Zimbabwe’s Grace Chirumanzu is a proud African woman in sport who is keen to establish a good network of sports journalists who are passionate about women sport in Africa.
Chirumanzu is the founder of The Sports Queen (SQ) – an initiative that seeks to tell the stories of women’s sport in Zimbabwe and celebrate the achievements of sporting champions.
Growing up, Grace Chirumanzu was determined to chart her own way. She was ridiculed as a teenager because of her skin colour and she used karate to fuel her dreams.
While based in the UK, she went on to win a bronze medal at an international tournament in 2018, and in the same year, she was crowned Zimbabwe’s Sportswoman of the Year.
Chirumanzu has also dreamt of becoming Zimbabwe’s sports minister to help market and develop the country’s sports to make it financially rewarding to athletes, but her focus has shifted to turning her two kids into future sports stars.
Speaking with Kass Naidoo, Chirumanzu chats about using her prize money from winning the 2018 Sportswoman of the Year Award to host a women’s sport awards in her country and shares what the rest of the world can learn from Zimbabwe about the promotion of women’s sport.
Grace, it is wonderful to chat to you on gsport, how are you doing during this Covid-19 lockdown?
I am trying to be doing well, I guess we all have to. The new normal is not something we would all choose if we had a choice. There is no fun in staying at home and missing out on attending our favourite sports, going out with friends, visiting our loved ones and do all sorts of fun stuff with our families.
But, if staying at home means we will be protecting our lives so that we can do more of those later, we have to! We can think of it as not being stuck at home but rather being safe at home.
How much work are you able to get done during this time?
I am not doing as much as I would want to do under normal circumstances. I have however learnt not to put myself under so much pressure to be a superwoman because it is just not realistic!
“Helping my eight-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter with schoolwork is feeling like I have signed up for a job I never had professional training for!” – Grace Chirumanzu
Striking a balance between working from home, exercising, and homeschooling can be tough. Helping my eight-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter with schoolwork is feeling like I have signed up for a job I never had professional training for! I sometimes worry they may miss out a lot on their learning, but I tell myself it’s a challenge every parent is facing, and I should not be too hard on myself.
The good thing is I have an amazing group of co-workers who understand these dynamics of working from home and we do support each other. It takes the pressure off my shoulders.
You are accomplished across various areas of sport – participation, administration, and media. Where does your passion for sport come from?
I am generally a person who loves people. I enjoy the presence of people who are cheery and supportive. That is the typical environment for sport. It is easy to turn to a stranger next to you and start talking about sport, agree and disagree respectfully and sometimes enjoy a good game together.
It is a field where your passion and talent speak louder than anything else. No one judges how big someone’s ears are or how too dark-skinned you are, it has always been a great source of confidence for me. Victory on the sporting field for me means victory everywhere I go, the confidence I have from that success becomes contagious even to those who come trying to discourage me on something.
Why did you choose to take up Karate and not any other sport?
I have always been someone motivated by society’s negative thoughts about women. Something usually thought women can’t do would appeal to me. Besides, masculine sport totally made sense to me after l had ruled myself out as a typical beautiful girl. I grew up with big ears –well, I still have only that now I have embraced them not to notice- and I am dark skinned. That combination made me stand out and my Grade 6 teacher made me famous by nicknaming me “Blackstone.”
“It did not take away my confidence, but I stopped identifying as a beautiful girl who would be accepted in any feminine sport or activities.” – Chirumanzu speaks on growing up dark skinned.
It did not take away my confidence, but I stopped identifying as a beautiful girl who would be accepted in any feminine sport or activities. No one would be freaked out by “Blackstone” in a karate suit punching and kicking others than she would be in lovely gymnastics’ leotard making some cute moves!
So, I went on to play soccer and a bit of cricket and volleyball in high school. I am naturally someone who identifies with masculine sports more in what I boast to be feminine masculinity. I feel empowered by karate to be strong because the world we live in is not soft on us women. It is not soft on anyone! Men seem to be ok because they were socialised to be tough. If it wasn’t karate, maybe I would be a boxer or body builder.
What was the biggest highlight you achieved in Karate?
My biggest achievement was a bronze medal at an international tournament in Scotland in 2018. It is something so special to me not just because of the achievement on the karate mat. What makes it special and stand out as my biggest achievement is that I had to develop a strong mental will power to push myself as I was away from home.
I had been in the UK for four months on a Chevening Scholarship studying for my Masters degree. I had to make sure assignments were done and returned with a good mark while at the same time training for the tournament. I usually do well with being pushed during training, but this time I had to push myself as all my karate fellows were back in Zimbabwe. I made sure to send them my training videos and their feedback really helped.
