When life becomes the best teacher

KUDZAI Taibu’s flowing dreadlocks have given way to a much shorter and neater hairstyle these days.

Enock Muchinjo

Zimbabwean Batsman Tatenda Taibu takes a shot from Indian bowler Pragyan Ojha at Harare Sports Club on June 13, 2010 in the second and last of the two Micromax Twenty 20 series.        AFP PHOTO/ DESMOND KWANDE

Zimbabwean Batsman Tatenda Taibu takes a shot from Indian bowler Pragyan Ojha at Harare Sports Club on June 13, 2010 in the second and last of the two Micromax Twenty 20 series. AFP PHOTO/ DESMOND KWANDE

Little else has changed, though.

He is still fond of his whiskey. It has kept him pleasant company for as far as any indulging 32-year-old can remember, a loyal friend since some 15 odd years ago.

These days, however, he is seen quite sporadically around central Harare and the Avenues area, where he used to kill time with his mates, all looking like they have ample supply of that stuff some secular musicians want legalised.

He is busy these days running a guest lodge in Harare’s Highfield township, a business venture that has become the only source of livelihood for him and his younger brother and partner Tapiwa.

The lodge, in a section of Highfield called Jerusalem, used to be a crowded family house where Kudzai lived throughout his childhood with six other siblings.

The seven brothers and sisters had been born to three different mothers, but were closely-knit together by an undying love for each other, and had quite a happy and carefree childhood until death robbed them, first, of their father.

One of the seven kids who grew up in this house is Tatenda, Kudzai’s elder brother by a year.

Test cricket’s youngest ever captain and one of Zimbabwe’s most recognised sportsmen, Tatenda Taibu, is now an influencial figure in the affairs of cricket in Zimbabwe, having assumed the role of the national cricket board’s chief selector in 2016.

But it has definitely not been smooth-sailing for a man whose name, despite bringing out divided opinion in his country, is still well-respected in the cricketing world.

From losing both his parents as a teenager and growing up with wayward siblings who wasted the most fruitful part of their lives, to rubbing shoulders and gaining the respect of some of the greatest names in the game — Tatenda has seen the best and the worst to compare and decide the best path for himself.

Tatenda is a typical example of a man who absorbed the profound important lessons in life, looked at the challenges of his upbringing and told himself he wanted better for himself and his loved ones — and achieved it.

“When the first batch of (cricket) scholarships were given, which was a year above mine, it was just before dad passed away and I knew mum would struggle on her own,” says Tatenda.

“I was doing quite well in school. I knew mum and dad were going to sacrifice for me to go to Eaglesvale (High School). I was going to be the first child in the family to go to a Group A school, or a school outside Highfield.

Then when dad passed on, I knew that would have to be through cricket. That was my first wake-up call.”

The wake-up call would see the youngster stop playing “hide’n seek” with cricket, which enabled him to receive a full scholarship at Churchill Boys High School alongside contemporaries from Highfield who include Stuart Matsikenyeri, Vusi Sibanda and Alester Maregwede.

When cricket was introduced to the excited young township boys through a Zimbabwe Cricket Union development programme around the mid-90s, Tatenda would often try to escape to his first love, soccer. But famed development coach Stephen Mangongo, who had widened his cricket knowledge on a scholarship at Prince Edward School years earlier than his pupils, would not let the tiny, but gifted little boy get away.

“Whenever I ran away to play soccer, Mr Mangongo would send Stewy (Matsikenyeri) to fetch me. That’s Mangongo’s style of doing things. He thought I was naturally gifted in holding the ball, batting and also bowling. But at that time I thought soccer was the one for me. In the high-density suburbs football is the cheapest sport to play. I don’t know if you guys used to do that.

“We would take two plastics, milk pints, you blow into them, then take bicycle rubber or car rubber and tie two stripes at the corner, put into an oval and you have a proper football. I played football and was good at it. I think I’d have got a scholarship through football if I didn’t play cricket.”

