On a hot sunny Thursday afternoon, women gather on a makeshift ball field. To the untrained eye, the faint white markings on the sandy ground may not mean much, but for the players dressed in an array of clothing, the lines define the training area for the St. Peter’s United Methodist Church netball team.
The coach, 38-year-old Tabitha Ruzvidzo, has no background in how to guide her players. But she’s proud of their current performance.
“We have excelled in the sport since it was introduced in 2011 at the annual conference of the (Zimbabwe East Conference) women’s union,” she says.
Netball, popular in Europe and many other places outside the United States, is an offshoot of basketball.
St. Peter’s initially played netball against local United Methodist church teams but later ventured out to play against other denominations.
“After seeing our winning performance at the United Methodist Church Chitungwiza-Marondera district sports gala, our district worker, Annah Hlahla, suggested the idea of us joining the country’s netball league,” said Ruzvidzo.
Her team scooped up the top prize, a shield which adorns the office of the Rev. Godfrey Gaga, pastor of St. Peter’s United Methodist Church.
“We are now playing in Division Two of the Zimbabwe Netball Association league and we are very excited because the league comprises of some of the best teams in the country. The top eight teams in the log at the end of the season play in a national tournament and stand to win cash prizes,” said Ruzvidzo.
Weight loss and church growth
Participation in the sport has not only encouraged United Methodist women here to stay fit and healthy, but has also contributed to growth in the St. Peter’s congregation.
“We have many women who repented and joined our church after seeing us play, but unfortunately we have not kept a record of the numbers,” Ruzvidzo said.
The introduction of sports such as soccer, netball and volleyball created a lot of excitement in the Zimbabwe East Conference women’s union.
The women’s union president, Mrs. Greater Nhiwatiwa, said her organization introduced sports and other forms of recreation to promote good health and a culture of exercise among women.
“This helps to prevent conditions such as high blood pressure that comes with women having too much weight, and stress,” said Nhiwatiwa.
The organization has taken a leaf from the camaraderie witnessed on and off the soccer field when the men’s national team is playing. Nhiwatiwa, wife of the resident bishop of the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area, Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa, said: “Sport brings fellowshipping and getting to know each other better when women meet away from the formal church environment.”
Mrs. Nhiwatiwa, 64, said she exercises daily before going to work, usually walking on a treadmill or outdoors. “I am ready to play netball, a game that I used to play when I was younger,” she said.
Before the 2011 annual conference, it was rare for the female congregants to participate in any games. Young women aged 22–38 years have since shown a keen interest in sports. But in the city of Chitungwiza, netball has dominated the limited choices available.
“Initially we played soccer but we realized the same people were turning out for both soccer and netball and so they could not participate meaningfully in both disciplines. A decision was made to drop soccer and concentrate on netball,” Ruzvidzo said.
The St. Peter’s UMC netball team prowls the cities of Harare and Chitungwiza in search of other competitive clubs. This has resulted in matches against clubs run by finance institutions, local social clubs and even United Methodist teams in the neighboring Zimbabwe West Conference.
Ruzvidzo, though enthusiastic about the sport and excited about the strides her team has made, said challenges are plentiful.
“We have not received any funding from the church so team members had to pay for their uniforms comprising netball bibs, socks andsuitable shoes. The uniforms were sewn by a church member,” she said.
Transport is another headache as the 18-member team has to hire minibuses using their own financial resources. Ruzvidzo paid tribute to Michael Dengwani, of St. Peters United Methodist Church, who has assisted in meeting her team’s travel expenses.
St. Peter’s netball team uses a makeshift field located on vacant council land. It is on this sandy patch, which becomes overgrown with weeds during the rainy season, that the team has honed its game. However, the area is not fenced and this poses a security risk for the goal posts.
“We bring the goal posts and erect them before each game but have to remove them when we leave because this is an open area and we fear the posts may be stolen,” said Ruzvidzo.
Sport activities, including sack races and bottle races, for women over 50 were introduced by the UMC women’s union, Rukwadzano Rwe Wadzimai. However, the group’s chairperson for the Zimbabwe East Conference, Esther Mumvuma, said the concept initially encountered resistance especially from elderly congregants.
“The members have now embraced the idea and we are expecting all seven districts in our annual conference to participate at the sports gala this year. As a church, we can take sport to great heights while ensuring that our members stay fit and healthy,” said Mumvuma.
This year, participation in the various sporting disciplines will culminate in inter-district competitions, set for July 25th.
Chikwanah is a communicator of the Zimbabwe East Annual Conference.
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