One week in Brazil and I was ready to go back to Africa.
Sao Paulo, Brazil, 2013
I sat up abruptly on my bed when I heard the blasting noise of a horn. I knew it was the team bus downstairs coming to
pick me up for soccer practice as the coach had instructed. I sighed.
Finally, and after staying idle in the hotel for two days, I was going to get some action.
I grabbed my kits and swung the bag pack over my shoulder, excitement welling up inside my body at the prospect of meeting the other professional players. This, my being in Brazil was a dream come true and I would treasure and savor every moment of it.
I ignored the elevator and ran down the hotel
stairs taking two at a time and not
breaking a sweat by the time I reached down. I had trained hard in the hilly slopes of Africa and I was ready.
The bus sitting outside under the canopy was huge
enough to carry two soccer teams
and some fans. The windows were tinted and various sponsor logos were drawn on the sides. I ran into the bus, a big smile on my face, ready to say halo, but when I got inside there was nobody there but empty seats staring back at me. I stood
there frozen, my hand holding the rail in confusion.
“Have a seat son,” the driver said as the automatic
door closed behind me. I was all
alone in the big bus. Where was everybody else? I took a seat by the window and watched the beautiful
sites of Brazil flying by.
Two weeks was all I had. Two weeks to prove that I
could brush shoulders with the
elite and have my name yelled amongst many that had been there before me. The big R’s, my coach used to say: Ronaldo, Ronaldino and Robertto Carlos. I had watched them play in the world cup as a kid and now, many years later, I felt privileged to stand on the same ground that had once absorbed their sweat. They were forever legends… and I was… who was I? I wasn’t sure yet. I guess I would know in the following two weeks.
Something hit the side of the bus and I jumped in
my seat. I looked outside the window
and saw riot police chasing after a crowd, clubbing a few and firing teargas at others. Banners fell to the ground and bandanas dropped from the people’s faces as they ran. Sirens blared in the distance.
“What’s going on?” I asked the driver.
“They are protesting against the cost of the world cup next year! Hang on!”
The driver revved the engine and a few minutes
later the belligerent crowd became a
receding dot in the rear view mirror.
“The people in Brazil are poor
and tired of paying taxes. They complain that the government is applying makeup to make the city look good to the outside world while the citizens are suffering.”
“How many stadiums are they building for the 2014
FIFA World Cup Tournament?” I
“The world cup will be hosted in 12 cities,” the driver said. “I don’t know exactly how many stadiums are being built because some of the old ones will be destroyed while others will be patched up.”
I felt sorry for the people. While the world envied the country for hosting the world cup, and corrupt officials filled their pockets with riches, the common man gained nothing from the government.
So here I was, an African boy in
Sao Paulo, under a humid subtropical climate similar to that found in Los Angeles. The journey had been long: from being the best soccer player in my ragged High School,
to playing in the number one soccer country in the whole world: from dust to glory, my dreams had finally come true. Whether I made it in Brazil or not: I had already broken the glass ceiling and I was in too deep to pull back.
Whatever masquerade I had managed so far: whatever good luck charm I had used before… it would all be brought to light now… in the next few moments of my life when I got to train with the best soccer players in the whole world.
But then again and like my friend once told me:
Presidents, CEO’s and legends are not so only because of their good looks and talents. No. They became great people because at one point in their lives, they set aside humility and allowed
themselves a small measure of arrogance that allowed them to stand on top of the tallest mountain and say in one voice that, “I can do it better than the rest. I’m better than the rest!” That was their story, and this is mine.
The training ground was inside a small sports complex that included amongst other amenities a
swimming pool, a gym, a bar, a table tennis hall and numerous conference rooms. I shook hands with the Brazilian boys and they politely
welcomed me into the team. Training kicked off and we had a lot of fun. I knew that I was being watched and so I brought the best out of me and tried to impress. The Brazilian boys were full of tricks. Brazil other than Spain is the one
country that can make soccer look like poetry.
After practice, all the players jumped into their expensive cars and I was left sitting on the pavement waiting for the team bus to take me back to the hotel.
“Do you have everything you need Mukembe?” the coach asked me. “Are you comfortable in the hotel?”
“I am coach. Thank you very much.”
Back in the fancy hotel, I surfed through the Brazilian channels and found a few that were in English and that I could actually watch. Seemed like reality shows were taking over the TV.
Three hours later I was bored and so I
called Africa and reassured my parents that I was having the time of my life. Then I
girlfriend and told her how much I missed her.
“You sound lonely,” she said. “Is everything okay there?”
“What? Yes. I’m having a marvelous time. Brazil is beautiful and oh my gosh, you should see the stadiums they are building. I wish you were here with me.”
