Written by: Brittany Ammerman, Wisconsin Badger
Happy International Women’s Day 2015! A day where women all across the globe are recognized and celebrated for their economic, political, and social achievements. A day where we celebrate achievements of women past, present, and future. So in tune to this year’s theme of #MakeItHappen, let’s make this a day where the power of play and its connection to female empowerment should be recognized and appreciated.
The power of play for any athlete can be game-changing, but for a woman it can be life-changing. I have been fortunate enough to conduct my life around athletics and the sport of ice hockey. The concept of sport has been a part of me since I was five years old, attached to my mind, body, and soul. I played any and every sport available to me: soccer, softball, hockey, surfing, bodyboarding, lacrosse. You name it, I played it. I rode my athletic ability right into college, and I am now a senior on the University of Wisconsin Badgers women’s ice hockey team. My athletic ability and the power of play has given me a world-class education. And athletics has taught me determination, dedication, time management, and hard work. Being a pre-medical student with a major in Women’s Studies and a minor in Global Health while being an athlete hasn’t been easy. And until I was 20 years old, I viewed the power of play in one-dimension: a full-ride scholarship to play for a team that is consistently ranked in the top 3 every year for women’s hockey and to get a world-class education.
As a champion at all levels I have competed- from middle school soccer tournament champion, to U18 Team USA Women’s Ice Hockey World Champion, to NCAA Division I National Champion- I have fully experienced the blood, sweat, and yes- the tears, that go into the sport and into winning. But I did not fully recognize the power of play and the power of sport until I was 20 years old and part of Health by Motorbike, a community outreach health initiative group working with rural villages in Kenya. I originally traveled to Kenya in May of 2013 with Health by Motorbike to educate women in rural villages of Southeast Kenya about women’s health. During our travels across the country of Kenya, I bought a soccer ball in the city of Mombasa from a street vendor who knocked on our bus window. My full intention for that soccer ball was to keep busy with children of the women we were educating and perhaps fill some downtime.
We traveled to the first village we were working with to chat with the women and provide a mobile health clinic for the day for their families and villagers. Towards the end of the day, there were quite a few of us sitting around trying to keep conversation going despite a slight language barrier. I grabbed the soccer ball from my backpack and put it on the orange-colored dirt littered with small rocks and gravel. The women of the Mpakani village perked up immediately, took the ball from my feet, and began a pick-up game consisting of 30, 40, 50 year old women in skirt-like wraps, called congas, and bare feet. For the next two hours, the game continued with constant smiles, laughter, and an intense competitiveness between the women. Dark came upon us and the ball had begun to deflate due to holes popped from the gravel of the field. I would not give the soccer game another thought, except to remember the joy the women had found in a simple game.
One month later, I received a phone call that the women had asked for a soccer league to compete with one another. They needed jerseys, shorts, socks, shoes, and balls. We began the Nikumbuke Women’s Soccer League with two village teams in June 2014, and will be expanding to 6 teams at the end of March 2015. Nikumbuke is a Swahili term meaning “Remember Me”. The village women would always say Nikumbuke upon my departure from the villages, always asking to not be forgotten once I returned back to the United States. Little did these women know that eventually they would be remembered not only for their love of life, but for their love of the game of soccer and redefining the meaning of the “power of play” for myself.
While heading this league has taught me much about founding and funding a women’s soccer league halfway across the world, heading a nonprofit, and being an even better time manager than I was before, it has taught me more about the power of play and the impact it can have on women. Before I embarked on this journey, I knew only the power sport had on a superficial level (i.e. athletic scholarships and winning championships). But now I see the power of play through these women. All I have done is provided the means to play the sport of soccer. These Kenyan women have developed a passion for the game and it has become an outlet for them mentally and physically. I have realized that I have been given the platform to share my athletic achievements and abilities across the globe. But what I have provided these women is not just jerseys and gear.
What I have provided these women is empowerment. What does that mean? It means agency, it means confidence, it means friends in teammates for the rest of their life, it means dedication to themselves, their sport, and their teammates. It means having fun and having the ability to make things happen for themselves, their families, their villages, their daughters, nieces, sisters, aunts, moms. Through the soccer league, the women are not competing for money or for fans. They are competing for themselves and for their respective village. The women are not competing against each other, but with each other. The soccer league has brought the villages together, creating a sense of cohesion in a country that is natively tribal and prone to civil war and disputes. The power of play has brought the women the sense of agency in the fact that they are participating in something that the men in their villages do not have the opportunity to participate in: organized soccer. The power of play has brought them confidence in knowing that they can succeed in the sport of soccer. They can score a goal and lift their village to victory. They can assist on a goal and #MakeItHappen. But most importantly, the power of play has brought them the knowledge and confidence to know that women can #MakeItHappen. That women can be so much more than just the caretaker of the home; they can be soccer players too. They can be teammates, leaders, role models, athletes. They can be amazing and they too, can be remembered.