Belia Zibowa seeks empowerment through basketball

By Hanna Lustig September 27, 2014

“Whose mother goes to the gym? Whose mother exercises?”

Belia Zibowa looks out at the crowd of high school girls as the question hangs in the air. No one raises their hand. When Zibowa tells them how much she loves basketball, they don’t believe her – she seems too feminine to play sports. In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, girls are not encouraged to shoot hoops, a consequence of confined gender roles handed down through generations.

“We’ve got to show them just how amazing sport can be for their daughters,” Zibowa says. “I want them to be able to nurture that talent.

“They just don’t know how beneficial it is.”

That stereotype prevents scores of girls from thriving, Zibowa herself included. A very tall child, Zibowa slouched to blend in among her shorter friends. Until, of course, she joined the basketball team her first year of high school.

Suddenly, being tall was no longer a source of embarrassment. It was a competitive edge, and Zibowa immediately demonstrated natural talent. The team became a second family, traveling to tournaments and experiencing life outside Bulawayo together. And soon, Zibowa’s posture changed.

“I lifted my body, put my shoulders back, and stood tall,” she says. “Basketball changed the way I felt about myself.”

Zibowa never forgot what basketball brought to her life, and today she is the Regional Program Director of Africa Outreach USA, a program that seeks to empower girls from poor areas through basketball.

“Women are 50 percent of the population, so if you’re not going to empower them, you’re actually operating at half strength,” Zibowa says.

The inadequacies, Zibowa explains, are striking. Imagine 30 girls showing up for a clinic barefoot, ill-prepared to run up and down a concrete court. They do not own sneakers or sports bras, and there are only two basketballs at their disposal. When they run, they hold their hands over their chests– a painfully embarrassing experience.

“It just takes one cruel child saying ‘Oh my gosh, look at her.’ Laughing at her. And then she never wants to come back again.”

For these girls, Zibowa says, basketball is not just a sport– it is a chance to rise above the poverty, unemployment, and gender inequality rampant throughout the country. It is an opportunity, she explains, for education, travel, and fulfilling career dreams.

Luckily, Zibowa has not given up on her dream: a program in which there is enough equipment for every girl to play on a decent court. A program where girls can find friendship, motivation, and solace. A program that gives girls a chance to travel and learn.

“Then let’s see how much they fly,” Zibowa says. “Just give them that opportunity to have the most basic things and then see where they go from there.”

Zibowa is still invited to give the occasional talk, and she always asks that same question.

Hands are still not flying up. But perhaps they will, one day.

“Everyone has a part to play,” Zibowa says. “If we are able to improve a girl’s performance in class and improve her performance in life through sports, then, look, lets just run with it, man. It can only get better.”