Notifications of Ruby Settle’s former life frequently pop up on her phone.
The latest was a Snapchat throwback from May 2019. The short video clip was of her and three friends singing a forgettable song while Ruby’s mother drove the teenagers to soccer practice at Bellevue College.
In that moment, dirt soccer fields in Malawi, Zoom video calls with Megan Rapinoe and drive-by birthday parties were unimaginable. Now they’re experiences Ruby can’t imagine being without.
The coronavirus pandemic has created a slew of negatives in 2020, as millions of U.S. residents are unemployed, and deaths have surpassed 100,000 nationally. But there’s also a gem of a friendship and bonding with a family that never would have been cultivated without the virus.
“It serendipitously lined up,” Chris Settle said of welcoming a budding Malawian soccer standout, Lughano Nyondo, to quarantine with his family of five, including Ruby.
“It’s all sort of a gift to have this special kid in our lives,” he continued. “It’s the farthest thing from an imposition. With everything that everyone is dealing with (during the pandemic), to have her around is inspiring to stay positive. … She helps us get through this.”
The plan was for Lughano — pronounced Lu-WAH-no — to stay with the Settles in their North Seattle home for two weeks. The 15-year-old was discovered at age 12 by Ascent Soccer academy in Mzuzu, Malawi, receiving a scholarship through the nonprofit to attend Indian Mountain School (IMS) in Connecticut.
During the private boarding school’s spring break, Lughano flew to Seattle to reunite with Ruby, work out with her OL Reign Academy team and see the region’s sights. This was a reunion, as the pair already had met in Lyon, France, as part of filming for a docuseries titled, “This Girl Wears Cleats.”
Laura Carriker, a Mercer Island-based director, had selected five Puget Sound-area girls and five from across the globe to film the past three years as they either tried to make their respective national teams or developed in the sport like Ruby and Lughano. Seven of the girls, with a few parents as chaperones, then met each other in France, attending the World Cup semifinal and final together. The series does not have a release date.
Four days after her March 7 arrival in Seattle, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. Suddenly the weeks stretched to months and frayed to uncertainty as IMS shuttered (moving classes online) and travel safety concerns prevented Lughano from returning to Malawi.
Even staying with the Settles wasn’t a given. Chris was furloughed from his position as a graphic designer, and his wife Camille had to shutter her home hair salon as part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s order for nonessential businesses. Chris refinanced their mortgage and dipped into their savings to make it through March and April, returning to work last week with a 35 percent salary reduction.
Ascent Soccer gives the Settles a weekly stipend to counter costs for items such as shoes and clothing. Lughano could be with the family until December if the private, Massachusetts-based Brooks School doesn’t open this fall.
“They didn’t really know each other much at all until this,” Camille said. “Ruby was kind of a little (expletive) about it. She was glad to have her but said ‘I’ve got my friends, do I have to entertain her?’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God. You’re being such a little (expletive). Right when (Lughano) came, all of that went away. They get along like sisters, not best friends. They give each other space. They each do their own thing.”
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You’d think soccer would be the immediate bond. It was actually the video game “Fortnite.”
“We’re both really bad at it,” Lughano said with a laugh.
The game is their way to wind down after school in the morning (5 a.m. for Lughano’s East Coast Zoom classes) and soccer training in the afternoon (either in the backyard or sneaking on nearby fields like at Nathan Hale High School, where Ruby is a sophomore).
Ruby was able to take Lughano to only two trainings because of the shutdown. Amy Griffin, the OL Reign Academy coach and technical director, said she was impressed.
Ruby is a versatile midfielder, and Lughano is a forward who’s crafty with both feet. Although both are quiet by nature, Griffin said they’re competitive and have the drive that could propel them to their shared goals of playing in college and professionally.
“From the first time I saw her play, I thought she was an exceptional player,” Ruby said of Lughano. “We push each other every day on and off the field. That’s what makes us so lucky. I have a brother who plays soccer, but he’s on his own schedule. This give me a 24/7 soccer teammate who pushes me. It’s a chance for us to both improve.”
