Yvonne Mentor travelled to Zambia for friendship, and stayed for love. For the past year she has devoted her time to supporting women in netball, and people with special needs. The mother of netballing superstar Geva Mentor shared her thoughts with Jenny Sinclair.

                 ¨Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity, it is an act of justice”
Nelson Mandela

Hiya Jen

African life is different: strange, difficult, fulfilling, frustrating, rewarding, hot and dusty. The people are warm and generous but just have it so tough. I’ve been here for just over a year now after I came out to visit a friend last September and fell in love with Zambia. I started gathering some of the ladies last year in Kafue (where I live), to play a little netball after work in the evening. I would be bored rigid if I did nothing!! BUT, in order to stay over here for more than 3mths I needed a work permit. I approached the fledgling organisation Special Olympics Zambia and offered them my experience of working with Special Needs kids and the Special Needs Olympics in Britain. So I am wearing 2 hats: Special Olympics and also working with the netball people, trying to lift its profile and get more ladies playing, coaching and umpiring.

This is where I am @ Kafue - STUNNING!
This is where I am @ Kafue – STUNNING!

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troops gathering

It’s been an impressive introduction as to how netball in Africa is opening doors and making pathways for the women of this continent. Netball really is HUGE over here. It’s the #1 sport played by women and girls. The talent is raw but so athletic. I come from a background where for the past 15 years I’ve watched the development of Geva from school, to town, to county, to regional and finally into an international netballer. We take for granted that there will always be facilities and coaching available, and talented athletes in the UK will have an opportunity to be nurtured and developed into whatever they want to achieve. It is completely different here.

Piccy 13 Mungu Sch Ground

Dirt "courts" at Kafue where I'm living. Note hand drawn lines, barefeet players and the "goalpost" in front of the houses in the top one.
Dirt “courts” at Kafue where I’m living. Note hand drawn lines, barefeet players and the “goalpost” in front of the houses in the top one.

Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world. The average annual income of people is not much more than US$1000, with almost 70% of people living below the poverty line of $1.25 per day. With the economic situation, poor health and education, child labour (around 40 %!!) it is little wonder that life expectancy is around just 49 years old. Most people are rural based, and there is so little money for infrastructure or many of the things we take for granted.

Yvonne x

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Hi Jenny

It’s Sat evening and I find myself alone, so a great opportunity to put more thoughts down on Life in Zambia. It is not the sort of country a woman can nip down to the local for a drink, or even drop into the nearest coffee shop. Once the sun goes down it pretty well ties U into staying put. Driving after dark can be pretty hairy scary. Cars, taxis (mainly) and buses drive on the kerb or pavement (if there was a pavement!) making those walking move out the way. Joe Walking Public trespasses right back onto the roads, at their own risk. Most people use minibuses, which shake, rattle and roll their way through traffic, honking and hooting horns to attract attention and swerve to pick up any person who looks like they might want a ride. The side door then slides open and U are offered a seat in a bus already crammed to the rafters. It’s an education and to be honest one of the main reasons that I decided to have a Toyota 4 x4 Hilux shipped over from the UK. To get around anywhere safely you need a decent set of wheels to help navigate through the pretty appalling road conditions.

YvonneyX

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Hi again Jenny

Now then, politics. It’s a man’s world over here and although sport is opening doors for the ladies many are still tied down to having ask permission from their husbands to leave the domestic bliss of cooking, cleaning, and being pregnant for their dearly beloveds to go off and enjoy themselves with other ladies. In town it is less of a problem as many of the women are holding down paid jobs and have some freedom. However when a woman manages to gain a position of power she can be incredibly effective. My question which I’ve yet to find an answer to is how these women get into positions of power in the first place.

BUT

Out in the rural areas it’s very, very different. Their life is hard, labour intensive, childbearing and obedient to men. I’ll give U just one eg of a typical life a young girl can expect. One Sat I drove 4 young girls from my little rural village into the city to watch a netball festival for U17’s. I wanted them to experience a life outside of Kafue (my village), as most kids leave school @ Grade 6 (12 years old). Also travelling with me was an older lady, who was going into town to attend the funeral of her 20 yr old niece. It was a classic; the niece was 6 mths pregnant with her 4th child, her husband beat her and she had NO LIFE outside the home. So she decided to take things into her own hands by aborting the baby; U can imagine without me giving details. She never survived whatever or whomever it was she went to for help. The girls in the car all said it was a common practise.

