It takes guts, sheer strength and real passion for a lady to rule in a men’s game. Bolokang Lekgowe is one of the few. ONTAMETSE SUGAR reports.
Bolokang Julia Lekgowe is one brave lady – she has dared where only a few ladies have. As one of the few female referees in the Premier League, Lekgowe is emerging as a broker of peace between men. Because of her outstanding work, the leadership has become comfortable in entrusting her with tough assignments.
She is currently based in Selibe Phikwe, and officiates in most of the games in that area. Being a lady in a supposedly men’s world, the odds are stuck against her – she has to work twice as hard to earn and retain respect. Even then there has been a mark of success to inspire her further; FIFA accreditation being one of the significant recognitions. This has made her work even harder.
She fell in love with football from a young age though she started off by playing netball.
“I started supporting football from Standard 5. I did not want to miss any football game, I just had so much interest in it,” she said. The highlight of her conversion into being full member of the football world was when she became secretary at FC Satmos. The late Sam Sono – founder of FC Satmos – encouraged her to get into refereeing because he could see the passion that was in her for the game. She took that bold in October 2007.
She had believed that she could do a much better job of refereeing than some of the men she saw in action.
Locally renowned referees Joshua Bondo and Omphile Phuthego among others saw the passion in her and pushed her hard into becoming a better woman at the work. She started by improving her fitness by undertaking running exercises and then doing fitness tests. She was enrolled as an assistant referee in lower teams. Though she took a maternity break in 2009, in 2010 Lekgowe came back committed to do well and become a FIFA accredited referee. She said though she had to struggle with losing the baby weight and maintaining her fitness, she was determined. In the same year she officiated in the playoffs for the teams that were competing to join the Premier league from the first Division league. Her star was on the rise.
In 2011 she became a FIFA accredited referee. Despite the many challenges that a woman has to deal with when in a field dominated by men, she appreciates the full support she got from the local male referees. And with her focus, she managed to prevail through all situations.
“When I started people used to ask me what I was doing in a man’s work, some will even screamed at me in the pitch, but the male referees gave me strength,” she said.
She always makes sure that when in the pitch, she stays focused in the game and not worry about what the fans are saying outside. She said that it is only after the games that people then appreciate that indeed she can do a noble job. She recalled of an incident where she officiated in a game that involved BMC. Their then coach Chicco Nare hailed her performance, saying ‘I never thought a woman can officiate in a game the way you did’. This was highly motivating for her. She always knows that she has to work twice as hard. Lekgowe has officiated in Council of Southern African Football Association (COSSAFA) games before, going even up to the finals. For the females that aspire to see themselves doing what she does, Lekgowe advised that it is important for someone to stay focused in her job.
“When you get in there do not look at those men as people you want to date, but focus on your work because if not you will end up getting derailed from what you want to achieve,” she advised.
One of Botswana’s top referees, who have officiated in many international games, Joshua Bondo, said that they always encourage Lekgowe to push hard and even trained with her because they see that she is good. He said that they are happy with how she has grown, and respect her and her work.
“In the beginning she didn’t believe in herself too much, but we encouraged her because we could see that she knows football. Just give a woman a chance and you will be surprised at how good they can be,” he said.
He said that they welcome ladies at refereeing because Botswana does not have many women like that, and they are always ready to support them and help them grow.
The National Referee’s manager Dintwe Dintwe said that he does not have a consistent number that he can give of women referees, because they come and go. He referred to Lekgowe as the only female referee who is currently officiating male games. He said that they have realised that this is due to the many challenges that women face, like their spouses not approving of the job or even families. He said that women should stop undermining themselves and trust that they can do the job.
“Women should come forth but when they do. They should know that they are going to compete to be called on to officiate with men, and should not expect to be favoured just because they are women,” Dintwe said.
He added that women like Lekgowe are really getting enough practice by officiating male matches; something that he said puts them at a better advantage since the speed in a women football match is different from that of male players.