I watched them storm onto the plane in a riot of colours and sounds. There was a powerful physicality about their presence, not only in the size of their bodies but in the piercings, the wild colourful clothing, and the hair. One head had a cheek with a blond braid attached to the ebony skin, another had a waist length jumble of dreadlocks piled high of the crown of a head right at the edge of his bald patch. They spoke fast, foreign and furious.
I was instinctively pushed back into my seat glad they were heading away from me toward the back of the plane as l surveyed the landscape of bland normalness in grey suits, beige dresses and coiffed hair seated around me.
Two hours, fifteen introductions, one quick shower later l was sitting at the back of Straun’s car happily grilling in the tin can as Yvette tells me about the Lesbian football players of the Thokozani Football Club of Umlazi formed by accomplished photographer Zanele Muholi.
As we drove through beautiful KwaZulu Natal, I thought that South Africa is such a physical beauty, a beguiling supermodel of a country with befuddling complexities. Here l am forced to see colour so l take in Straun’s austere earnest whiteness in comparison to Yvette’s coloured bubbly cautiousness. Struan and Yvette are my guides and babysitters for this pilgrimage.
Lizzie is Zanele’s sister, a slightly furtive full figured black woman with the purposeful stride of a doer.
As we packed in front of a cluster of shanty buildings she tells us not to worry. I did not feel threatened because this was not the worst slum l had seen although l did feel a slight discomfort because of the hostile stares.
We walked through the sand and dirt and l noticed the little grave like herb garden in front of the house right before l ducked into the dark room. I noticed the sparse furniture, the curious girls and the bare floor in the first room before l walked into the bedroom where l stopped short. The room was dominated by a big bed with shabby but clean royal burgundy damask bedding lovingly made up with four pillows as befits any luxury hotel.
One after the other, the girls came in, one giggling, another with a swagger, a third quietly and the last with her head bent..
Nineteen-year-old Londiwe was dressed like any teenage boy, pants sagging, two faux diamonds in one ear. Her flawless face broke into smiles that showed off her high cheekbones and a scar running that ran from one eye to her cheek. Everyone calls her Slawu the meaning of which she has refused to reveal except to Yvette. She likes girls, a lot.
Slindile, nicknamed Sli, also dressed like a boy, her face hardened prematurely by lines. She occasionally raised her head to flash fire or mirth out of wizened eyes. She likes girls.
Honiphile is a quiet, mature twenty one year old, excited about getting married to her fiancé; she prefers men.
Nolwazi is a twenty-year-old girlish bundle of giggles. She likes pink and girls but prefers men, she thinks.
In the conversation that followed Lizzie told me how becoming a teenage mother at 19 had spurred her to start the football club with her sister as an option for young girls within the community that would otherwise be caught in a trap of teenage pregnancy, alcoholism and drugs.
She did not plan to launch a lesbian football club but in a macho, patriarchal, impoverished, crime-ridden slum, football is the only sports that requires no equipment. However, football is perceived as a purely male sport and only the most determined, strong willed girls have joined. Many of them are lesbians.
Gay women are often even more despised than gay men. My hostesses attribute this to a deep anger and envy from young men, who feel the lesbians threaten their masculinity and undermine them by stealing their women.
It’s a struggle to keep the club together, of the three initial female chaperones only Lizzie remains. Also the men allow them only a small space in which to play, and the jerseys are borrowed (the owner wants them back). Still they manage to participate in the ABSA league.
Lizzie runs a tight ship, no delinquency, no drugs no alcohol and compulsory schooling. Some leave but for many of the girls’ this place is a haven. It is a place where they can be and express themselves and share triumphs and sorrow. When the girls win competitions the community sees them not as lesbians, outcasts or renegades but as an asset.
As we parted l squeezed a hundred dollar note into Lizzie’s hand. l know better than to belittle the valiant poor with meaningless gifts but in the moment, it felt right, l just wanted to buy them the next few games or at least jerseys. I saw Lizzie’s eye tear up as we both gave each other a quick farewell hug. I know not to linger and witness the mask drop for a brave strong woman.
Later that night after more interviews, l went to the fan park on South Beach to watch Spain beat Portugal. As the match ended, the show anchor announced a special performance by the fabulous band Olodum all the way from Brazil. To my shock, it was the men from the plane earlier in the day. On the giant stage and in the bright lights their tattoos, piercings, wild clothes, mad hair and tall muscular bodies took on an aura of power, charisma and amazing sensuality. As they played their infectious music, I stayed rooted to the spot my feet leaden by shamefaced guilt as l confronted the evidence of my own prejudice.