The lady in charge of our local team does her housekeeping, works the family land and cultivates the fields. Most women plant their crops by hand with a shovel & trowel!! Their main stable diet is a food called Shima*. Basically, it’s ground up maize that is crushed down to a fine powder and then boiled to make a porridge-like substance without much protein or vitamin content, but simply carbs to fill and bloat the belly. It looks like mashed potato but tastes bland, really not nice at all. (*Possibly incorrect)

To be honest that is probably one of the main reasons that Netball is played with such FUN, and a JOVIAL, carefree attitude. It’s a release for most women to escape their hardworking lives and have a party festival with other ladies. The regular Saturday league players arrive on a flatbed truck for a 9.30 start and stay all day. They often have a braai(BBQ), bringing in their own food and drink which they share. Breast fed children are strapped to their backs when not playing, toddlers and other kids are brought along. These women have the ability to fall over in the dirt and laugh at themselves and each other. Not in a bitchy way; just out of sheer FUN of making an idiot of themselves. They laugh at each other, they laugh at themselves: it is such a basic gut belly laugh that comes right from the depths of their insides.

Piccy 3 Mums Back to netball

Piccy 10 Equality

Mums Back to Netball

I also see the playing of Netball at the Community level as giving the girls an opportunity of finding work. They meet and socialise with other women from the police, local government and hospitals who are making a mark for themselves. Through meeting role models other women can dream of succeeding as well.

Y x

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Hi Jen

Thought I would give you an image of netball here in Zambia. I have in my mind a picture of evolution, much like that of the classic ape on all 4s through different stages to an upright human, BUT using NETBALL:

A RURAL community will play on a dirt court, cleared by hand. They work out approximately the size needed and it is then drawn in the dirt using anything to hand. Pieces of wood are tied together with twine to form the goal posts. You will see in the picky that the ball is made from old disused plastic bags that are wound around and around until they approximately size 5, then also tied up with twine. I brought over some of Geva’s second hand netballs, and a HUGE THANKS to the Netball Scoop member who donated five new ones.

Quite literally 10 mins before the game. 4 matches played and each time the lines had to be re-chalked by hand
Quite literally 10 mins before the game. 4 matches played and each time the lines had to be re-chalked by hand

Basic Goal Post kafue
Kafue THE Netball

The rules of the game are very general; the players understand the basics but after that it is a free flowing, athletic, fun filled game full of laughter and enthusiasm seldom seen on an England court at any level. There are very few umpires and so many of the games are played with a fair and sportsmanlike attitude. Yes, there are a few quarrels, but by and large they are resolved fairly, mainly due to the time restraints. The girls/women get together after school/work at around 5pm, the sun sets at around 6pm so it’s just a matter of fitting in as much netball as possible before the dark sets in. Often the girls will have no shoes and just play in bare feet or leggings to protect them from the bush and thorn scrubs.

Piccy 5 Stockings

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The next level is LOCAL community teams. These are often run by local companies forming employee teams; so you get the local police, council, hospital, energy and any other large independent firm willing to fund a women’s team. BUT as with sport around the world it’s always the MEN and soccer that get first chance of funding and assistance. Still the ladies don’t go unnoticed. In Zambia there are 10 Provinces but it’s only in the capital Lusaka that netball is played on a concrete hard surface. The Midland League boasts 8 teams who all play each other on Saturday. It’s a great social gathering – all the teams arrive at an agreed start time around 9.30 am. They play one 60 minute game, but always stay until the end of the final game, together with children, which lends itself to a noisy, enthusiastic, social day out. Together with the Braai, the whole event is played in a festival atmosphere. I watched one team new to the Midland league playing in shared shoes, which had to be swapped over when a new player came on court. Sneaker sizes count for nothing.

