Five girls. Five baskets. One soccer ball.
“Sunakali! Are you coming?!”
“Yes! Just let me feed the cattle first.”
The faithful friends, baskets secured firmly with a strap around their heads, waited patiently until Sunakali joined them- then they were off! Six girls. Six baskets. One soccer ball. As they cleared any suspicious eyes of the lonely mountain village they broke free, chasing the ball down the slopes of Nepal.
Welcome to Nepali sports. Not exactly open to girls.
These ambitious girls found a loophole, though – they brought the ball along during their daily task of gathering fodder. Doesn’t count if it’s not an actual match, right? Sunakali watched the ball spin away from her, eyes burning like lonely campfires back-dropped by silhouettes of the towering peaks. And the fires burned deep.
At age 16, Sunakali was just one of many strong-spirited Mugu District girls with a passion for this forbidden sport. Soccer didn’t fall into any of the approved Nepali traditions passed down through the years for young girls. Traditions like the ceremonial smearing of vermillion on their rich-brown skin. Or like marriage, feeding livestock, collecting fodder, and if they were lucky, an education.
That’s what was expected. That’s what had always been expected.
More than 63% of the district’s population would be married by 19, and many would begin their long domestic life as early as 15. With most opportunities handed off to the boys, the literacy rate for women stood at a ghastly 10%. Asking to play team soccer might as well have been asking their parents to buy them the moon. But for a girl with limitless dreams, the moon itself was too small.
On this particular sunny day in Nepal, Sunakali and her friends took a break from gathering, kicked the ball around and tumbled around in the pockets of sunlit snow. Little did they know that this small white ball was about to change their lives- and the trajectory of culture in those mountains- forever.
In 2013, Good Neighbors started a soccer league in Nepal. But not just any soccer league. An all-GIRLS soccer league. How can the world rise above poverty and violence while one of its greatest resources lays buried and neglected: the beautiful, resilient and courageous heart of a woman. Maybe, just maybe, bucking tradition in Nepal and giving girls a chance to shine would prove this.
Word of this unorthodox soccer league spread, and there in the heights of Mugu, it reached Sunakali and her friends that day as they sat in school. After class the friends huddled in conference. Half decided to go for it- the others agreed there was no way their parents would bend.
Since they had little influential sway at home, the seemingly impossible task of convincing fell on the recruiting coach; a task greater than the physical climb he’d faced just to get there. What were these mountains compared to decades of towering tradition? Sure enough, the coach was met with a barrage of resistance. “They were girls!” “What would a girl do with such an opportunity?”
“If our daughter goes away, our daily work will be affected. Who will herd the goats and cattle? It will also hamper her studies.”
“We won’t send her. You might sell our daughter. Who will be responsible for her if she falls ill?”
“Nothing will come of playing football.”
Over and over the coach experienced this scenario, like deja vu: inside the walls of a humble thatched house, outside while the parents worked the wool, or on the porch dodging a mother’s passionate gestures. Yet through gentle persistence he insisted these girls had potential, would make the parents proud and- most importantly- give the village a good name.
“Your girl won’t make a name by raising cattle. But if she wins the soccer match in Kaikali- your name will spread far and wide.”
Finally- perhaps from the pure novelty of the offer- some parents actually caved.
It is hard to imagine the emotions surging through these beautiful people. The young girl longing for adventure and to prove herself, even as tears proving her apprehension hit the floor. For the first time she’d be leaving her home, her hills, and the only faces she has ever known. And despite the stubbornness of the parents to stick to the opinions of the past, the real depth of their concern surfaced from their love for their daughter, and desire to ensure her safety. Releasing them into the care of this man- official papers or no- was a risk that tempted tears out of even the sternest labor-lined faces. But towards their dreams the girls turned, and up the mountain they climbed.
They didn’t jump in a mini van and ride down smooth asphalt paved roads munching on carrot sticks and PBJ. No, their dream lead them on thin shoes through rocky mountain inclines. They hiked for hours to reach the next village where they joined more young athletes for official try-outs.
30 girls tested. 15 chosen.
Sunakali made the cut.
And then another “small” hike (two whole days) to the village where they would have their first match. There was a massive turn out. No one had ever seen anything like it. Not for girls.
With no rest day before the game, and little to eat, the girls pulled on their uniforms and huddled around coach as he sketched out the plays.
