I was heading home after a day at SPRODETA, crossing the dusty red football field, when I noticed a group of young women playing netball. They quickly noticed me watching and beckoned me over to join them. They played on the edge of the field, on a patch of sand surrounded by trailing weeds and overgrown bushes. The young women, aged between 24 and 26, were being trained by a male coach of the same age. They were taking his advice with enthusiasm; his expertise and familiarity with his players obvious. I dropped my bag and joined them, giving my thanks and greetings in Tumbuka, to which they responded with laughter! My Tumbuka was just as limited as their English, so our common language was the game itself. It was clear they did not expect me to know the sport well; when I carried out the drills with practiced ease they responded with raucous cheers.  

I noticed that whilst a few were wearing sports gear, most were just wearing their normal clothes; knee length skirts and blouses, one in jeans and half were barefoot. I slipped right into the drills and we practiced controlling the ball - being thrown different passes and returning them. Before long the drills wound down and the players began getting ready for a game. I had to say goodbye as dinner with my host home awaited me, but before I left they invited me to play the next day, a proper match this time, representing Rumphi against rival Mzuzu. Because of the large distances between towns, these matches were not a regular event, making my teams training schedule of four times a week even more impressive.  

After a (not unexpected) delay of two hours, the match started at high noon. We played on a borrowed Rumphi Secondary School court. The school itself a simple cluster of brick buildings, where young people, even on a Saturday, made use of the classrooms. Before beginning we used maize flour to mark the lines of the sand court, and when the Mzuzu team arrived in a minibus they were surprised to see a Mzungu (Tumbuka for ‘white person’) playing for Rumphi. On the side of the court they changed quickly into matching red t-shirts and I took my place as Wing Attack. The expectation that I would not know the rules was clear, both sides spoke across me discussing whether they should go easy on me. Whilst the match might have started at a slower pace, it soon got competitive and the benefits of training so often became clear as my team quickly began to dominate. Mzuzu did have one advantage; they played barefoot on the sand which gave them stronger grip. Unused to the surface, I fell twice eliciting lots of laughs from the crowd and both teams, but also apologetic ‘Pepani’ (sorry). By the end of the match I was exhausted, but we still won 21-9!  

The netball court

I noticed a few differences in the way this match was carried out to how it was back in the UK, for instance instead of taking three breaks (two of two minutes, and a half time break of five minutes) the teams only took the half time break. Also, the Ref blew the whistle three times instead of once when a goal was scored and for a centre pass, whether this was cultural or just because of a rubbish whistle will remain a mystery until my next match. Adapting to their court, the ball was allowed to bounce twice if catching (due to the sand). At half time, the captain paid a young boy to fetch water for the teams, and we were soon provided with small plastic bags that we chewed the corner off and then sucked from. Unlike in the UK where departure is proceeded with a formal shaking of hands and teams choose a ‘player of the match’ and ‘player’s player,’ at the end of this match players simply left, giving the occasion a distinctly less formal feeling.  

It is clear that the women I had the opportunity to play with, play netball because it is something they love; one of the women brought her young daughter to both training and the match as she was unable to find a sitter. Others train and play barefoot as they are unable to afford shoes, but for the generosity of another player who brings spare trainers for them to wear. I have trained with them once more since the Mzuzu match, but unfortunately because of a lack of a means to communicate we aren’t able to train together more often. Because of the kindness and enthusiasm I have been shown by my teammates, I know that I’m welcome to join them again and hopefully I will soon.   

Written by ICS volunteer Beth Copeland