Sky Line of Central Lusaka (Capital). This is on the Police Ground, where The Midlands League is played: one of the best courts in town.
Sky Line of Central Lusaka (Capital). This is on the Police Ground, where The Midlands League is played: one of the best courts in town.
NAZ (Netball Association of Zambia) Head Centre: 3 courts: but never used!!!! WHY????? Not too sure but all a little political
NAZ (Netball Association of Zambia) Head Centre: 3 courts: but never used!!!! WHY????? Not too sure but all a little political
The main Youth Development Centre for the WHOLE of Zambia: 2 courts
The main Youth Development Centre for the WHOLE of Zambia: 2 courts

There are no Provincial Teams, like in the UK with counties, Australia with states, nor NZ with regions. From the main Midland League the national squad is selected. While the girls are good it means that many very talented players who are outside the scouting loop of Lusaka & Central Province just never get an opportunity to be seen & selected. That is one of my main objectives as I head out onto the road to meet & greet and watch games being played throughout the country, and then report back to Charles Zulu, the National Coach of Zambia. What is desperately needed is a scout within each Province who can liaise back to the Charles so he is at least aware of any potential national players.

The other very obvious huge problem Zambia Netball has are numbers of qualified umpires. Most are men, and ALL are based within the Lusaka area. Once outside the capital city, umpiring is very much down to individuals trying to interpret their own understanding of the rules. A new team arriving to play one of the Midland Teams is in for a rude shock as they will be whistled for faults and impingements they don’t understand. There is nothing worse than being humiliated just because you don’t understand the rules. More qualified mentoring of umpires is needed if the future of netball is to grow here.

Yvonne x

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Dear Jen

Having a much needed cuppa as the power is finally back on! Just spent the past week keeping a promise in the back of beyond in Sesheke. It’s a border crossing between Namibia & Zambia, and last May the guys at Customs and Car Clearance really came to my aid and looked after me. I’d driven over 2000km after picking the Toyota Hilux up from Walvis Bay, where it had been shipped across from the UK. NOTHING is ever simple over here. Even with me THINKING I had covered all paperwork and rules properly, the Hilux & all the donated Sports equipment was nearly impounded!!! After a few tears shed and a long explanation as to what it was I was trying to do in Zambia they helped me clear customs and the border. Evidently in seven years I was only the 3rd client to ever get through in the same day!!!! Mostly it takes 3 days and even then U can have everything taken away from U. So the end result was I couldn’t (had NO intention of) give them a backhander but promised them I would bring a basketball workshop back to Sesheke with some balls and try setting up a local team.

This is some of the equipment I got shipped over back in May. Now getting it donated to different Provinces of Zambia.
This is some of the equipment I got shipped over back in May. Now getting it donated to different Provinces of Zambia.

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UK Sport have been involved with Zambia for the past 5 yrs having sent out at least 9 placements. They parachute in for 3 to 4 weeks to run a few courses. BUT they then leave and NOTHING gets followed up so no progress is made. The next placement arrives with a list of what they are expected to achieve, but they can barely trace what has happened previously. What is needed is MENTORING of the Zambian people. I had actually made contact back in June with a group of people and asked them what they lacked the most: UMPIRES is what came back. So I emailed UK Sport to tell them whoever comes out next needs to at least run a couple of umpiring courses.

At grass roots level many people have the best interests of netball to hand; players, coaches, fans, schools & teachers. They are so enthusiastic and welcoming and deserve a chance to be a part of sport in Zambia. The talent is there, the keenness is there, they may lack equipment and knowledge but that’s what I’m here for. However to get anything done over here is like running into a Bloody Big Brick Wall. Those in power love the perks and VIP treatment that goes with it, often to the detriment of the people they are supposed to be helping. I’ve experienced it in netball many times. Most are men although some of them are wonderful, such as Charles Zulu, the national coach. Chat soon.

Yvonne

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Hi there

Been helping this past week with Camp Shriver, an initiative that’s come out of the USA and is helping to promote Unified Team Sports to those with Special Needs (Intellectual Disabilities). That’s what I’ve been asked to call them: I struggle to use the terminology “disabilities”. To me I feel very strongly that the athletes have “needs” that are “special”. I prefer to say they have communication difficulties and it’s up to us, the “able bodied”, to find ways to communicate with them. Once you break down barriers and find ways of gaining their trust and confidence I find them incredibly stimulating and fun loving. They have a side to them which means they don’t understand dishonesty, they aren’t duplicitous and seldom have an evil bone in their body. In fact once you get to know them as individuals they can be extremely humorous and very witty and just love life. More so than we able bodied humans who seem to be tied up and down trodden with everyday problems of life that Special Needs people just accept and get on with. In many ways they have much simpler understanding of life than us and that leads to a more contented lifestyle, which many of us would envy. Off to sleep now ready for a group tomorrow with my Special Needsies. Whoops, those with Intellectual Disabilities.