Lughano has also broadened Ruby’s mindset, she said. Ruby deals with inequality, such as her academy not being free for elite players even though the Sounders Academy is for boys. The Settles sold their RV to pay for soccer trips and fees, and Ruby taught herself how to do acrylic nails to raise money.
Those opportunities aren’t available for Lughano, who disguised herself as a boy as a child to play on a dirt field in Mzuzu, otherwise be ridiculed. Kids play barefoot — Lughano not knowing until a recent trip to Fred Meyer that her shoe size is a 10, not 7. Her first “soccer” balls were wads of plastic bags wound together with string, and the nicest field is an hour walk from her home.
“People in Malawi, they’re talented,” Lughano said. “It’s just because of a lack of resources that some people don’t play soccer. They don’t have the hope that maybe they’ll be able to learn soccer because of the lack of resources.
“Here the kids are talented and they have everything they need, so it’s easy for them to just go and play. It upsets me. With Ascent Soccer Academy, they have those kind of resources, and they give back to the community. It inspires me that maybe when I grow up, I can help my country with soccer resources and other resources they need. I want to give back to my community in different ways.”
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Malawi is a landlocked sliver in southeastern Africa, surrounded by Zambia to the west, Tanzania at the northern tip and cradled by Mozambique to the south. Lake Malawi carves the country’s eastern border.
Once pilfered for the Arab slave trade, Malawi was colonized by the British in the 1800s, under totalitarian rule after gaining independence in 1964 and has a democratic government. In the 1990s, there were only four traffic signals in the country, and it remains one of the least developed in the world with a high mortality rate, severe violence against women and poor economy that depends heavily on assistance from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Lughano’s primary school building is formed with planks of wood, cardboard shingles and a tarp over a dirt floor. She was one of 100 children crowded on the floor eager to learn, girls dropping out of the underfunded educational system as they age to help with domestic work.
There’s also beauty in Malawi. The namesake lake is serene with sunsets of pastel colors. And with names that translate in English to hope, mercy, blessings and love, which is “Lughano” in her native Tumbuka language, a warmth and kindness emanates from the population of approximately 18 million.
“Families name their child after how they’re feeling emotionally when the child is born,” said George Maguire, founder of Ascent Soccer. “Like ‘Gift’ is a common name. Interestingly it can go the other way. If there’s trouble or problems in the family, they could name them (that). I played football with a guy called ‘Trouble.’ ”
Maguire’s upbringing in England playing soccer prompted him to help provide for Malawian prodigies. Lughano, whose mother is a teacher and father died in a car accident when she was a toddler, is the first girl to receive a U.S. academic scholarship through the program. She’d like to follow the steps of her first role model, Malawian national-team striker Tabitha Chawinga, who nabbed a lucrative contract and starred in China last year.
The unlikely twists of the virus likely keeps her on that trajectory. As part of OL Reign Academy’s link with the National Women’s Soccer League team, the players have been treated to Zoom calls with stars such as Jess Fishlock, Lauren Barnes, Julie Foudy, Hope Solo and, of course, Rapinoe.
From her quarantined base in Connecticut, Rapinoe gave about 150 girls, including Lughano and Ruby, nearly 90 minutes of her time talking about successes and failures. Because Rapinoe plays for the Reign, she’s been to the academy’s trainings in the past.
“I was overwhelmed,” Lughano said. “I was like, ‘Is this true or maybe it’s just a dream? Is this really happening?’ And when I saw her in the video call, I was like, ‘OK, this is really happening.’ I like the way Rapinoe plays. She reads the game and sees what’s happening. She plays with her mind, and she never gives up.”
On May 22, Lughano helped Ruby celebrate her 16th birthday. Camille planned a parade of cars filled with friends driving by their home, honking horns and giving her flowers to still make the day special despite having to social distance.
A virus that’s destroyed nearly everyone’s plans. Only in this instance, possibly for the better.
“It’s been a cool thing that would have never happened without the virus,” Lughano said.