Supporting Community, Strength, And Resilience Through Powerlifting in Zimbabwe
What does a simple set of weights have to do with changing the world? As a squatting scholar, I was determined to find out.
Nicola Paviglianiti has a Masters of Science in Humanitarian Action from University College Dublin, a Masters of Arts in Peace and Conflict Studies from Uppsala University, and BSc Honours Specialization in Health Sciences from Western University.
In my own life, I have experienced and witnessed the power of the barbell and the strength community. I’ve also come across a common love of lifting in a variety of unexpected places through my training while travelling – Kenya, China, Italy, you name it! As a result, my big humanitarian heart was curious as to the role strength training (and powerlifting in particular) could have in assisting and uplifting marginalized communities around the world.
Powerlifting is a sport that requires very minimal equipment, and the sport is accessible for all genders, ages, and body-types, including para-athletes. What could the impact be? Better yet, in what areas could we potentially use the sport in the future for positive change?
This led me to conduct my Masters thesis research in Zimbabwe over the course of this past year. To do so, I connected with the grassroots charity Lift4Life, based in the US. Since 2015, Lift4Life has been in partnership with communities in Zimbabwe. They have been providing funds and support to build gym equipment locally with very minimal resources, to help spread the power of powerlifting. This context and the collaboration with the local community provided a very unique opportunity to understand the reality and experiences of lifting participants and beneficiaries more formally and fully, as well as its potential relationship to accomplish humanitarian objectives.
So, with a lot of faith and support from friends and family around the world, I stepped up to the platform and booked a plane ticket to Zimbabwe.
Humanitarian concerns in Zimbabwe are dire, and over the last decade, Zimbabwe has experienced a number of unprecedented economic, environmental, and political shocks and stresses with long-lasting impacts. Poverty, food insecurity, malnutrition, and environmental degradation are serious challenges, and basic commodities and services are beyond reach for much of the population. No running water. An unemployment rate of upwards of 95%. A country swamped in sanctions.
The aim of my research was to examine participants’ experiences of lifting weights and the sport of powerlifting in high-density suburbs in Harare, Zimbabwe. Within this particular humanitarian context, the role, impact on livelihoods, and utility of the sport of powerlifting and lifting weights in community gyms was addressed. I travelled to Zimbabwe on two separate occasions to conduct field work and data collections in various communities that had established gyms and there were known individuals that lifted weights. I used both structured interviews and observation as the data collection methods, and lived in the local communities with the locals and in the exact manner a local would.
What did I find?
DEMOGRAPHICS of lifters in Zimbabwe emerged, including the fact that most gym users were middle aged and male. The average age of the female lifters interviewed was 38, ranging from 28 years old to 48 years old. The average age of the male lifters interviewed was 29, ranging from 18 years old to 44 years old.
“The biggest thing I have learned [through] lifting is that I can do anything if I put my mind to it.”
Lifting participants felt that the sport provided avenues for PERSONAL GROWTH, and was seen as a means to build on their assets, including an increase in confidence, self-worth, and wellbeing. Gym users indicated a keen motivation towards wanting to develop themselves more within the sport, such as by training to become a coach, competing in a competition, and a common question was when a seminar or workshop be hosted next.
“Confidence in the gym translates to confidence in life.”
Powerlifting in relation to HEALTH was evident as a reason to both start powerlifting as well as continue powerlifting, and the sport was additionally seen as an avenue to address drug usage as a drug free sport.
“There are a lot of youth who are engaging in using unsafe substances – like steroids. Powerlifting is a way to keep the kids away from drugs.”
A very active topic within interviews and observations was FEMALE POWERLIFTING and at times proved to have tensions. Societal barriers for women participation existed, and interviewees suggested a need for increased awareness towards female powerlifting and the creation of a female-only gyms. All interviewees responded positively to female powerlifting and wanting to grow this aspect of the sport further and support it. However, culture and societal norms were barriers constantly referenced. Every woman that was interviewed mentioned that men were a barrier to their lifting, and an additional interesting fact that emanated from the interview data was that all the female lifter participants within the study were middle aged (28-48 years old) and not married or in relationships.
“In gyms in Zimbabwe, women do not feel welcome.”
“Yes, powerlifting is very incorporating of all people…. but you have to have women coaching your women lifter. There are just certain situations you don’t want to get into as a male coach.”
“We need to teach more girls. We need female tournaments. More workshops. More watching.”
COMMUNITY was seen as an aspect of powerlifting important to participants, and provided avenues for an increase in social networks and relationships that may be seen as protective factors within the harsh and uncertain context of Zimbabwe.
“It helps to have a space to gather together and share things.”
Findings suggest that powerlifting can be a means of EMPLOYMENT. The sport addressed economic hardships for participants in Zimbabwe, and some interviewees were found to use powerlifting for income generation. A key example of this was the fact that Lift4Life was working with a local welder in Zimbabwe to build the equipment in the country, which was creating a ripple effect. The construction of one set of equipment employed 9 people alone, in addition to the people employed through transportation and other aspects needed to set up a community gym.
“We want to introduce to people that powerlifters are not thugs. We can earn a living through it.”
Lastly, HOPE was evident from the data, as participants believed in the country’s future in the sport and a potential for sponsorship and international opportunities. Powerlifting further provided a purpose for people, and interviewees continuously mentioned the desire and need to involve young people in the sport to provide them a better life and opportunities.
“There is excitement and hope. Hope is the mother of the future. Hope gives motivation for people to wake up in the morning. There is a future promised. If I get involved in this sport, my life could potentially change.”
From Research to Reality & Action
Humanitarian assistance must be about restoring lives, supporting individuals and communities, and supporting aspects that are important to them. It must be about creating opportunities and preparing people for their future lives in their particular context to find long-term living solutions. The grassroots existence and growing engagement of local initiatives in relation to lifting weights in high density suburbs of Harare, as well as the joint Zimbabwe-America powerlifting initiatives, illustrates the motivation and desire to use powerlifting to provide assistance and address needs within the community. There is considerable support to suggest powerlifting may be an effective means to support individuals and communities, especially with regard to promoting sustainable livelihoods.
It is hoped that this study provides some guidance in utilizing the sport of powerlifting and strength training in general to further benefit communities around the world. In Zimbabwe, at a time when challenges and hardships may be overwhelming for many, grassroots powerlifting is providing an avenue for engagement, to help others, and take on responsibilities that make the community a more positive place for humanity.
Strength comes in many forms. How will you take action and spread strength to those in the world that need it most? Powerlifting and sports are a powerful tool for change and to connect individuals and communities around the world, and there are many opportunities to unleash your own inner-strength to uplift the world. Consider donating to Lift for Life to help build more gyms in Zimbabwe, or volunteer your time at a community event. Wherever you believe your impact may be. And never underestimate the strength of sharing a smile, because you truly never know who may be needing that bit of strength the most.
Interested in a copy of the thesis, learning more, or connecting further? Feel free to email Nicola at email@example.com or follow her on Instagram at @storiesnotselfies.
Nicola Paviglianiti is on Team Canada powerlifting in the 52kg weight class. She was Canadian Jr National Champion 2016 & 2017, IPF Worlds Silver Medalist 2017, and took gold and Best Female Jr Lifter at the 2017 Commonwealth Championships.
Outside of the gym Nicola lives life to the fullest always on adventures around the world and loves all things chocolate and coffee related. Female powerlifting and growing the sport is a rising passion of hers and recently accepted a position under The Strength Guys as their Community Relations and Marketing Director.