In the end, I hardly made friends during that one year because I was either in the library or in the gym training. In the end, I got my country a medal and myself a Masters degree. It was a year I discovered an amazing Grace I had not known all my life, a lovely journey of self-discovery.
How did it feel to win Sportswoman of the Year in 2018? Tell us all about that experience.
I really felt appreciated. All the sacrifices I made during the year in UK preparing for that tournament and missing out on making friends and having fun were rewarded. It was like a big warm hug from all Zimbabweans saying, “We saw you being that weirdo who goes to the gym at midnight, we saw you not making friends because you had to perfect a technic at training, you missed out on making friends because you wanted to make your country proud and we love you for that.”
“I managed to host sports awards for women in my country from that money and received great financial and in-kind support from family, friends and my sports contacts. It was the best thing to happen to me in sport.” – Chirumanzu speaks on using her Sportswoman of the Year prize money to host a sports awards ceremony for women in her country.
It was Kirsty Coventry’s first year as Sports Minister and she really did well in making sure there was a good prize money for the winners. There are never financial rewards from karate tournaments, that’s the tradition of the sport and we are used to it like that.
However, receiving some good financial reward from that award made me realize how as women we can make a living from sport. I managed to host sports awards for women in my country from that money and received great financial and in-kind support from family, friends, and my sports contacts. It was the best thing to happen to me in sport. I was empowered to empower other women in sport, which is something I am very passionate about.
Tell us about your involvement in sport administration and some of the roles you have held and how have you benefited from these experiences.
I was Zimbabwe Karate Union Media and Comms person for four years. It was a role that helped me use my media skills to promote the sport and contribute to its development in Zimbabwe. It was a role I loved and enjoyed so much as I understood the sport so well from my experience as an athlete and my experience in media as a sports journalist.
I got to understand more about the challenges of women in sport and those of minority sports in general especially why there is not enough media coverage. I understood both ends and I gained the skill of knowing how to package sport or an athlete into a brand that’s appealing not only to the media but corporates.
“It is unfortunate that our beloved Africa focusses more on what they consider bigger challenges than investing much in sport.” – Chirumanzu speaks on the investment of sport in Africa.
It is unfortunate that our beloved Africa focusses more on what they consider bigger challenges than investing much in sport. Otherwise, sometimes I feel like our continent is not taking advantage of people with great ideas to make sport something that could contribute to the development of the continent.
What was the inspiration behind the launch of The Sports Queen?
From the experience of working in the newsroom and being a freelance journalist, I realized the women stories in sports were overlooked. It is generally believed women sports news don’t sell. People with this belief further point out that it is the reason why there are less followers of women sport than there are of men. This I believe it’s the reality on the ground.
I however think it is like that and it has become the reality because of socialization. The media, among other socialization agencies like schools and churches, have played a big role in making this the truth. If inspiring stories of women in sport are not told in the media, how will people get excited about what they don’t know? There is not enough zeal or hype of women sports in the media to excite spectators.
“I know I can and I know I will inspire one or two African girls out there to see the benefits of sports, two or three companies to sponsor women and get to inform and excite a few spectators of news in the world of women sports enough to get them to show up for their matches.” – Chirumanzu speaks about building women’s sport through her The Sports Queen project.
I thought by coming up with Sports Queen I could try and fill in that gap. I know I will not change the gender imbalance in sport just by this one magazine against a lot of male chevinistic sports media of this generation. I know I can and I know I will inspire one or two African girls out there to see the benefits of sports, two or three companies to sponsor women and get to inform and excite a few spectators of news in the world of women sports enough to get them to show up for their matches.
I have always fancied The Sports Queen to grow into being the ESPN of Africa especially after my mentorship with some amazing women leaders at ESPN’s Connecticut campus in 2012. That will be great, but for now I just want Sports Queen to be known as a voice for women in African sports as we take it one step at a time.
What is your vision for SQ and are you getting the necessary support?
I have had some amazing support along the way. There have been some trial and errors here and there. The bigger dream is to establish a good network of sports journalists who are passionate about women sport in Africa and be able to boost the SQ into that big media source. The initial and fundamental step to that is to establish a good and well-resourced newsroom in Zimbabwe and start growing from there. All I need right now is a team of believers who can invest into the dream and be part of this journey.
What is the state of Zimbabwe women’s sport and is good progress being made?