LOL

Yvonne x

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Dear Jen

Zambians can be incredibly trusting, friendly and naive, and then stubborn and set in their ways. Sport and religion are probably their only social outlets. To be honest it’s like being on a roller coaster; some days 3 steps forward 2 back, other days 2 steps forward and 3 back. Just when I feel like throwing the towel in something happens to make me realise I’m so lucky to be working alongside some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

They are a very peaceful, friendly, fun loving, dancing, singing and smiley population. This might be a little near to the bone, BUT many of them are out for themselves. I’m beginning to learn the hard way, that they take hand-outs as though it is normal, but give very little in return. I’ve heard it called “sugar bowl syndrome”; people take and take, until the bowl runs dry, and then move on to the next. At some stage there will be no more sugar bowls. They have to learn to give a little back, and so will end up getting much more than hand-outs.

I sometimes get upset because I don’t ask for much, just the occasional appreciative thank you. Recently I drove a rural team into town, all loaded into my Hilux; to play a friendly against another team. After driving for an hour, I bought enough water for everyone as it was hot and they had come empty handed. Before I had a chance to give each girl a bottle one of them (what an attitude she had!) opened the pack and helped herself to more than her share. I ended up having to go without, and by the end of the drive home in the dark I was struggling with a headache which I know was brought on through lack of water. As they left only one came up to thank me for my effort; I just shrugged and thought, “Never again”. The next day one of those ladies brought me a lovely cooked stew for my supper to say she was sorry for the bad manners of some of the others, and to please carry on training them. That’s all that was needed. I have seen signs that this attitude is slowly changing. Instead of expecting a freebie, my team of ladies persuaded their hubbys to part with enough money to buy second hand shoes for them to play in.

x Yvonne

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Hiya Jen

Its 8am; Sat Nov 16th already 20* and I’m sat in my vehicle at a Zambian Army Barracks with probably the best looking netball court I’ve yet to see in Zambia. I’m lucky enough to be parked up in the shade court side; PERFECT. The army girls are here chatting away, 2 are breast feeding very tiny new-borns; the others are just settling in for what promises to be a long day of netball; social chit chat and festive atmosphere. Nothing like this in the UK.

The Police team have just turned up – I heard them before I saw them, singing away as they arrived loaded up on the back of a flatbed truck. Just makes me smile so much. The booze truck has just turned up and is stocking the bar; all we need now is a braai to light up and I’m in for a good day; Umbrellas are up NOT for rain but SUN!!!!

The whistle has blown for the 1st game to start. This is amazing Jen, its 9am exactly and things are running on time. 14 teams are meant to play!!!!! That’s 7 hrs of netball with all the breaks. We would have been here at Makeni until bloody midnight!! But 2 teams didn’t make it; both were distance ones and from what I heard both struggled to get transport arranged. A very common problem, as only a few women drive or own a vehicle. Local bus routes run to their own timetable and are usually booked out a day ahead. So if a local bus/coach lets the team down there’s not a lot of alternatives.

I digress; Charles Zulu, the national coach and I spent a very productive day watching, analysing and trying to select a youth squad from all the younger players present. He came up with a real brain storm – after all the fixtures had been completed a group of younger girls were invited to play a friendly 2 quarters. An extra half hour isn’t going to be too much and it not only gives Charles a chance to look at combinations but it also gives those not selected an incentive to train harder next time in the hope that they will be asked to join the “after league” club. From which a National Youth Team can be chosen. BRILLIANT idea. Even the Senior National Team were looking on so in another case it’s going to make them take note and train hard, as some of these younger girls are already tapping on doors wanting and deserving to play.

