Beka is working with elderly women from rural areas to physically, financially and emotionally empower them in order to help them cope with the responsibilities they face as pillars of support in their in the villages.
The New Idea
It is very common in South Africa for people to migrate from rural areas to the cities to seek employment, leaving their families in the villages to be looked after by their mothers. This has left elderly women in the villages with significant responsibilities but without appropriate support structures to help them cope. As a result, they become physically, emotionally and even financially stressed. Beka developed a model of ensuring that elderly women in the villages are empowered to overcome physical and emotional challenges and are capable of living full lives and at the same time managing their responsibilities with ease. She realized that elderly women (Gogos in isiZulu) mostly suffer from diseases like hypertension, rheumatism and arthritis which are associated with old age, because of lack of physical fitness and regular exercises. This is why the model’s flagship program and entry point is sport. Beka recruits elderly women and organizes them into structured soccer teams according to the community where they come from and plans and manages tournaments, competitions and leagues to keep them motivated and interested to stay fit. Beka even has a national team which is called Vhakhegura Vhakhegura (which means “grannies” in Xitsonga, in reciprocal to the men’s national team, Bafana Bafana), which participates in international tournaments with other teams overseas. Beka chose soccer to challenge the Gogos and inspire them to have confidence and show the world that they can defy the odds and achieve beyond expectations. Through regular training and exercises, the Gogos are able to prevent and overcome lifestyle diseases that may otherwise have been fatal to them.
The model does not only revolve around soccer but also includes other programs to strategically stimulate the Gogos’ physical, emotional and financial abilities to overcome their challenges. The soccer teams also serve as clubs where each member contributes a minimal amount of money every month and the fund is used to lend out to those interested to start small income generating activities at their level. This helps them be financially capable to buy basic needs for the household and not rely 100 percent on remittances from their children working in the cities. The clubs also manage burial schemes from the funds to cover part of the funeral expenses for the Gogos and members of their families which is one of the things that stress people in the villages most. Further, the Gogos offer each other emotional support by providing counseling when members go through personal problems. Through this network, the Gogos are physically and emotionally empowered and no longer feel vulnerable and neglected but rather in control of their own lives and able to make positive contributions to their families beyond being mere child minders for the grandchildren. The model is specifically designed to create an all-round self-sustaining support system for a neglected and less exposed population (with little access to information and opportunities on health and wellness) to ensure that they improve their lives and that their role in the society is recognized within and beyond their communities. Beka’s ultimate objective is to change people’s perception of elderly people in the villages, create wide recognition of their capabilities and contributions and at the same time demystify the “myths” that normally surround elderly rural people and the strange diseases that come with old age.
Vhakhegura manages about 40 soccer teams for elderly women (and consequently the same number of social clubs) directly engaging more than 1,000 Gogos in Limpopo province. Beka is in the process of extending the model to benefit elderly men through another arm of Vhakhegura called Bakhalabzi. She currently has recruited more than 80 elderly men from different communities in Limpopo, organized into 4 soccer teams and is engaging with them through a similar model to develop a holistic all-round model of empowering elderly people in rural areas. Now, Beka has plans to engage with the South African Football Association (SAFA) to scale out to other provinces in South Africa.
As is the case in most developing countries, many people in South Africa migrate from rural areas to cities or mining towns where there is higher level of economic activity to seek employment opportunities. However, the infrastructure and cost of living in the cities make it difficult for people to migrate with their families. Mostly, men leave their wives and children in the villages under the care of their parents (especially mothers who are hands-on in taking care of the homes) and would only visit them once a month or just send them money for up keep, which is usually not enough to last the whole month. Similarly, single mothers also leave their children behind to be taken care of by their mothers as they move to the cities to seek greener pastures. Reports from the National Planning Commission of South Africa (NPC, 2009) indicate a steady net increase of about 2 percent per annum of internal migration rate especially to Johannesburg and Cape Town with Limpopo recording the highest migration net loss of about 1.2 million people per annum. Although 93 percent of children between the age of 0-4 years in South Africa have both parents alive, only about 43 percent live in the same households as their parents and more than 39 percent (and 45 percent in rural areas) live in households headed by a grandparent or a great grandparent (UNICEF, 2007). Beyond caring for their grandchildren, Gogos are further burdened with the responsibility of managing households in the villages as a result of high death rates of young men and women in face of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. As of 2010, for instance, almost 56 percent of all orphans in South Africa lost their parents to HIV/AIDS-related illnesses (UNAIDS, 2010). The high rate of teenage pregnancies further aggravates the burden as both the babies and mothers are taken care of by the Gogos.
