WHEN Munyaradzi Mhonda and Jeremy Babbage â€“â€“ just like many young Zimbabweans â€“â€“ left their country of birth in pursuit of greener pastures, they were optimistic they would accomplish dreams rendered unattainable at home.
Settling in Botswana and the sadness of leaving family, friends and an ailing country, they carried extra pain: leaving rugby- a sport they grew up with â€“â€“ and leaving a country with a significant following for the game.
Once in Botswana their rugby agony, fortunately, was short-lived, finding a country with a stable economy and harbouring companies and individuals willing to invest in a new, exciting, and adventurous sporting discipline.
They also found typically wistful South Africans missing their number one game and determined to play it anywhere you find them in the world.
Then there was the local Batswana catching on the continental phenomenon.
Both Mhonda and Babbage are key Botswana national team players. IndependentSport did not miss an opportunity to chat with them at the Lusaka Castle Lager Sevens tournament in Zambia a fortnight ago.
The Botswana team also contain a couple of South Africans, and the XVs national side is coached by South African Gareth Gilbert, who doubles as the Sevens team manager.
Mhonda became the first Zimbabwean to play for the African Leopards, Africaâ€™s yearly invitational select team, when he was selected in 2006 albeit as a Tswana.
“Itâ€™s a very relaxed lifestyle,” Mhonda says of his adopted country. “I got to see the nice side of it. I donâ€™t know why, but thereâ€™s the shirty side where you have xenophobia and stuff. They donâ€™t beat us, but they let you know itâ€™s not your country. You get little incidents of ignorance, but in general itâ€™s a nice country.”
Despite being a senior national player, Mhonda is yet to acquire full citizenship. “The Sports Council of Botswana says they will help, so I am still waiting for some assistance,” he says.
Schooled at Prince Edward, Mhonda was part of the golden generation of Tonderai Chavhanga, Piet Benade, Lawrence Smith, Gordon Pangeti, among others.
On leaving PE in 2000, the lock forward joined Harare Sports Club alongside ex-Tigers team-mate, Forbes Roberts, but: “Jaws (former Old Hararians coach Godwin Murambiwa) said â€˜you guys are Old Boys, come to OHâ€™. So we went to OH and played Under 21s before finally making the first team at the end of the 2001 season. I played flank. It was my first time playing loose.”
The Botswana move came in 2002 at the insistence of his mother, who has worked there as a nurse for many years. He studied Hotel & Catering, qualifying him for his current job as manager at a Gaberone restaurant.
Heâ€™s played only for one club, the University of Botswana, where Zimbabwean-coach Saku Ngwenya converted him to an eighthman.
“Saku told me to move to eighthman because I was bigger than everyone and all the locks were shorter than me. Luckily for me Botswana had no good eighthmans, so they found a niche in the market in me.”
Dressed nicely in their premium blue Canterbury tracksuits and playing kit, one could easily take the Botswana team for a professional outfit.
“We used to struggle because in Bots guys start playing at 16 or 18,” Mhonda says. “We are pretty much in the development stages. By comparison, back in Zimbabwe I started playing at Selbourne Routledge primary school when I was only eight. Itâ€™s different from Zim.
“The last two years have (however) been good. Different sponsors have come on board. We now have warm-up tops, balls, nice boots and playing kits. We even now sell replicas.”
But did Mhonda ever dreamt of representing his native Zimbabwe?
“Obviously growing up, my dream was to play for the Sables,” he admits. “But you get things like my mum saying its better that side. I couldnâ€™t justify staying in Zimbabwe. When I was at PE I used to be a ball-boy at national team games when Old Boys like Antony Papenfus, Bhuru Mwerenga and Steve Mtandwa were in the national side. I used to idolise these guys and wish one day I could be like them and wear the green-and-white Zim jersey. As you grow up, these fantasies change. Your perception change. You realise you need to work and put food on the table.”
Like Mhonda, 31-year-old Babbage was born in Harare and went to Prince Edward, teaming up with such players as former Zimbabwe captain Costa Dinha and Itai Munyeza.
Likewise, he was introduced to the sport in primary school, at Queensdale and Dudley Hall, the latter being the biggest influence.
Again, like Mhonda, the winger played for Old Hararians, in 1997, and then went to Bulawayo where he played for Busters in 1998 and 1999.
“From there I crossed the border into the land of diamonds,” Babbage says.
He played for Tuskers until 2001, and has been with Gaberone Hawks ever since.
But unlike Mhonda, Babbage now has his citizenship papers in order.
He says: “My blood is blue now. Soon we will be beating Zimbabwe. Weâ€™ve been beating Matabeleland for two years. You must aim for the moon, if you miss you will be among the stars!”
Babbage, who runs an air-conditioning company in the Botswana capital, believes rugby is on the rise in the country.
“Tswanas have just realised the importance of sports,” he says. “In the past soccer was the only sport there. Now rugby is doing well too. Sponsors are coming in numbers, especially in government schools, where the numbers are. In some schools rugby is being made compulsory. The only way for Botswana rugby is up.”
By Enock Muchinjo