At Churchill, Tatenda made a covenant with cricket, to be his life and career, his escape from the shackles of poverty.

“In Form 2, I got my first gloves and pads from Bill Flower (father of Andy and Grant Flower). They were from Andrew Flower, and you know it’s such a big thing to get equipment from an international player and that’s what made me make the decision that it was going to be cricket,” he adds.

While learning and playing sport at Churchill, Tatenda never forgot his upbringing in Highfield, a daily reminder of the nightmare he was trying to overcome.

“It’s tough growing up in Highfield, one out of every 100 000 makes it in life. I mean, faced with such statistics, it is very difficult. Dad passed away when I was 12 and mum died when I was 18.

“Obviously, growing up without dad was difficult because mum had to take over the show. It wasn’t just the seven of us kids, but also cousins because they were poorer. You don’t really see it when you are going through it. It’s only now when I look back that it makes sense. At that time, you haven’t experienced better so you don’t have anything to compare with.”

Even more remarkable is that Tatenda had no male role models in the family among his siblings. Kudzai and an older brother were known for their errant behaviour.

“My (older) brother started drinking when he was 12. I never liked that and the crowd he hung out with. It got harder when dad passed on because mum had to deal with it alone. But he was also a good sportsman, an athlete. He turned down a scholarship to go to Germany after he was spotted running at Gwanzura Stadium, where he liked to spend a lot of time.”

The females in the Taibu family were also gifted at sport.

“My sister who I follow was also a 100m runner. She used to compete with boys and used to beat them at times. Sports scientists say if you want to be a good athlete, choose your mother wisely. Mum was very energetic. Dad wasn’t as energetic, but he liked football. He used to support Liverpool when we were growing up,” he explains.

In cricket, only Kudzi and their youngest brother Tapiwa have followed into their famous brother’s footsteps, although both ended their promising careers prematurely. They are more likely now to be seen allocating rooms at a lodge in Jerusalem, than at a cricket ground.

Tatenda and Kudzi played alongside each other growing up, and to many, the latter was as good as any young cricketer of that time, if not better than a vast number that went on to play international cricket in the post-rebels era. He did everything on a cricket field. A solid middle-order batsman, wicketkeeper and sometimes useful medium-pace bowler or spinner.

Of much heavier build than his older brother, Kudzi played six first-class matches for Mashonaland in the 2001-12 season, few years before Zimbabwean domestic cricket lost its lustre.

Then through his own waywardness, he disappeared from the scene for a while — away from cricket and away from his family. For a while he was in South Africa, but no one had direct contact or knew what he was doing.
He resurfaced in 2006 to play a single 50-over game for Zimbabwe A against Bangladesh A in Mutare, then disappeared again.

“Kudzi was a good cricketer. I don’t know if you know this piece, but he got a scholarship at PE (Prince Edward School) through rugby after he got expelled at Churchill. Then he just faded away,” Tatenda says.

“Tapiwa was a good athlete and broke several records. He also played first team rugby while in form three. As a cricketer, he was also very good. But it was too boring and too easy for him.”

Tatenda made a comeback to cricket in 2016 after prematurely retiring as a player aged just 29. He said his reasons were religious, and announced he would never return to the game again.

He explains his about-turn: “There is a story in the bible that I have read over and over again. The Israelites were going to kill the Philistines. I don’t know if it’s the Philistines or Moabites. They asked the Lord if they should go and fight. The Lord said ‘don’t go whatsoever’. Again, after a while, they asked if they should go to war and the Lord said ‘go right away’.

“So with decisions I make in my life, all the time I go before the Lord and I ask and sometimes he tells me to do something and sometimes he tells me not to do something first time. So, I mean, I don’t expect anyone to understand it because I don’t understand it myself. We are just human. He is God and all I do is to obey.”

l This interview will appear in a forthcoming book by this writer on the history of black cricket in Zimbabwe.

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