Type ‘Matabeleland’ into any internet search engine and the most immediate results will inevitably exhibit a litany of sobering headlines regrettably punctuated with the words massacre, genocide and terror.
In the early 1980s, as the country’s brutal dictator Robert Mugabe sought to stamp out the rise of opposition supporters rallying across the west of Zimbabwe, the Fifth Brigade of the country’s National Army wrought havoc throughout Matabeleland. Given the region’s relative obscurity and the absence of subsequent newsworthy events to supplant the reports of these atrocities, their hideous legacy lives on to be found with disconcerting ease.
Under instruction to orchestrate a violent anti-dissident campaign named Gukurahundi – a term taken from the local Shona language, defined as ‘the rain which blows away the chaff before spring’ – the Fifth Brigade imposed a vast array of repressive measures on the people of Matabeleland; from curfews, the banning of movement within designated zones and the unlawful closing of local businesses to the ransacking of civilian houses and the widespread assembly, detention and interrogation of so-called rebels.
Moreover, the Fifth Brigade also carried out a sweeping genocide on a damning scale. It is conservatively estimated that some 20,000 Ndebele people were murdered – men, women and children – while many more were imprisoned and tortured for their alleged support of Mugabe’s long-running political nemesis Dr Joshua Nkomo.
Today the region’s three provinces, Matabeleland North, Bulawayo and Matabeleland South, though still reeling from the wanton devastation of yesteryear, look toward their future with hope. One source of such hope comes in the form of their football team and the select group of young men preparing to carry their history with them, all the way to London, to compete at the CONIFA World Football Cup.
Nestled between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers are the pitted pitches upon which English coach Justin Walley puts the Matabeleland players through their paces each day. Into his second year as head coach of the west Africans, having joined them on the back of formative spells in Latvia and Sierra Leone, Walley is by now accustomed to finding himself thousands of miles away from home comforts in England.
That is not to say, however, that the facilities, or lack thereof, do not impact upon the practices of Walley and his players. “It gets dark at 6pm,” the travelled coach told These Football Times, “and, without portable goals or floodlights, this limits how much we can do as there are no street lights in the suburbs.”
Despite challenges like these, of which there are many, Walley is insistent that humble beginning needn’t dictate humble ambitions and his aims with Matabeleland are plentiful. “We want to win an African cup or World Football Cup. We want to create the most respected football brand in Zimbabwe; to develop young men and help them find careers inside and outside the game; to help develop the community; to put Matabeleland on the map; to dispel the myth that Zimbabwe is dangerous.”
Above all else, Walley wishes for Matabeleland’s participation in the CONIFA World Football Cup to inspire one all-encapsulating outcome. “We want people to fall in love with the Ndebele people and their culture.”
With the competition now just weeks away, the players who make up the Matabeleland squad are not only preparing for their debuts at a major tournament but also their first continental excursion. “All the boys who travel will be visiting Europe for the first time, and they are super excited, but none of them are on the plane yet so they all remain focused on their last days here,” Walley insisted. “We have a tour coming up in South Africa, where we will be playing South African league opposition, and the boys know this will strongly influence who gets the nod for London.”
With such little experience to call upon, it is almost impossible to predict how Walley’s team will fare in London. Ultimately, though, their final placing may well be deemed peripheral to the region’s cause as, such is the ethos of many of the CONIFA World Football Cup’s eclectic participants, Matabeleland’s role in the tournament shan’t be judged solely by their results on the field. “Football provides hope and dreams,” Walley mused. “The people of Zimbabwe need positive stories and I think ours is one of those.”
By Will Sharp @shillwarp