South African villagers praise world champion

by Donna Bryson
Associated Press Writer
GA-MASEHLONG, South Africa (AP) — Caster Semenya’s grandmother remembers begging for money from friends and relatives to send the young runner to local track meets. On Friday she marveled at how far her granddaughter had come.

CHAMPION CELEBRATED–South African athlete Caster Semenya, left, laughs with her grandmother Maphuthi Sekgala, right, during a celebration at the Ga-Masehlong village in Moletjie, 65km from Polokwane, South Africa, Friday Aug. 28, 2009. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Semenya — the world’s new 800-meter champion — returned home to the village of Ga-Masehlong, where houses are of mud or concrete, and roofed with thatch or tin. Here, residents refused to let questions about her gender dampen their celebrations of her Aug. 19 victory in Germany. Villagers broke into song as Semenya arrived, and children swarmed around her with cheers.

“The future is not about where you are from,” said Harry Mangale, a local African National Congress Youth League leader. “The future is about dreams and hopes.”

South Africans have rallied behind Semenya since international track officials announced hours before the race that gender tests would be conducted on the 18-year-old runner. Her muscular build, husky voice and stunning race times have led some to question whether she could have a medical condition that blurs her sex and gives her an unfair advantage over other women. The test results are not expected for several weeks.

Little was said about the controversy Friday in Ga-Masehlong, with people instead seizing on a rare moment of pride for the impoverished village some 300 kilometers (180 miles) north of Johannesburg where many homes have no electricity or indoor plumbing.

Semenya “is one of our own,” declared regional Mayor Motalane Monakede. “She grew up in these villages where she had to walk many kilometers to fetch wood and to fetch water. Still, she managed to rise against these odds. Nothing can stop you if you are determined — and you work very, very hard.”

The crowd out to greet Semenya sang “My mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy. That’s why I’m a champion!” — changing the words of an apartheid-era song that declares, “That’s why I’m a communist.”

Semenya herself seemed happy and relaxed after the last 10 days of controversy surrounding her gender, breaking into a dance as she walked through the village where she lived until she was 13 years old.

Dressed in a black T-shirt and jacket and dark jeans, Semenya said little during two hours of speeches and songs in her praise. At one point, her 7-month-old niece Gauta was passed to her, and she sat cuddling the child on her lap.

“I don’t know what to say,” Semenya told the crowd of villagers toward the end of the ceremony. “But I’m very happy. Thank you.”

Since returning to South Africa on Tuesday, the Pretoria university student has been given a parade and met anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.

Earlier Friday, as a brass band struck up a tune, children from the primary school Semenya once attended raced down the village’s main dirt road to join in the celebrations. “I have to go to school, and run a lot, so that I can be like her,” 12-year-old Julia Ngoepe said.

Semenya’s grandmother, Maputhi Sekgala spoke at length about raising Semenya, first in Ga-Masehlong and then in a nearby village, when Semenya’s parents sent her to live with her grandmother.

Sekgala, resplendent in a purple and pink traditional Pedi dress and turban, described how her granddaughter trained every day after school, running from village to village. Sekgala said she paid for Semenya to travel to and enter meets when she could, and when she couldn’t she pressed friends and family for money.

“I am very happy in my heart,” she concluded, then danced back to a seat next to Semenya at the tent’s head table.

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