, somtimes charging half the Tsonga’s harvest as rent or forcing them to move elsewhere.

In the 1850s, about the time when Xifaki’s great-great grandparents were born, the discovery of gold and diamonds drew even more Europeans to South Africa. Black men flocked to the mines for work despite the barely tenable working conditions. The White supervisors at the mines organized soccer games, in part to teach teamwork skills to the Black laborers. For many, soccer became a welcome opportunity to run and forget the stresses of life for a time.

The British and the Dutch fought bloody wars for control of the territory at the turn of the 20th century. In 1903 the two European powers signed a treaty, forming the White-minority-ruled Union of South Africa. Just ten years later when Xifaki’s parents would have been small children, the Natives Land Act was passed. Ninety percent of all land was designated for White ownership—even though Whites were only twenty percent of the population. The remaining fraction of the less-arable land was set aside as Black homelands.

The Tsongas and other ethnic groups who had lived off the land for generations were left in a precarious position fighting for their family’s survival. Xifaki’s parents and their peers would have resettled, tilled the unyielding ground, and foraged for wild spinach. More fathers were forced to leave their families to seek work in the cities.

Despite Xifaki’s painful recollections of hunger as a youngster, she cherishes many happy memories too. Like girls around the world, her friends pretended to cook by mixing soil and water in a pot. She swam with other girls at the river. “We would go out as separate groups of boys and girls to enjoy ourselves. It was frowned upon for boys to mingle with the girls.” Xifaki took pride in respecting her parents and following their rules. She gathered with her girlfriends after sunset for singing and dancing. “My most joyous time of my youth was praising the Lord at church. I loved the church.”

While the family relied upon Xifaki’s labor in the fields and in the cattle enclosure, she was fortunate to attend six years of school. “I was a hard-working pupil.” Her diligence in reading and writing attracted the attention of a young man. “Little did I know that he had told himself that I was not going to elude him.” Smitten by this young woman who was so engrossed in her studies, he proposed to her. Xifaki refused his advances as she wanted to enjoy her youth rather than get locked into an early marriage. He begged for her love and promised to wait until they reached their 20s. “When he said that, I agreed to have a relationship.”

Xifaki belonged to a church that had strict procedures for men and women to marry. She attended khoba,a training conducted by older community women to prepare the teenage girls for marriage. “One day his elders came to my home to meet my parents. I was so surprised,” as she had understood that they had an agreement that they would not marry until she was ready.

Xifaki and her persistent suitor wed soon after. They were blessed with three children—a son and two daughters. Her husband worked locally at a White-owned farm planting mangos and avocados, but the couple still struggled to care for their children. She looked to the Lord for assistance. “My family has always been a God-fearing family,”

Soon like her own father, Xifaki’s husband decided to move to Johannesburg to seek a better paying job. She recalls, “When the kids were small, it was tough; my husband was far away from home and I was raising the kids alone.” She takes a deep breath before she continues: “When my husband was working and living far away from me, he did not take care of me.” No food or money came in the post. Xifaki, like her mother, plowed the fields to put food on the table. With a stoic attitude, she persevered. She is rightly proud that she raised those three children. By herself.

From the time Xifaki was 14 until she was 60, South Africa was in the brutal grips of apartheid. The racist policies and oppressive rule of the White minority kept the Black population in dire poverty. Three and a half million South Africans were forcibly relocated to remote territories because it had been decided they were Black. The evaluation was so arbitrary that families were often split because of different skin tones.

In 1953 the Bantu Education Act segregated all schools, effectively dismantling the primary ladder out of poverty. The curriculum for Black students was limited to skills that would make them better manual laborers.

Physical movement for Blacks to travel outside of their homelands or designated city areas was controlled by passes that were issued only if their labor was needed at White businesses. Black people caught without the proper credentials were often arrested and harassed by the police at gunpoint.

Like the workers in the mines, playing soccer provided a healthy distraction for Black men working in the cities. Women, not yet venturing onto the playing field, organized social events around the games. Just like the White-designated train cars, stretches of beaches, and hospitals, soon access to soccer pitches was severely restricted for Black teams,.

Like many South Africans wrestling with the atrocities of apartheid, Xifaki turned to Christianity to draw strength and comfort. “I believe in the God of Christ. He is my caretaker. I am His child.” Although her husband had deserted her, she stood by her Christian marriage vows and forgave him. “I was thankful that he came back home to me as a pensioner after a very long time, so sorry for having neglected me and the children for years.”

Their time reunited as a couple growing old together would be short lived. In 1995 her husband returned to Johannesburg for a visit, but he would not return. Xifaki speaks softly, “He was shot dead.” At the time the grief and the pain were almost more than she could bear. She called again on her long-practiced faith and the passing of time.

Almost thirty years have now gone by since the untimely death of her husband. “I don’t feel alone because I am with Jesus my Savior. I overcame so many problems in my life. God was always at the forefront fighting for me. He has given me a heart of perseverance regardless of how hard the situation was.”

Xifaki taught her children to pray and to know Christ and to give all their difficulties to the Lord. They now live with her grandchildren a four-hour drive away. Xifaki sees them when she can and teaches the next generation that they must trust in the Lord.

“Every day the first thing I do when I wake up is pray to God to be with me. In the mornings I also exercise. I have a flower and a vegetable garden that I attend to and water. At midday I pray again to let Him know that I have survived until midday.” She cleans the house and does other chores. She often visits people or just reads her Bible.

After the decades of struggles to put food on the table for her brothers and sisters and then her children, Xifaki finally has time to enjoy herself. Her choice of recreation is one that few 87-year-olds would choose. Xifaki is still pushing herself physically. “Eish! I love soccer and our team so much.” Her face lights up at the thought of running and kicking the ball with her friends. “Actually, I get crazy whenever it is time to go for practice.” Soccer energizes her soul. A collective spirit of resilience blossoms as her teammates exercise, sing, dance, and pray.

Xifaki’s expression fades to one of reflection. She leans forward and imparts her wisdom that has served her so well—a lesson for all of us. “The secret to live to this age is to take care of oneself.” She mentions exercise, eating healthy foods, and keeping indulgences to a minimum. “Take care of your body until God decides to take you.”

Jean Duffy is the debut author of “Soccer Grannies: The South African Women Who Inspire the World” to be published by Rowman & Littlefield in May 2023 in advance of the Women’s World Cup. She is grateful to all the Grannies who shared their life stories with the interviewer and translator, Happiness Maake, in September 2021. Jean plays soccer and writes in Somerville, Massachusetts. She can be found online at https://jeanduffy.com/.