Despite all the stereotypes about Africa, my first seven weeks here could hardly be described as “roughing it.” I spent every night in a big city—Cape Town or Johannesburg—and the wildest animal I’d come across was Heidi (Adrian’s Rottweiler). It's been all warm showers and wireless Internet… until last week. Right after I posted my last blog entry, I jumped in and out of the shower, packed my bag and headed over to the UJ Sports Bureau to embark on my latest adventure: a one-week trip to Manica, Moçambique.
Manica is a small town of about 40,000, located in central Manica Province of Moçambique, near the border with Zimbabwe. Last week I was lucky to join a group from University of Johannesburg on the lovely 18-hour drive north to be hosted by the Grupo Desportivo de Manica (GDM). Our group included 16 fourth-year architecture students, 3 architecture lecturers, three soccer coaches, two administrators from UJ Sport, a nurse, and two of the coolest drivers ever.
Grupo Desportivo de Manica was founded as a small football club in 1980. After a strong start, the club struggled through the years of civil war in Moçambique. In recent years the organization has rebuilt itself to become an integral part of the Manica community. In 2006, with the help of South Africa native Schalk van Heerden, “the club partnered with the University of Johannesburg to start ‘operation reclaim the dream': a dream of a holistic club that use sport, specifically football to facilitate social change. The rest, as they say is history.” Schalk was our official host in Manica throughout the week.
While Moçambique borders South Africa directly to the east, our group made the drive north to Manica through Zimbabwe. Apparently, the poor state of the roads through Moçambique would have added a half-day to the trip. Unfortunately, this meant dealing with Zimbabwe. My momma told me if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. I will say that our experience in Zimbabwe amounted to one very long, very desolate highway—for which we had to buy vehicle insurance twice!?—15 police road blocks (each way), and only one bribe... yay!
Regardless, the trek through Zim was well worth it. Moçambique is beautiful—the land, the people, the air, and the vibe! We pulled into to town after 8pm on Monday and unpacked the trailer before heading out to dinner. Before we arrived, the members of the GDM men’s team had packed up their stuff and moved out of their rooms at the clubhouse to make room for our group. In addition to housing for the players, the club now has a computer lab, kindergarten, nursery and recreation room.
On our first full day in Manica we got a tour of the town and an introduction to our two main projects. The architecture students and staff would be advising and working at the site of the future GDM sports complex. The plan is centered around the construction of three soccer fields—one for matches, one for training, and a smaller field for the little ones. The site plan also includes a housing village for the players with families, a building for visiting teams, and facilities for other sports. I was surprised by the scale of the project, but was particularly impressed with GDM’s holistic, sustainable approach. For example, the site plan includes the planting of over 100 fruit trees, including citrus, mangos, avocadoes, and lychee. In an effort to prevent deforestation, Moçambique law dictates that each planted tree adds to the land value. Also, the fruit from the trees will be sold to generate significant annual income for the club.
The project is certainly ambitious, and most of it is waiting for the necessary funding. But so far, they’ve made great progress: clearing and leveling the area for the first field, and constructing the necessary well, pumps, tank and storage tower to get running water to the worksite. They’ve also successfully relocated two families that were squatting on the land by building them identical housing nearby.
The UJ architecture team was there to provide technical assistance, as well as the physical labor required to construct one of the buildings. But I don’t know the first thing about architecture, so you know I was there for something else. While the students and lecturers were busy building the fields of the future, I would be back in town at the existing municipal field, getting my coach on. So, in the meantime, I sat back and enjoyed the first of many campfire braais while the architecture team started planning their attack.
On Wednesday morning I headed over field to join the players and coaches of the GDM Men’s First Team. We figured that a good way for me to get acclimated to the team would be to actually train with the players, so that’s what I did. It was strenuous, to say the least, and after chasing a bunch of 22-year olds for two hours I was ready for a nap.
The next morning I was at the field bright and early to run a training session—in the pouring rain—with Coach Mpho. A Soweto native, Mpho now works at UJ, coaching the Soweto Campus team and the Women’s team. We took a tag-team approach with me conducting the warm-up and cool-down, and Mpho leading a session on ball-possession. I also served as his interpreter.
After the morning session, Coach Doc Mabila took us to lunch at a great restaurant in the local open market. Doc and I met over dinner on my first night in Manica, and now he is officially “The Homie.” After his playing career in South Africa Doc decided to focus on coaching and outreach. He now works with the Institute for Democracy in Africa as a coordinator of the Project for a safe South Africa. Previously, Doc spent a year in Manica helping to develop the club, but he had not been back to visit in a few years. Even though he was with our group, he was also a de facto host for me, especially when it came to finding great food. You really can’t appreciate the power and the glory of the African Diaspora until you’re back in the Motherland, staring at a bowl of greens that could have come out of your Auntie’s pot. It was true Soul Food, except there was pap instead of grits, and no tableware in sight (that’s what the pap is for). It was great to work, play, and eat with Doc, and I’m looking forward to when our paths cross again.
That afternoon I ran a session for the GDM Juniors team, who range in age from 15 to 18. After that I got to work with about 30 youngsters (aged 5 – 14)—my specialty! When it came time to take a group photo, I did what I always do with the little ones. I said, “OK, we’re gonna take three pictures: one smiling, one real serious, and one doing whatever you want.” Just to clarify, I cannot be held responsible for what they chose to do.
That evening we all geared up for a night of five-a-side indoor soccer. The format: four teams rotating; each game lasts for ten minutes, golden goal! If no team has scored after ten minutes, them BOTH teams are off. Unfortunately, after our first three games, my team had played a grand total of about three minutes—and it wasn't because we were scoring. Between the Lebanese guys, Schalk's team, and the Moçambican squad with the matching jerseys, the competition was stiff. Eventually we adjusted and managed a ten-minute tie, and even a win later on. Most importantly, it was hella fun guaranteed.
On Friday Coach Mpho and I switched roles—he led the warm-up and cool-down, while I conducted a session focused on “finalização” or finishing, In the afternoon I worked with the Juniors and the youngsters again, then joined Coach Doc Mabila to lead a session for the women’s team.
On my last day in town I headed over to the work site to join the architecture team for a little manual labor. There really is nothing quite like building something with your hands. To me, it’s a lot like gardening or cooking—there’s definitely some spiritual earth goddess worship connection going on there. The last time I mixed a pile of concrete or mortared bricks was in 1997, when I helped build a community center in San Luis, Costa Rica. In fact, a lot about this trip took me back to the summer I spent with Global Routes—the people, the land, the construction work, the language immersion, playing soccer in the mud, the cold showers. On the last day I finally perfected my strategy for coping with this last challenge: run in place, imagine you’re in a swimming pool, sing, and keep it short. You almost don’t notice how miserable it is.
But seriously, my time in Manica was a blessing. The say you don't really know something until you can teach it. In that sense, this experience was a blessing two times over for me: coaching soccer—IN PORTUGUESE! It was a great personal and professional development opportunity for me. On top of that, I got introduced to one of my new favorite places on the planet. There is no question about it, I will return!