Saturday, September 3, 2016

One woman’s courage brought hockey back to life

Great strides have been made to make hockey a

Great strides have been made to make hockey a sport for all. PHOTO I FILE 

By Tasneem Hassanali

On the way to Bagamoyo, standing squeezed in a populous daladala bus, the 31-year-old Valentina Quaranta’s purpose of being in Tanzania took a complete U-turn. Little did the passengers in the bus and the driver who slammed on the brakes know that the Swahili speaking ‘mzungu’ would be the pioneering woman to breathe life back into the women hockey team that was in a coma for seven years. The journey of the now Tanzania national women hockey team’s coach had just begun.

“At the end of my one year teaching volunteering program at Cooperazione Paesi Emergenti (COPE), I was to return to Italy. Before heading back home, I thought of taking a small holiday. In 2012, in the bus on the way to Bagamoyo, my purpose changed,” Valentina Quaranta narrates in an interview with Woman.

A friend of Valentina who was accompanying her to Bagamoyo pointed and urged her to look outside the window of the bus. “On the road, the unexpected happened. A friend of mine said, ‘turn, look over there, there are people playing hockey’. I did not know that hockey was played in Tanzania. My friend requested the driver to brake on the highway. We hopped out of the bus and changed our course of direction to the ground,” says Valentina.

Valentina saw a team of men training at the Lugalo grounds, the pitch alien to her then. “When the men saw us, they stopped and welcomed us to play,” she recalls. This was it for Valentina. When she first held the hockey stick on Tanzanian soils, she felt this was destined.


The relationship between Valentina and hockey

Valentina Quaranta is a national hockey player in her country of residence, Italy. She fell in love with hockey at the age of nine. “I have not stopped loving this sport since my school days. I began playing in tournaments as a player in Lorenzoni hockey club in my hometown,” Valentina speaks of when she was introduced to the game.

With the Lorenzoni Team, she won more than 10 Italian Women Championship. Moreover she has represented her country, Italy, in the national team for 10 years. “With the national team, I had the opportunity to travel all around the world taking part in international tournaments like the European Championship and the World League,” she says.

In 2011, after graduating with a Master’s degree in Psychology, Valentina abandoned hockey for some time for the purpose of practicing psychology. She decided to come to Tanzania for a year to volunteer with COPE in a village south of Tanzania called Msindo in Ruvuma. “I volunteered as a teacher in the kindergarten, helping local teachers to develop teaching methods for children aged 3 to 5. During this period, I had to learn the language Swahili and this helped me integrate in the society a lot better,” Valentina says.


In re-building a women hockey team

The day Valentina played hockey for the first time on the grounds of Lugalo with the army team, she met Coach Mnonda Magani. “I saw an unacquainted face walking towards us and I began to wonder. I remember Valentina had wrong shoes on, so I lent her my shoes to play hockey with the rest of the team. I took notice of her and she was good. From thereon, the few days Valentina had in Dar es Salaam, she attended all the trainings and workout sessions with the army team,” recalled Coach Magani, Assistant Secretary of Tanzania Hockey Association.

Coach Magani got acquainted to Valentina and that is when the talks on hockey began. In 2012, there was neither a women hockey team nor was it a sport played in schools. There were just few men teams in several regions of Dar es Salaam.

“The same year, my project time was over in Tanzania and I had to return to Italy. But I went back with a dream, to come back to Tanzania and re-build a women hockey team,” says Valentina.

A year later, in 2013, Valentina came back to Tanzania as a project coordinator with COPE. “It was not easy to leave family and friends back in Italy, but I was passionate about this. Upon my return, during my spare time, I and Coach Magani began teaching few kids of the Makongo Secondary school neighbouring the Lugalo grounds,” Valentina recalls her first teaching sessions.

