ZOMBA, MALAWI —
In Malawi, a female football referee has been blazing new ground by officiating at major international contests, such as the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and the FIFA Women's World Cup.
Bernadette Kwimbira-Mzika's passion for refereeing started when she first attended football matches after joining the Malawian Army as a soldier 16 years ago.
"At that time, the only thing I knew about football was the offside thing,” she said, “when the assistant referee raises a flag and another referee blows a whistle and puts his arm up pointing other direction of the field. I was much interested in what the referees were doing."
A mother of two, Kwimbira-Mzika had to attend a refereeing course for beginners, where she earned a Grade 3 refereeing certificate.
Now 35 years old and a secretary at the University of Malawi, Kwimbira-Mzika has been officiating matches for 14 years, and has risen to the top of her field at both the local and international levels.
This year, Kwimbiri-Mzika became the first Malawian female referee to officiate at the Olympics. Last year, she became the first Malawian to referee at the FIFA Women's World Cup, held in Canada.
Also last year, she was voted the best assistant referee for Malawi's top-level Super League.
In 2013, Kwimbiri-Mzika scooped up a best referee accolade for the Confederation of African Football Elite ‘A' Referees course for males and females, held in Egypt.
"Of course I wanted to get far with football officiation,” she said. “But to be honest with you, there was not a single day I imagined myself officiating at the world's biggest football events like the World Cup and the Olympics."
She owes her success to her adherence to the rules of the game.
"As a good referee, you do not have to pretend as if you have not seen something when you have clearly seen it or [you do not have to] make your own rules,” Kwimbiri-Mzika said. “Where it requires a yellow card, you have to caution that player. Where it requires a send-off, you have to show that player a red card."
She says that, as a female football referee in a country where soccer officiating is dominated by men, she endures insults from soccer fans every time she steps on the field.
"I do not give it a damn," she says in response.
Madalitso Phiri, a sports editor at privately-owned Capital radio, says he has long followed Kwimbira-Mzika's officiating.
"I cannot remember any games that have ended in any kind of controversy,” he said, “so this speaks volumes that this lady knows what she does."
Kwimbira-Mzika says it is her wish to maintain her reputation as a good referee until she retires, probably in about five years.