“I wish I was there too,” she said softly.
I tried to organize my thoughts. “So what are doing now?”
She laughed. “I’m sitting here staring at your photograph and trying to imagine where you are and what your room looks like.”
“That’s funny because am doing the same too.” It
felt great knowing that someone was
thinking about me.
“Brenda?” I said, “Remember that song you used to
sing to me all the time when we started
“Yes. I remember. Lionel Richie?”
“Yes. Can you sing now…. please?”
She giggled and I heard furniture moving as she repositioned herself. And then her voice rose above the static.
The song made my insides melt and melancholy bled out of my body. “Brenda?” I said. “I love you.”
“I love you too Mukembe. Come home quickly.”
After hanging up the phone, I spent some time thinking about my girlfriend. She
represented one of the best assets in life: someone to believe in. It’s what drives men to excel or as they say, behind every successful man is a woman and the strength that she carries, that the outside world can’t see.
I walked down the hall and grabbed a soda from the vending machine. Too scared to
venture into the dark streets, I fell asleep to the soothing sound of a TV humming in Portuguese language.
Love: definition… the strongest human emotion of all.
My first two days of soccer practice in
Brazil were pretty much the same, and I started getting restless and missing the familiar.
The things I used to take for granted were now gone: an honest conversation with a friend; a hug… the position of the sun when I woke up. One week in Brazil and I was ready to go back to Africa. But I also knew that change wasn’t easy and that I had to soldier on and stay positive. We,
are creatures of habit. We have the capacity to change and adapt, and I was no exception.
On the third day of training, my teammates started opening up to me and I had my first
“Balotelli!” they yelled when they wanted the ball.
Balotelli was the famous black striker
who played for the Italian National Soccer team and although this may sound like a stereotype, sometimes making fun of one’s race, color and accent … and if done in the correct way, could mean that someone likes you. I felt my heart
warming up to them and although the language barrier was a problem, the smiles and hi fives spoke volumes about my progress. See, that’s the thing about soccer try-outs, it’s just like a job interview. It’s not always about how good
one is, but also about whether one can work well and relate to the other players. Whether one fits in the team is a huge question.
On Friday, the captain shook my hand in a show of the much earned respect.
“Me and the boys are going to hit a few in downtown,” he said. “You are welcome to join us.”
An invitation from the captain was as good as an invitation from the whole team. He picked me up
at 7pm that night in a red Ferrari and we drove down Paulista Avenue, one of the most important avenues in Sao Paulo. Other than financial institutions on the street, the captain pointed out the fancy theaters
and museums and I was grateful because I finally got to see the real
beauty of Brazil.
The Pavilion lounge turned out to be ‘the place’ to be: where we drunk to the sound of hip hop music and glamorous girls whispering seductively in our ears.
“Have you ever tried a Brazilian girl?” the Captain asked me.
I blushed under the neon light and refocused my full attention on my drink.
“You have to introduce me to an African girl,”
another player jested. “I hear that
they are something else.”
It was all ballroom talk and a few beers later, I was telling them stories about Africa that they had never imagined. They laughed until tears rolled down their faces.
“You are all right Balotelli,” they said. “I will
come pick you up for practice
My days of riding the bus were over. In my quest to
conquer the world, I had just broken through another life’s barrier. Life as Will Smith would describe it is not the amount of breaths that we take but rather the moments that take our
breath away. Without being told, I knew that I had made the team.
I returned to Africa three weeks later and as usual the whole village was waiting for me at the airport: traditional
women danced to
the sound of thunderous drumbeats, ululations and whisk waving… the ground shook under their stomping feet and I knew that I was home. I thanked the women for the warm welcome and bought them ‘tea’ to show my gratitude. But there was one face and one face only that I needed to see real bad: my girlfriend Brenda.
I smiled to the last tooth when I saw her. I had missed her a lot.
That evening under a setting sun, Brenda and I strolled down the shores of Lake Victoria holding hands and relishing in each other’s company.
“So they gave you the ‘job’?” she asked.
I grinned. “Yes. They want an answer from me in the next few days. It’s a lot of money Brenda.”
“I’m happy for you Mukembe.”
“Not for me!” I said. “For us! You are happy for us. We are in this together, remember?” I tickled her and she tipped her head back and laughed.
“I’m happy for us,” she corrected herself.
I picked her up and threw her into the freshwater, turning a deaf ear to her pleading cries of protest. A few minutes later, we sat on the boulders and watched the African sun set over Africa’s largest lake, iridescent lights dancing on the water surface. A sign on a board read, Lake Victoria, named after Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.
“When does the soccer season start?” she asked somberly.
I turned and studied her. Her hair was stuck to her face and she looked pretty without makeup. Come to think of it, I had never seen her with make up.