Soon after, the game began.
The crowd cheered, gasped, and of course, argued with the referees. Sunakali and her team played with every ounce of remaining energy they had, but it wasn’t enough. As the other team celebrated they collapsed in tears. From exhaustion. From disappointment. From the echoes of their parents voices, “Give your village a name. Win the hearts of people.” They had failed. But it was not the end. Not yet.
Joining with another team, they set out for a tournament Good Neighbors had organized. But this was no two day hike. They represented the entire Mugu district and carried that weight of responsibility with them, even as they rode on a small plane for the first time, traveled by ox-cart, bus, and even motorcycles to finally arrive at their destination: Kaikali. But here they found they were a mere spec amidst all the teams competing. 14 teams had gathered. As was the tradition, the teams were greeted with crowds, garlands, drum beats, and the bright vermillion smudged on their foreheads.
As the tournament began Sunakali’s coach launched into his pre-game speech. “They’re more advanced than you. Their clothes are better. Even their talking style is more advanced.” (uh..maybe we should send him a copy of Rudy?) “But you girls are no less capable than them. You must remember that!” It may not have been a perfect Hollywood script, but it did the job. With the hum of the crowd hemming them in like a buzzing cocoon, the games began.
Amidst the motion, adrenaline, bodies- the passes, the shots, the sprinting- Sunakali started to hear her name over loud speaker as she cleared goal after goal.
“Jersey number 12- Sunakali is playing a beautiful game.”
“Jersey number 12 has given Mugu the lead!”
Slowly the ashes of their first loss in the mountains of Mugu made way for a stockpile of wins. And it kept growing!
Some of the games were a breeze, some a genuine struggle, but now the end was in sight. The Mugu team found themselves matched up for the championship. The whispers of their parents “give us a name,” must have surfaced and laced their skin with tension as they stared their final opponents in the eyes.
“If it’s your dream to win, you will win.” Their coach’s words joined the rest of the voices in their hearts. But which voice would be loudest? The ball began to fly. The score was tight, the opposition relentless, and Sunakali’s burning eyes on the prize.
“Jersey 12 has the ball. This might be dangerous…” the announcer cried, his voice rising.
Feet thundered down the field.
Sunakali got it in with one powerful kick. The teams continued neck and neck, but in the end, the other team just…couldn’t…score.
Sunakali’s name now filled the air on the waves of an uproarious chant.
“Sunakali! Hi hi! Sunakali! Hi hi!”
Lifting her on their shoulders a tidal-wave grin spread across her normally rock-resolute features. In her arms she held the trophy and by the end of the day she was named the Most Valuable Player. She just couldn’t wait to go back and show her parents.
She did it!
They did it!
The reception when they arrived back in their district was unparalleled. No Nepal legend ever told of a woman bringing fame to her town. Now a new legend had been born. Greeted at the airport with a line of drummers, they continued through town after town only to be buried by garlands and painted with vermillion until their faces were as red as their blazing hearts. Everywhere they went the streets lined with villagers chanting Sunakali’s name and praising the fame their team had brought to the region.
“These girls went all the way to Kaikali and won a football match.” The State education minister pronounced on a microphone to one community, “We have neither been able to produce a single toilet in the district, or build good roads. We haven’t been able to provide proper education. But if these girls can go so far and win, why can’t we?!”
But perhaps, despite all the fanfare and accolades, the most beautiful moment of all was when two parents with calloused hands held a picture of their daughter, raised victorious on the shoulders of her team and said- “this is our daughter….even a daughter can perform well if given the opportunity.”
But this wasn’t the end of Sunakali’s dreams, it only gave her more courage. She went on to speak out against child marriage in her area, and later went to try out for the national Nepal football league.
Sometimes it takes a long time to turn the tide of a culture. Sometimes it only takes a small rudder to turn the massive ship. Sunakali and her friends- literally through their sweat and tears- opened a discussion of change in their villages, and proved that all that anyone needed was an opportunity and willing heart.
Oh yeah, and I almost forgot. The translation of the name Sunakali?
She watches, she waits, she dreams.
She lives across the seas, or across the street, or walks among us.
I guess we just never know what treasure will be uncovered if we only take the time to extend an opportunity.
Lets find more gold, shall we?