Malawi footballer Tabitha Chawinga's determination takes her to Inter Milan
When Malawi women's footballer Tabitha Chawinga started playing as a striker for Italian Serie A club Inter Milan, the odds were stacked against her, writes Tiwonge Kampondeni, MANA.
Malawi-When Malawi women's footballer Tabitha Chawinga started playing as a striker for Italian Serie A club Inter Milan, the odds were stacked against her, writes Tiwonge Kampondeni, MANA.
Chawinga's football journey is that of a young woman who, as a child, endured parental punishment, community rejection, and ridicule for her masculine body and voice.
Her story could be a perfect lecture on how inner determination, and enduring resistance, coupled with hard work and focus, can propel one to greatness.
It took her intrinsic motivation to overcome external factors that could have easily ruined her dream. Today, Tabitha, who is on loan at Inter Milan from the Chinese side Wuhan Jianghan University FC, is one of the women's football icons.
"My interest in football started when I was seven years old. I had to do it first without the approval of my parents. They did not want me to play football at all. My dad was a messenger at Rumphi Secondary School, and his dream for me was to be educated and get a job. My mom, too, wanted me to focus on my education," said Tabitha.
Tabitha was born in Rumphi, in her parents' home district of Goodson and Kestar. During her time, Tabitha recalls there were more boys than girls in her community, and most of the time, she would be in the company of the boys who influenced her a lot.
"It was more fascinating to see the boys play football, and one day, I asked if I could join them, and they allowed me. People laughed at me. The spectators bullied me, saying I looked like a boy. But that opportunity to play in the boys' team was my breakthrough in football," Tabitha said.
From that day, Tabitha started playing football in the boys' teams. She could feature in her school boys' team, St. Dennis Primary.
Each time she went for training or actual games, Tabitha had to pay a price for choosing football against the desires of her family and the community.
"I had to prepare myself because I was always mocked," she said. "At home, I could be beaten for disobedience. My parents’ worry was that I was focusing more on football than education."
On the pitch, the striker with dreams of greatness was subjected to inhumane treatment by both boys and girls.
"I have been undressed twice in front of my opponents while playing at a local level. Players for opposing teams protested against my presence. They thought I was too good a player to be a girl. They wanted to prove that I was female. It’s hard to explain the humiliation I felt that day," she recalled.
Despite the pain and destruction, Tabitha never allowed what was happening around her to frustrate her chase for her dream.
Looking back, Tabitha's mother, Kestar Luhanga Chawinga, insists that discouraging their daughter from focusing on football made sense at the time.
"As parents, we were against her associating more with boys and playing football. We wanted her to pursue education, get a job and support us in the future. We beat her several times, and her persistence to play football brought misery to us. At some point, I had to ask her to opt for netball and not football. The community mocked us for poor parenting. Ankati tikumulekelera mwana [they said we were treating her with kid’s gloves]. Even her dad thought as much," Kestar Luhanga Chawinga said.
Despite all the challenges, Tabitha pushed for her vindication. Perhaps what everyone didn't know was how determined Tabitha was to make football her career.
Her Rise to Stardom Tabitha continued to be featured in boys' teams and, at some point, she was featured in Rumphi Medicals FC, a second-tier regional league team.
By the time she reached STD 8, at 14 years old, her community and parents slowly started accepting her passion for football, and her performance on the pitch became the talk of the town.
From being talked about in her community, her name would be discussed beyond Rumphi in meeting rooms.
Mr Nyirenda from Rumphi and the late Mai Bauleni were among those who could talk about Tabitha's exploits.
The two were attending a meeting for court messengers when a discussion about women's football came up.
Mr Nyirenda spoke highly of Tabitha as a potential goalkeeper. Mentioning Tabitha at that meeting was enough leeway to usher her into her professional career.
Mr David Dube, the owner of DD Sunshine FC in Lilongwe, then assigned Mr Nyirenda to find out more about her.
"At first, I was reluctant because, in my mind, I wanted to be playing in men's teams because they were comprised of players like Andrew Chikhosi, Peter Mgangira, and Joseph Kamwendo, who were my role models. I also wanted to be playing in Blantyre or Zomba," she said.
After some experience, Tabitha ended up joining the Lilongwe-based women's football team, DD Sunshine FC, in 2010, when she was about 15 years old.
Apart from roping her into DD Sunshine's squad, Dube also enrolled Tabitha at a private secondary school, where she did her Form 1 and Form 2.
"I failed my Junior Certificate of Examinations and couldn't proceed because I had to go to Sweden," she said.
Making a name at the international level
After playing locally for three years, Tabitha clinched a deal with Sweden's Krokom Dvarsatts IF in 2014, where she won the Golden Boot award with 39 goals, and her team finished as Swedish Third Division champions.
In 2015, she moved to Kvarnsvedens IK, playing for them for two seasons and finishing as the top scorer for both seasons with 43 goals and 26 goals, respectively. Her team was crowned Swedish Division 2 champions in her first season.
After her successful spell in Sweden, Tabitha joined the Chinese Women's Super League team Jiangsu Suning between 2018 and 2020.
