Frisch and I hauled ourselves out of bed at 5:15am on Saturday morning and over to the GRS office (so far away - right next door) to meet the team bus. We were expecting some sort of coach bus arrangement to transport the 18 players, 2 coaches, manager, trainer (they call him our physio) and our head of security, Ndu, who apparently travels with us (a bug dude, he could use two seats). However, the bus that pulled up was the larger African cousin of a 15-passenger van in the states. It had a higher ceiling and a slightly larger seating capacity, but boy was it cramped. Frisch and I piled in on the forward-most bench seat and turned to mumble sleepy hello’s to our teammates who were packed like sardines behind us. As an aside, our GRS hosts told us we’re the only non-Africans playing professional soccer in the whole country at the moment, so you can imagine the stares we got at rest stops (what are those guys doing on that bus?).
Ndu rolled the door shut and we were off with our number one supporter (official title), Coxy (who apparently gets to travel with the team for being the number one supporter), passed out on the floor between the seats. Famous (infamous) for his obnoxious cries of BAAAAANNNNTUUUUUUUUUUUU, Coxy was already drunk (or had just come straight from the bar where he’d finished his Friday night), so he was probably more comfortable on the floor anyways.
Approximately two minutes into the ride, our teammates decided that the music wasn’t loud enough and also requested that a specific CD be inserted – DJ Cleo, an artist from South Africa, whose musical stylings can only be described as African House music. Basically hiphop/R&B over techno with a lot of bass. As our driver maxed the bus’s surprisingly competent subwoofers to the shattering volume they would maintain for the next 4 hours, I noticed that the bus’s speedometer was broken.
We hit the highway heading north by 6:30am and the roads were in surprisingly good shape. The landscape whizzing by at 120km/hr (estimated landspeed, obviously) was red and dusty for the better part of the trip. It really is incredible to think that Zimbabwe was once considered the jewel of Sub-Saharan Africa, with incredibly productive farms. The landscape we witnessed was one of poverty and for lack of a better word, regression. As one of our Zimbabwean acquaintances was quoted as saying, “Zimbabwe is regressing. We are not progressing. There is too much corruption.” The cattle farmers inhabiting the parched land between Bulawayo and Hwange, our destination, live in mud huts with thatched roofs and many of their big-eared African cattle moved with ribs we could count from the bus and boney hips jutting with each step. I learned from reading about Paul Farmer’s experience in Haiti, which he writes about in Infections and Inequalities, that poverty leads to the spread of HIV from urban to rural centers when rural inhabitants are forced to seek temporary employment in the city as migrant or domestic workers. In the rural setting, many cases of HIV go undiagnosed but the disease can spread just as rapidly and is accompanied by deadly diarrhea in infants and Tuberculosis for many afflicted adults. I wondered how HIV had affected these seemingly remote communities inextricably linked to Bulawayo by the human traffic bringing produce and livestock to market or making daily journeys to provide cheap labor.
As we neared Hwange our surroundings began to look greener. Hwange is located about 320 km northwest of Bulwayo in a region of Zimbabwe that produces coal. It is also on the northern border of Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest, which borders Botswana and is roughly the size of Belgium. The park is home to the big 5 (elephant, lion, jaguar, wildebeest, and rhino. The pictures of lions and giraffes I posted are from a visit Frisch and I took to the fringe of Hwange National Park on the way home from the game Sunday.) Hwange is the largest town in the area, and we rolled to a stop near a soccer pitch that looked nice and green. Only problem was that we had arrived almost 5 hours before game time. The guys were happy enough for a while performing what I imagine is an away-game ritual: they pumped the volume of the music up even louder and many sat inside the bus to escape the oppressive heat and danced to the African House music. I caught on video the tail end of some pregame dancing that had the bus bouncing up and down to the lyrics of DJ Cleo's song facebook: “I don’t want yo numba, I’ll find you on the facebook.” If I had been successful finding the track or a link to it on the internet I obviously would have posted it here. I will be looking high and low and will post it the minute I find it. Quality song.
Also the source of a great conversation with assistant coach Dube – he nodded towards the bus and said, “The boys, they love that House music. These boys, they can dance.” I was forced to reply, “I’m sure they can. I cannot. You don’t want to see us dance (pointing to Ale and I).” Dube burst out laughing and agreed. Coach Dube had made the trip to Hwange despite the fact that his wife was due to deliver their third child, a boy, that day or the next. She was home and arrangements with a private hospital had been made, but he said she’d better not have the kid because there was no one home to drive her to the hospital. Luckily she didn’t, and we learned at practice today that a healthy boy, Romeo, was born yesterday.
So we hung around with DJ Cleo until the pregame meal, provided by the hosting team, and then reboarded the bus for the field which was 10 minutes away. After a small altercation (into which Ndu felt the need to insert himself, which was funny) about counting players at the stadium gate involving a Zim police officer, the bus was allowed to pass through and view the gorgeous, dusty field. Not a single blade of grass. Welcome to Africa. (See picture posted on Sunday – a view overlooking the field and the teams playing before our game). We all wanted to go back to the pitch near where we’d eaten lunch but it apparently belongs to a division 2 team in the area. The guys on the team quickly informed us that there are so many teams near Hwange, there aren’t enough good fields to go around. The pitch was certainly tough to play on and may have been to blame for our failure to convert several first half chances, but no excuses. I made my debut for Bantu at holding midfield in the second half. We carried play and generated better opportunities than Mpumalanga, but weren’t able to come away with the 3 points. It had been a trip for the ages regardless of the score, and the African House music was bumping all the way home. What a weekend.