On the short trip from Nkhata Bay to Mayoka Village with James, we passed a dusty, bumpy, rocky, full-sized football pitch with rusty goal posts at either end.
“Is there a local team that plays here?” I asked James.
“Yes – do you play? They train every morning at 6am,” he replied.
“Really?? Do you think I can join in? Can I just pitch up?”
“Yes of course! Tomorrow morning at 6. I think they also play their games on Friday afternoons.”
And so it was.
By the time my alarm had woken me up the next morning and I had fought off the demons telling me to stay in bed, the sun was already halfway up into the sky and the heat was building. I was glad for the early training, for I can’t imagine what it must be like playing on that pitch at midday. In all honesty, I might have also been feeling slightly worse for wear – last night, after the free boat ride, Benny, Adi, Anton, Inge and I had racked up quite an impressive tab at the bar. But, at 6:05am, wearing swimming shorts, a vest and without shoes (I had nothing else), I was on the side of the football pitch, grimacing against the early rays.
A group of about 10 boys had already started jogging up and down the pitch. I shrugged, figured I had nothing to lose, and made my way over.
“Can I join?” I asked one of the boys, trying to sound confident and secure, as they reached the goal line and turned. He looked at me, deadly serious in the middle of his warm-up, and waved his hand, beckoning me to join the line. I dropped my bag and started jogging at the far end, feeling slightly ridiculous in my attire and long floppy hair.
After a couple more minutes of jogging, by which time I was already covered in sweat, a man at the far end of the pitch called us over. I went to introduce myself.
“Hello. My name is Simeon. Do you mind if I join training for today?”
“Of course! My name is Coach Isaac. This team is called TTKK. Where are you from?” He was strong, commanding, assertive.
“OK good. Do you have shoes?” We both looked down at my filthy and bare mzungu feet standing among the dust and the rocks.
“OK. Get in line.”
Coach Isaac led a series of warms ups before splitting us into two teams and orchestrating a half-pitch two-touch possession game and then a full-pitch three-touch possession game. Then sprints, passing exercises and a warm-down. It was a properly organised, well-drilled and serious practice: a far cry from the methods of my university team in Cape Town, where we just practice free kicks and shooting. At the end of practice, Coach Isaac shouted, “See you tomorrow at 6am Simeon!” I nodded, breathless, eager to get to my bag so I could down some water and then head back to Mayoka for a swim in the lake.
The next morning was more of the same: warm ups, possession games, passing drills, then a mini 9-a-side game at the end where I tried to make my case as a no nonsense centre back. To be honest, over the course of the two days, I’m not sure if I impressed all that much: playing barefoot on rocks, stones and dust was not entirely conducive to good football. The team, however, were extremely welcoming: I met Selia, the Assistant Coach, Makreen, the captain, Dustin, Albert, Petros, and Jeremiah, amongst others.
At the end of the second practice, Coach Isaac called me over.
“Simeon,” he looked at me intently. “We have a knockout cup semi-final at home here at 2:30pm tomorrow afternoon. We are playing Kanda, from a nearby town. I will see you here at 1:30pm.”
“Yes Coach,” I chanted back.
Next day, 1:30pm, still wearing swimming shorts and a vest, I strode down to the field. Half the team are changed already in a small alleyway behind it, looking serious as ever. If I had any doubts about how important this was to them that was soon dispelled. I am handed a red Manchester United shirt and white shorts. Then Selia called me: “Try these on,” handing me a pair of old, worn astroturf trainers. “Perfect,” I said, as I squeezed them onto my feet.
Following warm-ups, Makreen beckoned me over to a man wearing white doctor gloves.
“Simeon,” he said. “This is our physio. We have a tradition here – the oil of the pig must be rubbed on our boots and our knees so that we have good luck.” I nodded gravely, as the physio went around each player in turn. It was wet, slimy, but dried in the uncomfortable midday heat in seconds. The team, in all, were hugely accommodating of this strange mzungu, with long floppy hair, that came to play with them.
Coach then calls the starting eleven out – I was to start on the bench, as a defender substitute. I was told that the match was a full 45 minutes each way, and we were allowed 3 substitutes. We had 7 players on the bench – rather selfishly, I hoped that I would get on ahead of the others, even though I’d just had the two training sessions. As we walked to the pitch, I saw big crowds (around 500 people), a fully kitted out referee and linesman, and the other team, wearing South African football (Bafana Bafana) shirts (I must admit a conflict of interests here for me: I was rooting for the team playing in Manchester United shirts against those wearing Bafana Bafana shirts. But no matter).
