Soon after basketball was first invented in Massachusetts in 1891, a “less strenuous” women’s version emerged.
The aim of the new game — known as netball and played by more than 20 million worldwide — was to allow ladies to engage in a sport while maintaining their feminine decorum.
Jump to now: These days, feminine decorum is the last thing you’ll see at international netball tournaments. It’s an intense, fiercely competitive sport in which players are restricted to their assigned third of the court and can only handle the ball for three seconds at a time. Netball today is dominated by tall, powerfully built, brilliantly athletic women. And after decades of dominance by Australia and New Zealand, many of the world’s top netballers now hail from Africa.
Five African countries — Malawi, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania and Botswana — are in the world top 20, and experts predict that in the coming years even more will join them. Great news for netball, which will be invigorated by the greater depth of international competition, and it’s breathing new energy into African countries that have seldom competed in the big leagues of any sport due to low incomes and limited resources.
These days, feminine decorum is the last thing you’ll see at international netball tournaments.
The Malawi Queens — clocking in at world number five — is the most successful sports team their country has ever produced. Last week, former stars Mary Waya and Peace Chawinga-Kalua were appointed as coaches for the Queens, promising even greater success for the tiny country.
And the trend reaches far beyond the world’s top teams. As the middle class expands and incomes increase, more and more people are getting involved in recreational sport, and in less advantaged regions, netball is being used as a tool to empower communities, from young children to working mothers. Netball’s stars of today are inspiring would-be legends of tomorrow, which is recasting the sport as a path to women’s empowerment globally.
It’s not the first time a sport has taken previously benched women to new heights. Soccer’s been successful at it. But netball is doing something a little different. It’s not just about getting women off the sidelines; it puts women and men on the same co-ed field, and on global turf.
To have them playing in a team together allows them to see that they all have skills, and [that] anyone can be captain.
The U.K.-based Netball Development Trust (NDT) runs grassroots netball programs in Uganda and elsewhere, introducing the sport to children in some of the world’s poorest countries. The programs aim to break down social divisions and give hard-working children valuable downtime.
“Most of the children we work with spend their lives studying and looking after their families. They don’t have time for fun,” says Julie Smith, African tour coordinator for the NDT.
The NDT also helps participants develop greater life skills by supporting young community leaders and training local participants to become coaches and organizers themselves. The potential of Ugandan netball players is exemplified by Proscovia Peace, the team’s captain and one of Africa’s best shooters, who is currently on scholarship as an MBA student at Uganda Christian University.
The origins of netball may have been about protecting femininity, but today men and women often play on the same teams. The NDT emphasizes the value of the mixed game, particularly in countries where gender discrimination is more pronounced. “To have them playing in a team together allows them to see that they all have skills and anyone can be captain and lead a team,” says Smith.
Unfortunately, though, African netball still faces a number of structural challenges. There’s an abundance of talent and passion, but inadequate resources, inefficiency and corruption get in the way of competitive success. For example, the Uganda She Cranes struggle so much with funding that they had no opportunity to play outside Africa between 1979 and December 2013, when they won the Nations Cup in Singapore and jumped to 14th in the world rankings.
Uganda hadn’t played internationally since 1979 and went on to win the Nations Cup last year
Even in the face of these challenges, however, many of these players practice wherever they can, perfecting their skills in oftentimes less-than-optimal settings. Smith describes watching a league match in Kampala, which was played in a parking lot at the back of a men’s football stadium because they couldn’t afford a quality venue. It’s astonishing to think that players training under such inferior conditions can compete against well-resourced teams from Australia, New Zealand or the U.K. — and yet they do.
It may even add competitive grit. When a driver steered across the parking lot game, the players retaliated by surrounding his car and letting the air out of his tires. Few would question the Ugandans’ commitment to the game — or their tough-as-nails defense — after witnessing the incident.
And no wonder the dominant netball nations are watching Africa’s teams with growing admiration — and more than a little trepidation.
Why you should care
Netball — basketball’s quiet cousin — is catching fire in Africa and could make a real difference to participating communities.