Charles Zulu National coach: Lydia assistant: both lovely people. The oldest is GK 41 her with the knees strapped in the back row; youngest is 20.
Charles Zulu National coach, Lydia assistant: both lovely people. The oldest is GK 41 with the knees strapped in the back row; youngest is 20.

If it wasn’t for the lack of height across the court and lack of infrastructure and equipment I genuinely believe Zambia could be right up there contesting in at least the top 10 in the world. We finished at a very respectful 4pm, home by 6, just got the kettle ready for a cuppa and bang, no power!!

So I’m going to be introduced to 3 new local/rural teams plus my Kafue Ladies. I’m also led to understand that there are another 2 local teams in the area of about 20km radius. I have a gut feeling I could be looking at starting up a little rural league. That would save the girls travelling into Lusaka, they could play regularly without too much hassle of transport. Even form a bigger better team by selecting from each of the 6 teams to make a Kafue District Team to challenge and play in The Midland League. They can nominate a coach that I can work alongside and then when I leave there is something solid in place that can be the foundation of further netball development. My brain is on over drive!!!! Oh yes, meant to say the afternoon temp reached 42*. Excuse my French, but “Bugger Me”, to play 60 mins in that!! You can’t say these girls aren’t fit.

Y x

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Hi Jen

I’m going to a big end of season tourney next week to be held over 2 days in a town about 1 hr drive east of Lusaka. They reckon there will be over 400 players who are coming in from the Midlands league, Copperbelt and Southern Province. It will be interesting to see how such a large operation is run by Netball Association Zambia (NAZ). According to Lydia (the admin, come coach, come treasurer, come ousted NAZ board member) there are actually only just over 100 netballers registered in the whole of Zambia. Numbers just don’t tell the story here, because netball is played everywhere. To me when I heard that 400 are likely to turn up I thought someone should be collecting data; of the players, the coaches, each teams’ venue ground, umpires attending and forwarding it onto NAZ, who can then submit these numbers to UK Sport to show the development happening in Zambia.

It’s a golden opportunity to proudly shout the popularity of Netball in Zambia.

Do you think I might have given myself a job for this weekend? :) LOL

If you’ve got Facebook Jen I’ve posted photos on NAZ (Netball Association of Zambia) site. (Also worth checking out the Special Olympics Zambia site, which I’ve been helping out.)

Yvonne

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Hiya Jen

Well, I’m a bit puffed after a huge weekend at the tourney, and what a challenge it was! Unfortunately a number of wonderful people have been deposed from NAZ, and some of their replacements just don’t enough experience in running a carnival this size. We turned up to Chongwe (45 mins East of Lusaka) to play at the university grounds. 2 courts marked out in the dust on a slight slope under overhanging trees. Doable but not ideal. But… no running water, no access to bottled water, no food, and by 9am it was already 24 degrees. So we changed the venue to the NASDEC courts – four well laid courts that unfortunately just don’t get used enough. We all relocated there, sharing transport. One team broke down on the way so I ended up with 10 ladies crammed into the Hilux and we bumped our way an hour back in to Lusaka. Lots of great netball though.

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On the Sunday everyone was ready to go apart from the NAZ rep, who had the match balls (she turned up 2 hours late!). Luckily I had a few spares in the car, so we pumped two up and got started. Listen to this:: NAZ decided in the semis that 1st would play 2nd!! 3rd would play 4th!! Luckily I overheard and said YOU CAN’T DO THAT!! It got sorted out and the finals ended up with both top teams playing each other. THANK GOD!

The best moment for me by far was when the TV crew turned up to film some of the action. The ZB Rifles are a group of middle aged, incredibly happy military wives who play for fun. They broke into a dance routine with lots of hip movement and bum wiggling. Then they did a take off of their hubbies on parade at the barracks, and finished it up with an African shimmy, bum waggling march off. So funny – we were in hysterics.

The ZB Rifles
The ZB Rifles

All these girls here take the game seriously and are competitive. They train hard in the heat of the sun, straight after work. They laugh so much, and also have a rhythm which comes from their tribal background; at any opportunity they will sing, clap, shake their booty and dance to a beat that no one else but them hears. When they score a goal it’s party time. It’s a simplicity of life and a wish to enjoy and have fun not seen in our so called civilised world. I guess you can see why I love it here!

Yx