With such responsibilities, Gogos are physically, emotionally as well as financially strained and they end up suffering from stress-related diseases like hypertension which further add on their burdens. These diseases are accepted by the Gogos themselves and also people around them as related to old age symbolizing that they are drawing closer to their end days. Most people in rural areas do not understand these old age diseases and associate them with witchcraft and they end up discriminating the Gogos even more (and in severe cases stoning them and burning their houses) which aggravates the old age stress for the elderly people. Without proper structures to empower them to be independent and inspire them to take control of their lives, albeit in the simplest ways, Gogos become vulnerable and lack the capacity to take care of themselves, let alone the large number of grandchildren in their care. The Gogos’ physical weakness is further aggravated by the dormant culture in the villages especially for old people who do not normally exercise regularly. This is because they lack motivation, inspiration and also information and knowledge on how and why this is important for their health. The Gogos and other people in the villages do not understand how exercising is crucial in ensuring healthy lives and in putting lifestyle diseases at bay.
Although the Gogos have such an important and pivotal role to hold families together in the communities, they are regarded as less important and even a burden to society as they constantly need financial, emotional and healthcare support and they cannot do much for themselves. People and organizations fail to appreciate the value-add that elderly people bring to communities and the deep profound knowledge and experience of life they could pass on to young generations as a way of preserving the richness of tradition and culture. This transfers psychologically to them as they also end up feeling vulnerable and incapable of any meaningful contribution to their families and societies. Most organizations and societies that work with Gogos focus on giving aid to them in form of food parcels, clothes and other handouts without actually empowering them and inspiring them to have a purposeful life that they enjoy waking up to everyday. Other organizations that go beyond this mandate both within and outside South Africa (such as “Grandmothers against Poverty and AIDS” in Cape Town, Gogos groups in Malawi and “Grandmothers helping Grandmothers” in Botswana) focus on the economic empowerment of Gogos as an instrumental factor for them to take better care of orphans due to AIDS, but lack the emotional and physical aspects that support them simply for who they are and not for what they can do for their grandchildren. Furthermore, most of these projects are working with Gogos in townships of big cities like Khayelitsha, in Cape Town, and Alexandra and Soweto, in Johannesburg, failing to target Gogos in rural areas who are usually isolated and more vulnerable.
The entry point of Beka’s model is through soccer. Beka organizes and recruits elderly women from 50 years old and above to join their friends and form a soccer team for the community they live in. Each team has about 30-50 members and they choose a captain who also coordinates the activities of the team and manages the logistics. The captain makes sure that all women are attending regular training (about three days a week) and attend everyday morning jogging. Beka recruits local team managers from men’s soccer teams who volunteer for the Gogo’s teams to coach them and help them in physical training, soccer techniques and discipline. To motivate and keep the Gogos interested to remain in the teams, Beka organizes soccer tournaments for various communities which are events that the Gogos look forward to. The winners get financial and/or material rewards like soccer kits and balls through partnerships and sponsorship from other organizations. Vhakhegura also counts on local doctors who have private practices in the communities who assist as team doctors. The Gogos are checked before and after the game to ensure their fitness to play and also if they have not been physically strained with the game. The doctors further offer regular medical check-ups to the Gogos off the pitch to monitor their health and also advise them on hygiene, nutrition and general health lifestyle. Currently Beka has a team of three General Practitioners, one psychologist and one physiotherapist, (who all grew up in the communities around) who volunteer their services to ensure that the Gogos have access to regular services and who assist with hospital referrals when necessary.
Each team elects an executive committee that is responsible for the all activities in the team outside soccer playing. Each member of the team is required to pay a monthly contribution depending on what the team has agreed, part of which goes to Vhakhegura as monthly subscription (to help in operations and logistics) and the other part goes to the team’s account. The team funds are used to support the members financially in whichever way they agree on. For instance, people may borrow from the fund to start small income generating activities (like selling food items) to be able to look after their households. This helps them by not having to rely solely on remittances from their children which may not be regular anyway, but to have the financial means to be able to purchase small items needed in the home like main groceries. The fund is also used as a burial fund to assist those who need a funeral or to contribute towards funerals of their family members. Apart from the financial assistance, the soccer team offers a platform where the Gogo’s self-affiliation and association is boosted as they feel a sense of belonging which makes them feel loved and recognized in society. This helps take their minds off the daily worries and struggles as they know they have structured support by colleagues who also understand their predicament as they share the same challenges.