It was the call from the Secretary of Tanzanian Hockey Association (THA), Mr Kaushik Doshi that made Valentina’s dream a reality. “I felt she was the right person to revive the women hockey team, which we have always wanted to. Her performance showed that she had the capability and moreover she integrated so well with the Tanzanians because she was well versed with Swahili and the sport. I challenged her saying ‘hockey is now your baby’ and you need to nurture it, she accepted the challenge. To be honest, she is an asset to Tanzania hockey association, what she has done and achieved in a short period of time, nobody could have done it better than her,” Mr Kaushik Doshi, Secretary of Tanzania Hockey Association (THA), explained to Woman his decision to appoint Valentina.

The hockey tournament dubbed Africa Cup of Nations, the biggest tourney for African hockey was to be played three months later, in September that year. Valentina was ready for the challenge, to prepare a non-existent women hockey team then.

“Together with the support from Coach Magani and THA, we contacted the players of the 2005 hockey team, existent once upon a time, and among them was Kidawa Suleiman. We convinced the ex-players that we are putting back the women’s team, we are beginning to train every morning and we are going to participate in the Africa Cup of Nations,” Valentina recalls.

The challenge was the resistance from the women who were now mothers and wives. Most of them reverted with the response, ‘there are no funds, and just like other times, it will not work out.’

But Valentina and the Coach did not give up and told the women to at least come to the field and see it for themselves. “For three days, only three women showed up. But slowly the word spread and in a month’s time we managed to scout 16 girls. We got some good players who now play for the national team from the KM grounds in Magereza,” Valentina says.

All of the players were out of condition; there were others who had not held a hockey stick in seven years while others were in bad shape. “It was a challenge to bring them back in shape and good physical condition but we were running out of time,” Valentina on the first challenge.

Adjacent to the preparation, the race against time to also find funds continued day and night. “When I went knocking on the doors of private companies, they were shocked to see a white person asking them for funds for a sport alien to them. Having to wait hours and talk in length, most answers were, ‘Sorry we have no money’,” Valentina on the second challenge.

It didn’t take a long time, in our digital age, for the news of Valentina’s initiative to spread in her home country, Italy. Donations from hockey players and well-wishers came in, including sponsorship from few local organisations. With this, the team managed to buy the bus tickets to go to Nairobi for the tournament.

“Every day, the girls trained relentlessly early in the morning to avoid heat and the heavy traffic of Dar es Salaam. The physical fitness improved and with a lot of hard work and perseverance, we were ready to take part,” says Valentina.


First tournament vs Westgate incident

After the 18-hour journey to Nairobi on September 2013, upon arrival, the team was told to stay indoors. The capital was under attack. “The first day of the practice was cancelled. I received a call from the Kenyan Hockey Federation (KHF), the organising committee, cautioning us to stay indoors. We watched the news on the television all day on the terrorist attack that shook the capital - the Westgate incident,” Valentina recalls.

The second day, the girls practiced on the field but the situation on the streets was still at risk. The team practiced hard despite hearing blasts from a distance. “The Westgate incident brought with it deaths and casualties every hours, it was one of the miserable incidents I and the girls witnessed. The federation decided to postpone the tournament for security reasons and we had to ride back to Tanzania on the third day,” Valentina adds.

The team did not lose hope, they continued to train and in November 2013, the tournament was played.

Tanzania played against Africa’s strongest teams such as South Africa and Nigeria. Though they lost all, Valentina believes that it was already a success-point for Tanzania because it was the first time ever the women national team of Tanzania participated in an international tournament. “There were a lot of indifferences and challenges. My girls were not used to playing on an Astroturf ground, because we don’t have a proper hockey pitch in Tanzania, hence the game was too fast for them. But the important thing was that they got to experience international teams,” Valentina says.

The coach and mentor of the women hockey team dreams to see Tanzania at the Olympics one day. Valentina says, “It is possible because the Tanzanian kids are full of potential, I’ve seen it but we need unity from Tanzanians to make great things happen. Sports can be a development for all, we just need to believe in a dream.”