I will refrain from writing a full match report here. The quality wasn’t all that great, though it was difficult on a pitch that necessitates long ball tactics as opposed to a passing game, and there was a lot of ball-watching and crowding while any sort of defensive organisation was not particularly evident. Unfortunately, TTKK lost 3-1, having conceded in the first five minutes, before equalizing, then saving a penalty but conceding twice in as many minutes early in the second half. As such, I didn’t get on the pitch: rather understandably, Coach Isaac sent on his attacking forces as they tried to find a way through Kanda’s defence, but to no avail.
The crowd interested me during the game. They were extremely involved in every aspect of the game, and passionately so. Every time a goal was scored, the supporters of that team would rush onto the pitch, joining in the celebration of the players. There was almost a scuffle at half time between opposing supporters and then, as Kanda’s third goal went in, on the counter attack, the players started taunting the TTKK supporters, to the extent that rocks were thrown in the direction of the Kanda players. During all of this, a section of the crowd were chanting, ‘PUT THE MZUNGU ON!’ Coach Isaac did not heed their calls.
While the TTKK boys were distraught at the final whistle, and while I didn’t manage to get onto the pitch, the whole experience was fantastic. You could see how much the loss hurt the team, but the way they accepted me into their side was truly representative of the welcoming attitudes of Malawian people.
It was an attitude and general friendliness that we’d experience throughout our time in Malawi, particularly in Nkhata Bay. Wherever we walked, we were greeted and smiled at and waved at and often stopped: people wandering where we’re from, where we’ve been and where we’re going. Most took a genuine interest in us although, admittedly, a few were just hoping that we’d stop by their souvenir shop.
I met two Malawian’s that particularly stood out to me. The first of these, Goodwin, was an extremely thoughtful young man, with big ambitions but a realistic outlook on life: “I like people who think to the future,” he told me. “I don’t like people who just sit and drink beer with the money they made today and do nothing for tomorrow!” He was a man who realised the value and necessity of hard work, especially for those that come from poorer countries such as Malawi: “I am going to Cape Town next year – I am doing a Hotel and Catering Management course. It is expensive but it is necessary so I can have the skills.”
On a separate morning, we met a man named Blessings, chopping wood in the forest. As we were bunderbashing our way down from Bungulu Hill, a 12km hike that offers magnificent 360 views of the surrounding area from its peak, Blessings emerged out of the dense bush: tall, thin, and slightly intimidating with an axe gripped in his left hand, but a big smile on his face. After he let me chop down a tree with the axe, we heard a little of his story.
“I make charcoal from the bark,” he said, in good but stuttering English. “I make a fire pit, and put the tree and leaves in it then let it burn.”
“How often are you out here working?” I asked.
“Every day. From 6am until 6pm. Sometimes I have to come back at night to make sure that the pit is burning properly.”
Blessings’ life seemed a typical story of unacknowledged struggle. He was unable to finish school because of financial difficulties (as he called it), and he moved to Nkhata Bay from a neighbouring district in an effort to find work. Making charcoal is all he can do: he burns the bark and leaves, then takes it to the town to sell. It is simple, yet hard, intense, labouring work. His two eldest children stay back in his old home as he is putting them through school, while his wife and his two youngest children stay with him in a small brick house near the forest, alongside a couple of other families. I asked about the rest of his family.
“My sister died some time ago, when I was younger. Witches bewitched her,” he said, matter-of-factly, as I tried to disguise my surprised look. It felt too intrusive to ask anything further on the matter. “I have been trying to teach my children English from a young age,” he remarked. “It is very important. I learnt a bit in school, but then when I had to leave I read books so that I could improve.”
Blessings took us past his house, and introduced us to his family. It was a simple little place, just off the beaten track, in close proximity to the forest in which he makes his meagre income. For him, though, it is life. Yet, he was so happy to meet us, so keen to ask us questions, and so friendly in his demeanour. These are the kind of people I love to meet on my travels: honest, humble souls who teach and learn in equal measure, and with a genuine appreciation for what they have. He told us his story, he made no judgements, and he asked for nothing. He simply showed us the quickest route home, wished us well, and sent us on our way.
Malawi was full of such people. While it boasted astounding natural beauty, outside of the typical African city sprawl of hooting taxis and littered pavements, it was also a place where you were made welcome, secure and culturally enriched. The lake, certainly, is a tourist attraction, and rightly so, but it is one that the locals are so proud of and so keen to share. Malawi, for me, was bookmarked as a place to return, also so that I may finally make my official debut for TTKK.