She came, mesmerized us, and as quickly as she arrived, she left the stage.
Ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Magdeline Moyengwa was the best feel good story out of Botswana.
Moyengwa was, and still is, a history maker. She was the first weightlifter from Botswana, both male and female, to qualify for the Olympic finals. Beyond that, her story was that of a girl child’s triumph against a patriarchal society and culture.
Her journey to the pinnacle of Olympic sport was an example of the challenges a girl child faces to reach her potential in sport. With her father and mother by her side, she defied her culture and got involved in competitive sport. Despite cultural pressure, she persevered.
Charming and articulate, she was the face of the future of women in sport in Botswana. Her stay was however short lived. Soon after the Olympics, she shocked the country when she announced she was taking a break from sport due to personal reasons. While details are muted, it seems culture and patriarchy may have triumphed.
Sport journalist Martin Fani says Moyengwa’s case is a difficult one. This comes when considering her Zezuru culture. “Remember her father was her biggest support system. After he passed on, she decided to take a break in sport. She is now married and it may be that her husband does not really value sport or see its importance,” he says.
Muyengwa’s case is not an anomaly. Retaining the girl child in sport has been a growing concern worldwide. For Botswana however, the government regulations that every public-school student should participate in sport eases this pain.
However, this retainment is short lived. Once they leave school or go to tertiary schools, many leave sport. The other problem is that when the adolescent stage kicks in and the girl child’s world open up, most of them leave sport to pursue other things in life. Research has shown that girls start to drop out from sport from the age of 18 years old.
This has led to calls for concerted efforts to keep the girl child in sport. Women and Sport in Botswana (WASBO) Secretary General, Keenese Katisenge -Tizhani says her organization continues to push for attraction and retention of women and girls in sport. This is done through advocacy, policy formulation, lobbying and guiding sport to create a safe and conducive environment for participation of women and girls in sport.
Some of the initiatives undertaken by WASBO to this effect include empowerment workshops, advocacy training, mentorship and scholarships achieved through strategic partnerships. “These are some of the initiatives that are helping WASBO to deliver its mandate at both regional and national level”, she says.
She points out that WASBO made some input into the Botswana National Sport Commission (BNSC) Equity, Diversity and Inclusion policy. Additionally, WASBO through the support of the BNSC and a Private lawyer developed a sexual harassment policy for sport in 2022. The policy, which looks at prevention of sexual harassment in sport and guiding on procedures for action taking was launched to National Sporting Associations (NSAs).
“WASBO also engaged national sport associations to get feedback on the number of women and girls participating in competitive sport and national teams. This was to assess if there has been growth post the 8th IWG conference which was hosted in Botswana,” Katisenge-Tizhani adds.
The WASBO Secretary General says the survey demonstrated that there was no significant increase in the number of women and girls in sport. The increase was by a negligible 1% in sport overall.
Regarding Moyengwa’s case, Katisenge-Tizhani says WASBO’s understanding is that she has taken a break to attend to personal matters and she will return to sport. “This is the assurance that she last gave us on our follow up with her,” she says.
Her optimism is however not shared by Fani. He does not see the 23-year-old weightlifter coming back any time soon. He points out to the number of key competitions she has missed after the Olympics as an indicator.
“She missed the African Championships, Commonwealth games, World Championships. All these are major competitions which could have improved her rankings and boosted her chances of qualifying for the Paris 2024 Olympics. I also believe she is not motivated to come back to sport. It would really be a miracle for her to come back,” he says.