Lengo’s girls and women are shrugging off centuries-old cultural gender roles to become the pride of the football academy both on and off the field.
In a fiercely patriarchal Maasai society, burdened by poverty, where the cost of education is prohibitive and girls are accustomed to marrying young into a life of domestic chores, Lengo Lady Lions are grasping a new destiny.
By reaching the quarter-finals of their Tanzanian National Championship competition recently, with players as young as 14 pitched against adult, professional and even international women soccer players, our Lengo girls are busy resetting sporting and cultural parameters.
“When the experienced professionals of big city teams first saw the Lengo girls arrive in Dodoma for the national championships, they were laughing,” said Coach Alvin Mollel. “They thought, ‘who were these young kids’! The average age of our girls is 14 to 15. They are all under 17. They were playing against teams of adult women, including Premier League professional players from Kenya, playing for big teams from Dar Es Salaam and elsewhere.
“Well, they soon found out who our girls are, and they are not laughing anymore.”
By reaching the last eight – losing even then only to the eventual champions – Lengo Lady Lions gained automatic entry into the national finals again next year, when they will be more experienced and hopefully even more competitive.
Coach Alvin explained the girls had already surpassed all expectations to even reach the national finals, representing their region as champions of the major northern city of Arusha, after winning the regional tournament final on a penalty shoot-out as big outsiders.
The win was so unexpected the team needed to recruit a ‘C Licence’ coach and team doctor to go to the national finals. Accommodation and food were paid for by the Tanzanian national association but everything else had to be provided by Lengo to enable the girls to take up this life-changing opportunity.
The journey to the capital Dodoma took eight hours by bus. Many of the girls had scarcely ever left their village before. Typical among them was Rachel Shayo, a 5’ 4”, 16-year-old goalkeeper. Rachel is one of four siblings from a single-parent family. Her mum struggles to provide for them all since Rachel’s dad passed away. Under Lengo’s guidance Rachel has excelled at school and earned the opportunity to attend high school and study for ‘A’ Levels, but faces disappointment unless Lengo can provide additional sponsorship.
In their first game Lengo shocked the whole tournament by holding former national champions, Temeke Sisters, a top team full of experienced, accomplished players, 1-1. After going a goal down, captain Angel equalised to secure the draw.
Second group opponents, Sayari, like Temeke Sisters also from commercial capital Dar Es Salaam, got an even bigger shock as Lengo won 2-1 with goals from Angel and Lois.
Host team Fountain Gate proved too strong in game three, winning 3-1, with Angel again scoring for Lengo and starting to attract much attention from opposition scouts. But far from the fairlytale being over, Lengo rallied in game four to beat Southern champions Ruangwa 2-0, and clinched qualification for the knock-out phase, winning 2-1 against Njombe to advance in second place from the six-team group.
With 14- and 15-year-olds playing five gruelling, 90-minute matches in five days against grown women from large squads of players (in Australia, boys do not usually play 90 minutes until age 18 and rarely play more than twice a week), qualification took its toll. With captain Angel injured in the quarter-final, Lengo put up a tough fight and it took past Premier League champions and this year’s eventual national competition winners Ilala to beat them. Coach Alvin said he reckoned by drawing any other opponent Lengo could have advanced to the final.
“The coaches were so surprised and proud,” said Alvin. “We had the youngest team, and it was their first experience ever of this level. The achievement is a huge thing. We have become established as a First Division team and next season automatically gain entry back into this competition. So, we must fund another trip to the finals next year.
“It is a massive and life-changing experience for these girls, huge for their confidence and self-esteem and for opening new horizons in their lives. Most have not travelled further than the village market and here they have travelled hundreds of miles to the capital, on a bus with their teammates and made the community proud.
“It is a game changer in perception of the girls and what they can do. To get out of where they were born and raised and to perform like this.” He said matches were broadcast on TV and radio around Ngaramtoni and it was “unbelievable” for family and friends to hear names of girls that they know.
“The reaction was huge from parents, and you could see how proud they were. There were a lot of good words and statements from the Arusha Football Federation – it’s a long time since they had a team represent the area nationally. You can see the pride, spreading the message and the enthusiasm among those who did not get to go. They know they must work hard in school and at their football if they want this chance in future.”
Were the boys jealous? “The boys are so happy, because of the team spirit we have in Lengo. But they would love to do the same.”
Written by Dominic Biggs