Photos depict how women challenge stereotypes
The quintessential gentleman’s game of the colonial era has become a powerful tool in the hands of Malawi’s Under-19 women’s cricket team, writes MICHAEL MORRIS
INTERNATIONALLY acclaimed documentary photographer Julia Gunther’s latest project in her extended series on the resilience, pride and resourcefulness of the women of Africa casts attention on the role of sport in breaking through the glass ceiling of gender inequality.
Her photo essay on the young pioneers of Malawi’s U19 women’s cricket team documents more than a sporting achievement in a game dominated by men.
The team is, almost more so, an agent of resistance to conventional and traditional views of women as secondclass citizens whose voices, and whose lives, are routinely discounted.
Gunther is familiar to Weekend Argus readers for her photo essays on topics ranging from South Africa’s all-woman Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit and lesbians living in Khayelitsha to a project by women to make reusable sanitary pads as a practical strategy to gaining better chances in life, and being freed from the sexual taboos that impede them.
These and other photo essays are part of her ongoing Proud Women of Africa series, which began when the photographer first visited Cape Town almost a decade ago.
Berlin-born Gunther started out as a cinematographer – but it was while working for a production company in Cape Town in 2008 that she began focusing on using the fixed image as a vehicle for celebrating the strength, pride, resourcefulness and stamina of women in Africa.
Of her latest work on the Malawian cricketers, Gunther writes: “Sometimes the only way to affect real change is to be part of a group. The more of you there are, the more likely you will be able to alter perceptions and prejudices and create a significant shift in thinking that can change things for ever, and for the better.”
She added: “However, when you’re part of that very first group, those few individuals who have decided to throw caution to the wind and stand proudly on the pitch, the road to acceptance can seem very long indeed.”
This was especially true of the Under-19 women’s national cricket team, “Malawi’s first attempt at breaking through the glass ceiling for women in this quintessential gentlemen’s game”.
Gunther and her collaborator, Nick Schonfeld, write that even though Malawi’s constitution guarantees the same rights for women as it does for men, “traditional beliefs, expectations and attitudes regarding women in society mean that gender disparity still exists in many aspects of daily life, and the differences are particularly marked when it comes to sport”.
The “trailblazing young women” of the U19 team “are raising a lot of eyebrows… not only because cricket is traditionally a male-dominated sport, but also because they are playing it in a country where gender inequality remains a serious problem.
“The girls all come from families where people earn less than $2 (R25) a day, and they are under constant pressure to start making money or get married. Most have spent their lives being undermined by a society that views women as second-class citizens, as the weaker sex.”
Gunther said: “When you speak to the girls you quickly realise how hell-bent they are on wanting to be seen as equals.
“For example, Mary Muvuka, the team’s vicecaptain, is a force to be reckoned with. Full of energy, she oozes confidence and professionalism. You not only get the feeling that she lives and breathes the sport, but also that she has a clear vision about the future of women’s cricket in Malawi.”
Muvuka is quoted as saying: “When young girls watch me and my team play, they are witnessing something they have never seen before. When I play cricket I feel like I am playing for all those girls who cannot play themselves.”
Gunther and Schonfeld acknowledge the notable contribution of Vivek Ganesan, the 39-year-old president of the Malawi Cricket Union and executive director of The Cricket Academy, which has played a central role in helping girls “take on the maledominated world of cricket, one game at a time”.
Ganesan took over management of the union in 2013 at a time when the sport and its governing body “were in disarray”, so much so that, three years earlier, Malawi had been suspended from the International Cricket Council.
Ganesan got busy, drafting a new constitution and instilling a sense of purpose, organisation and discipline in Malawi’s cricketing scene and, within six months, Malawi was welcomed back into the fold of world cricket. Ganesan is now an ICC member, and its representative for southern Africa.
One of his innovations was the Under-19 women’s team.
Gunther and Schonfeld quote Ganesan in describing the hurdle of confidence women cricketers confronted.
Ganesan said: “When most girls first join the team, their confidence is often so low that they’re afraid to pick up a bat.”
He was undaunted, though. “If women in Malawi are going to be more independent,” Ganesan said, “we need to help them change the way they see themselves.”
This is a crisp summary of Gunther’s objectives, too.
For more information on Malawi’s cricketers, go to malawicricket.com
Cricketer Dalida watches the men’s national cricket team during batting practice.
The pioneers pack away their kit after training on a Blantyre field.
Sisters of the pitch, Brenda, a bowler; Triphonia, an all-rounder, and Chimwemwe, an allrounder.