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

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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