There is not much progress to celebrate at the moment but the one thing I have noticed and admired is that there is that realization that women sport needs to be empowered in all aspects. The failure of that to be implemented in Zimbabwe is due to the fact that the country is in a challenging economic situation. So, at the end of the day the challenges in sport for sponsorship and others do not become gendered. All athletes are affected.
It is my belief that once our country starts blossoming, most sport administrators will develop their sports with the realization that women were lagging behind their male counterparts despite progress having hit a snag at some period. There is general awareness and appreciation of the successes women in Zimbabwean sport have achieved. That is the most important progress I recognise.
What can the rest of the world learn from Zimbabwe about the promotion of women’s sport?
If we talk of promotion of women in sport, I am afraid some people read it as demotion of male sport. At the end of the day, it takes the art of realizing this and making sure there is no communication of the wrong narrative. I think this is what Zimbabwe and the whole world needs; having a female sports Minister who has achieved a lot as an athlete and administrator has been a great starting point for Zimbabwe.
“Her being a female athlete before is well aware of the imbalances that have existed in the past and whenever she makes a move, she will naturally be cognizant of the need for a good balance.” – Chirumanzu speaks on Kirsty Coventry as Sports Minister.
This is not to say, Kirsty being a woman she will be standing for women sports at the expense of male sport. Her being a female athlete before is well aware of the imbalances that have existed in the past and whenever she makes a move, she will naturally be cognizant of the need for a good balance.
We have had male sports Ministers in the past who have done their best, but it was easy for them to overlook some female athletes issues because of their lack of experience and absence of a platform for women to discuss their issues. Coventry has not been the perfect Minister so far, but I believe she can be the best we will ever have if there is good support and less politicising of sport.
What is the one thing you have achieved that nobody really talks about?
It’s Africa Day on 25 May. What makes you proud to be African?
The spirit of Ubuntu among us as Africans is something that I am proud of. We value relations and respect one another as brothers and sisters. It is something that we don’t realize about ourselves until you travel outside Africa. When Africans meet, they usually connect easily and treat each other as family. No wonder the continent is often sometimes confused as a country by people who have never been here, we relate as one people.
What is your advice to women in sport about achieving their dreams?
For anything to happen it starts in the mind and it is followed up by consistent action. There is no point in dreaming and not working towards achieving it. The beauty of dreams is to enjoy the reality and look back at the journey laughing at the failures and struggles you went through. Once you achieve one dream, go for another, the moment you get content is when you stop living.
What has sport taught you?
I have learnt to be physically and mentally strong. I have trained my mind to cheer myself on during a fight or hard training when my body is finding the going tough. It is the mind that gives up first before the body does in sport and almost everything in life.
I have a tendency of talking to myself in my mind and I always make it a point to convince myself that I can do anything. An opponent in any sport represents any external forces and problems that challenge us in life, it is up to us to awaken the champions within us and give our best fight.
What is your greatest ambition?
I used to dream to be Zimbabwe’s sports minister and help market and develop the country’s sports to make it financially rewarding to athletes. My observations in the past few years made me realize Africa is not yet ready for such big dreams. The potential is there, but African sports and politics are just too entangled it ends up making the bad guy out of someone ambitious.
So, at the moment, my greatest ambition is to help my kids Ted and Sasha enjoy and achieve their full potential in sport. We are working on the EPL dream for Ted and raising Serena Williams in Sasha. Maybe it’s too great an ambition to achieve, but dreams are what makes us who we are.
Photo 1 Caption: Growing up, Grace Chirumanzu, was always motivated by society’s negatives thoughts, which eventually amped her to begin her career in karate as she believed that she would not be accepted into feminine sports. Photo: Supplied
Photo 2 Caption: From a young age, Chirumanzu ruled herself out from being a typical beautiful girl due to her dark skin appearance, especially when her Grade 6 teacher famously nicknamed her “Blackstone”. Photo: Supplied
Photo 3 Caption: The name-calling did not come take away her confidence, however it fueled her drive to venture into karate which she says, “No one would be freaked out by “Blackstone” in a karate suit punching and kicking others than she would be in a lovely gymnastics leotard making some cute moves!” Photo: Supplied
Photo 4 Caption: Chirumanzu has gone on to wear various caps in sport from administration, media, and journalism, and has founded The Sports Queen – an initiative that seeks to tell the stories of women’s sport in Zimbabwe. Photo: Supplied
Photo 5 Caption: Chirumanzu has also dreamt of becoming Zimbabwe’s sports minister to help market and develop the country’s sports to make it financially rewarding to athletes, however due to African sports and politics being too entangled, her focus has shifted to turning her two kids into future sports stars. Photo: Supplied