“I leave a month from today,” I said and watched her face fall.
And then a few minutes later.
“How is this going to work?” she asked in a shaky voice. “I love you Mukembe, but long distance relationship?”
“We will make it work,” I replied casually. It
wasn’t the first time I was thinking about this. My three weeks in Brazil had been
exciting but without Brenda beside me I knew that excitement could quickly boil down to being homesick and ultimately loneliness. But there was no quick fix
solution to this problem and I wasn’t very good at giving pep talks.
“You should go,” Brenda said softly.
I quickly turned and saw the tears in her eyes.
“What? What do you mean?” I was
thunderstruck by her words.
“You should go to Brazil,” she said. “I’m only slowing you down. This has always been your dream since we were kids.”
It took me a minute to realize that she was
breaking up with me and her words rattled me. I abruptly jumped to my feet and wagged an angry finger at her.
“Don’t you ever say that to me again Brenda! Go? What do you mean go? Are you giving up on us already? That quick?” Pause. I wanted to kick something but the nearest option was a rock and I wasn’t going to go there despite my anger. “My
dreams have changed Brenda. When I was a kid, all I ever thought about was soccer and now and many years later, soccer is only fun with you beside me. Don’t you see? When am playing, I think about you and I try to impress you even
when you are not there.”
“I’m trying to help you!” Brenda said crying. “I
love you and I will miss you. But
staying up all night waiting for that one phone call? Staring at your photographs and counting down the days to the moment I see you again? I’m not cut for that Mukembe. I’m not strong like you!”
And now I was really angry. Just to hear her say those words… how could she? How could she be so weak? I opened my mouth and realized that I didn’t know what to say, and so I did the only thing that came to my mind, I walked away.
I wanted it all; money, wealth, fame and love? Was I asking for too much?
I knew a little bit about long distance relationships. Some folks clung onto them while others nipped them in the bud when the
pressure turned out to be too much. Life is about the choices we make and … living with those choices. Destiny was knocking on my door and all I had to do was reach out and take it… I mean grab it and arch it towards a better tomorrow… if
I knew how. At the moment I was at a loss.
The paradox of life: Our dreams are so near, yet so far.
My cell phone suddenly went off and I furrowed my
eyebrow, wondering who could be
calling me this late in the evening. The sun was gone and a mysterious darkness sat over the lake. I answered the call and was surprised to hear the familiar accent.
The call was coming from Brazil.
“So Mukembe, have you made up your mind yet?” the
coach asked. “We need to wrap
this thing up quickly and move on to other things.”
“I have been thinking about it coach…” my voice sounded uncertain and the coach sensed it. And so he cut me off.
“Listen here Mukembe. Opportunities like this come once in a lifetime and we are talking about some serious paper here.”
“It’s not that coach. I do want to come but…”
He cut me off again. “Mukembe, listen to me very carefully. We are offering you a five year contract with money guaranteed whether you play or not. We will be seeing each other a lot over the years and I will play a big part in your life and you in mine. You will know my family and I yours and who knows, maybe we will spend Christmas together. So if there’s anything you are not telling me then this is the time for it. You understand what am saying?”
The words were deep and I sighed into the phone. “I
understand coach. Its… it’s my
“Say no more Mukembe, bring her with you,” the coach said.
“What?” I thought I had heard him wrong.
“Bring her with you Mukembe. Send me her information and I will process her paperwork.”
“How are you…” I didn’t know what to say. My heart was beating hard at the prospect of having Brenda with me in Brazil.
“Mukembe, I have done this a dozen times with other players. Let’s not get into details. Send me her information and we will take care of this.”
“Thank you coach. Thank you so much.”
The line went dead and I started running towards
Brenda’s home where she lived with
her parents. “Brenda!” I yelled. “Brendaaaa!”
No answer. The hour was late as I took a stone and threw it at her bedroom window. She chose the same moment to open the window and the stone sailed through and I heard something break.
“What is it Mukembe!” her face appeared at the window like an angel.
“Brenda! We are going to Brazil!” I yelled
and watched her face turn into confusion. I pointed at the phone. “I just talked to the coach. He wants me to bring you with me to Brazil. You can go to school there and they will pay for everything!”
Brenda’s hands shot to her mouth and her eyes filled with tears. She ran down the hallway and I heard her yelling to her parents, “Mum, dad! I’m going to Brazil!”
I walked over to a rock and sat down. I knew it was going to be a while before she came out.
It’s true what they say: sometimes we spend too
much time worrying about our future.
Call it luck, serendipity, fate or destiny, our future has already been planned for us. Sometimes we steer off track but the powers beyond us always guide us back and allow us to reposition ourselves and our dreams.
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...