The Gogos are also treated to an annual outing for recreation on a trip to the big cities like Johannesburg where most of them would have never been before. In the big cities they are exposed to a different lifestyle and they tend to appreciate life beyond the villages. This is also a way to help them distress and relax after the whole year of looking after and worrying about grandchildren and how to make ends meet for the household. This presents a big event to look forward to and serves as an emotional motivation as well. Beka also organizes youth forums where Gogos share their life experiences and advice to the youth as a way of transferring knowledge and preserving traditional values that inform cultural heritage.
The impact of Beka’s model is a real life changer for the elderly women. One of the Gogos participating in the program, Angelina Hlophe, testifies after being asked how she felt: “Like a fish in the water! (She pulls a few recent photographs out of her bag. The pictures are of her and her teammates, and some shot four years back, Angelina on crutches). I suffered from arthritis, heart failure, gout and had to walk with these crutches,” she says, pointing at one of the pictures where she does look younger but less healthy. For many of the soccer grannies, soccer has become more than just a game: it has increased their levels of fitness, provided them with plenty of fun and good health.
Although Beka started working with elderly women in early 2000, the idea and the Vhakhegura model was only registered as a not-for-profit organization in 2006. Under the model, Beka manages 21 soccer teams for grannies, registered under South Africa Grannies’ Football Association (SAGFA) her initiative under which soccer tournaments are organised, reaching out to more than 1,000 Gogos from 40 communities in and around Tzaneen in Limpopo. Beka is extending the model to work with grandfathers as well and now there are already 12 teams for elderly men called Bakhalabzi engaging almost 400 men. By end 2013 Beka wants to have a total of 57 reaching out to 2,280 elderly people in rural communities. Vhakhegura also has a national soccer team for the Gogos called ‘Vhakhegura Vhakhegura’ which participates in international soccer tournaments in countries like USA and Russia. Beka is now working on establishing a national league for Gogos’ soccer (in partnership with South African Football Association) which would then allow Gogos from all over the country to participate through their own community teams. Vakhegura is in the process of setting up teams in KwaZulu Natal, Gauteng and Eastern Cape provinces where she has been invited by rural community leaders to extend her model there. Beka also plans to expand to other Southern African countries with the model and has already helped set up teams in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Cameroun which have already had tournaments with the original Vakhegura team from Tzaneen, Limpopo.
Beka grew up as a fairly privileged child (by rural communities’ standards) in a poor rural community in Tzaneen, Limpopo, South Africa, with her father a high school principal and her mother a primary school teacher. With many social challenges around her, Beka had the early drive to reach out and help the less privileged in her community, especially the sick and disabled. Following her passion in music, she studied and obtained a degree in Music at the University of Venda. During and after her college years, Beka continued with her social work with those most in need. She combined her passion for music and sports and started organizing music concerts and soccer tournaments for the youth as a way of helping them to be physically fit and also keeping them busy and away from risky behavior. Beka used the money raised during these events to help people suffering from HIV/AIDS, which at that time was still a mystery associated with witchcraft and victims were shunned by society.
In 2003, while working for South Africa Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) as a gospel music compiler, Beka was diagnosed with colon cancer and had to undergo chemotherapy and other various treatments that made her go to the hospital frequently. During her hospital visits and stays, Beka met a lot of old women with ailments like hypertension, diabetes, arthritis and rheumatism which are usually associated with old age. She realized that Gogos especially in the rural areas have a lot of responsibilities raising their grandchildren and taking care of sick children and family members in face of HIV/AIDS pandemic, such that most of the illnesses were stress related. She also realized that the Gogos were vulnerable to lifestyle diseases since they did not exercise and are were not fit to cope with the physical and emotional responsibilities endowed upon them.
While exercising and gaining back her physical fitness after her illness (from a wheel chair), Beka convinced a few elderly women she met at the hospital to start exercising with her. Little by little, the simple workouts turned into exciting games and from there the idea of Vhakhegura was born. She decide to make the exercising interesting for the Gogos and introduced to them the challenge of soccer as an entry point to empower themselves in various ways and take control of their lives physically, emotionally and financially. Vhakhegura was in 2006 registered as a not for profit organization managed by Beka with the help of volunteers and has now grown reaching out to elderly women in more than 40 different communities in Limpopo. Beka’s vision is to develop a sustainable and strategic organization structure for Vhakhegura through which she will scale out to all 9 provinces in South Africa and also beyond to other surrounding countries in Southern Africa.