New Generation Queens
August 26th 2016. CAC and New Generation Queens assisted a group of high school soccer players on a trip to Zanzibar. Ben Kahrl and Toni Lansbury wrote about their visit.
When the Zanzibari women came to the field, I recognized several of them and felt like I was meeting movie stars. In fact, I was. Riziki, Little Messi, their coach. I was living what I had seen only on the screen. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.
On a very snowy winter afternoon, eighteen months before, two varsity college soccer players had come to my classroom to talk about their experiences volunteering with Coaches Across Continents. I had seen a story about the two women on Harvard’s Athletic Department website and invited them to come and talk. They were inspiring, just a few years older than my students and going off around the world and using soccer to bridge cultural divides. They spoke of how soccer was helping break down cultural barriers, change traditions, and help gain equality in parts of the world that held traditional beliefs about the role of women in society. Then, I heard about women soccer players on Zanzibar and wondered if we could go there too, meet with them, and play a little bit of the beautiful game. Coaches Across Continents had helped Meg Shutzer make a film, “New Generation Queens” about one of the few women’s soccer teams on the island of Zanzibar. Throughout, we could see many of the challenges, and successes, of these women, in playing the game they loved. My own daughter, just thirteen, and several of my own students loved the game. I asked Meg and Nick Gates if we could take a small group of Americans to Zanzibar and play a few games. Indeed, we could and more.
And so, a year’s worth of planning later, here we were, walking onto Zanzibar’s national stadium. We met with staff from the Ministry of Sport before taking the pitch ourselves with a group of schoolboys. The next hour was full of boisterous play, even while few of the boys spoke English and none of the Americans spoke more than two words of Swahili, but play together we did. A soccer ball in our midst, a few bilingual instructions from the coach, and we were off.
That night, we drove to the field next to the prison, a scene that looked suddenly very familiar.
We arrived to find energetic young boys running around, who immediately engaged our players. The sheer joy of seeing our players kicking the ball with a group of adorable six year old boys set the tone. Slowly, the Queens showed up, and there was a little bit of magic in the air. Onto the field strutted Riziki, a powerful presence in the movie and on the field. There was Messi too—another movie “star” who we were now meeting in person, almost seven months after we’d met her on screen. We mixed up the teams so that Zanzibaris and muzungus from America were on both teams, tossed the ball into the middle and were underway. The soccer was fast paced, and attracted a big crowd of passers-by –women in colorful hijabs dotted the perimeter. Men and children were cheering and clapping.
Five minutes into the game, I found out that, however good-natured these women were, this was not just for fun, as my feet got swept out from under me and my opponent went zipping off with the ball that was no longer in my possession. At age thirteen, my daughter was the youngest player, and, at age forty-nine, I’d lost more than a step or two. After what seemed like an hour, their coach, who was our referee, blew the whistle to signal halftime….
One of the parents who was part of our group watched her daughter from the sidelines, as she had countless times before:
As a parent whose daughter has been playing soccer since she was five, on recreation teams, travel and town teams, club teams and high school varsity teams, and will be playing in college this fall, I have been on the sidelines of hundreds and hundreds of soccer games. This one was different, and one I’ll always remember. With the sun beating down on us, the dirt kicking up, the little boys running with big smiles all around the field, this moment illustrated what I’ve always known to be true– that soccer is a bridge. It’s like a language everyone can speak, as soon as they can kick a ball. It matters little if the players are the same color, come from different geographical places, or religious ones, whether you’re a spectator or a player, soccer breaks down impenetrable barriers and makes a safe place for people to communicate.
The African sun was making it hard on us, but on we played, back and forth, chattering away in Swahili and English, most of which we didn’t understand, but conversing in soccer, which we all did together. Finally, the whistle blew with a 5-5 tie. We pulled together for pictures and noticed a large crowd had gathered to see the strong woman playing soccer and the American muzungus who had joined them.
It was the first, but not the last, game we would share.
Two days later, Fatma Ahmed, our wondrous guide, took our team bus to another field, this one smaller, with a telephone pole planted almost exactly in the middle. A few minutes later, the Women Fighters team showed up. Again, we mixed the teams. Again the soccer was both fun and hard fought. And again, the beautiful game was the common language with us all. Afterwards, as we began to gather in the fading light for a picture, Fatma introduced us to a friend, and casually mentioned she was the coach for the Zanzibar women’s national team. Indeed.