She emerged as the top scorer in 2019 and helped her team win the Chinese Super League championship, and the China Super Cup, and was second in the Asian Club Championship.
Later, Tabitha joined her sister Temwa at Wuhan Jianghan University in 2021 China.
Tabitha is currently playing for Inter Milan on loan since 2022, and she is enjoying her top form.
Last January, former Flames captain Esau Kanyenda commented on Facebook, saying, "Scorchers captain Tabitha Chawinga registered her name on the scoresheet yesterday in Inter Milan's 4-0 win over Sampdoria in the Italian Serie A. Chawinga, who is on loan from the Chinese outfit Wuhan Jiangda, has now scored 10 goals in 10 appearances. Congrats Captain."
In another post, Kanyenda congratulated Chawinga for being included in the Serie A Femminile Week 15 team of the week.
Tabitha's other accolades include Best African Player in Europe for September 2022 and Italian Serie A Women's Player of the Month in the same month. From being a laughingstock to a star, Tabitha is now an influencer in women's football. Her father and mother are proud parents of what their daughter has achieved.
"Sometimes when I remember our resistance to her football interest, I feel bad. However, I think most parents would have reacted the way we did with Tabitha, considering that in Rumphi and probably the whole country, women's football was not that popular then. I am grateful to God for turning Tabitha's circumstances into the blessing she is," Tabitha's mother said.
Tabitha the sponsor, using women's football to fight stigma In one of her social media comments, Tabitha said, "Wakhala ulendo wa minga ndi maluwa omwe komabe ndimayamika Mulungu mu zonse [It has been a tough journey through thick and thin, but I am grateful to God for all the blessings]."
Behind Tabitha's success lies her past as a bullied star. Her determination to play football attracted stigma, bullying, and many unpleasant reactions.
Tabitha reveals how some individuals have gone to the extent of creating fake social network accounts to bully and harass her.
For this reason, Tabitha, for some years, shunned social media platforms such as Facebook.
"I was forced to avoid social media. I have a Facebook page, but someone runs it for me. I also avoid public places. I wonder what goes on in the minds of those who bully and harass others. I don't know if they have taken a moment to reflect on how they would have felt if that was being done to them, their child, their relatives, or anyone else they care about," Tabitha laments.
She complains about getting anonymous messages mocking her masculine body and voice. National Police PRO Senior Superintendent Peter Kalaya said stalking someone or sending anonymous messages on the internet is a crime under Cyber Stalking (Section 88) and Cyber Harassment (Section 86) of the Electronic Transaction and Cyber Security Act.
The punishment for cyber harassment is five years imprisonment with hard labour and a fine of K2 million, while for cyberstalking, the penalty is one year's imprisonment with hard labour and a fine of K1 million, according to Senior Superintendent Peter Kalaya, the National Police PRO.
Kalaya has appealed to victims of cyberbullying and stalking to report to the nearest police station for assistance. "We have a dedicated department committed to investigating and bringing all perpetrators to book. No one is entitled to bully or stalk," he said. Cyber harassment cases have increased since 2020, he added.
A UNICEF poll in 30 countries found that more than a third of young people report being a victim of online bullying.
"In response to some reactions where she is criticized for wearing dresses in some of her pictures, Tabitha wrote on her Facebook page this week, 'You will never ever please everyone you encounter, but you can be the best person you can be,'" the article said.
Tabitha is using women's football to empower young girls who are bullied because of their physical masculinity. She sponsors her former club, DD Sunshine.
"I have been sponsoring the team since 2014 when the owner suffered a stroke. I would encourage girls who are interested in playing football to join the club," she said.
Tabitha pays for the players' school fees, accommodation, training needs, and general management of the club. She also mobilizes support from friends at local and international levels.
Apart from using football to fight stigma, Tabitha supports her former club because she wants to see it thrive. Andrew Chikhosi, a former Big Bullets player, coaches the team, which contributes many players to the senior women's national team, the Scorchers.
During the off-season, Tabitha trains with the girls in Lilongwe, and she remains an inspiration to women football players.
"Tabitha always trains with the girls when she is off-season, and this inspires a lot of girls. She is doing a great job promoting women's football," Chikhosi said.
Football Association of Malawi (FAM) Competitions and Communications Director, Gomezgani Zakazaka, has stated that the FA has implemented several interventions to popularize football as a sport for everyone in order to combat stigma.
"We want to change the cultural perspective that associates football with boys or men," Zakazaka said.
He attributed the stigma and bullying faced by Tabitha to the fact that women's football was not popular when she began playing, which resulted in her playing on boys' teams, reinforcing the cultural perception that football is a male sport.
Zakazaka further explained that FAM has been collaborating with the National Schools Sports Association for the past two years, and they launched the Football for Schools Sport competition last year.
They have also established a national championship league for women to demonstrate that football is a sport for everyone.
Additionally, Super League teams are now required to have a women's team, and they are making efforts to promote the game at a young age by advocating for football to be accepted in communities and schools.
Tabitha has encouraged parents to recognize their children's talents and support their development.
Tabitha is the third-born in a family of five, and her younger sister, Temwa, is also a football player.