BY ALL accounts, Tatenda Taibu’s life and cricket career have been a mixed bag.
By Enock Muchinjo
He has experienced it all: death, struggles, conflict, racism, animosity, betrayal, joy, love, success.
At the age of 35, it is almost as though Taibu has lived a full life already.
He has been forced to become an adult at 17, and he was made a Test cricket captain at 20. He has known how it is like to have nothing, and how it is like to have everything. He has been accepted by others, and frowned upon by others. He has had to be a good example to wayward family members, and a leader to wayward team members.
All these experiences have shaped a truly remarkable individual with a stubborn streak, unshakeable willpower, frankness and, above all, faith in God.
It is thus hardly surprising that Taibu’s autobiography Keeper of Faith — produced in collaboration with British journalist Jack Gordon Brown — is no-holds-barred stuff, replete with brutal honesty typical of the man.
In the book, set for launch on May 24 in the United Kingdom and published by deCourton Books in Liverpool, the former Zimbabwe skipper pulls no punches and does not attempt to sugar-coat events and characters encountered in his action-packed life.
The good side of people as well as their worst flaws — incredibly including those of Taibu himself — are laid bare in a revealing manner in this thoroughly readable piece of work.
Perhaps life was always destined to be eventful for Taibu, looking as his upbringing.
His father, Joseph Taibu Sr, had to complete the journey to the then Southern Rhodesia, alongside his young brother John, after their mother (Tatenda’s grandmother) fell terribly sick on the taxing foot trip from her native Malawi, dying along the way in Mozambique.
Joseph Sr, a barber, would arrive in present-day Zimbabwe as a very young man to ply his trade in the township of Highfield, under a mopane tree. He was a master of his trade that steadily his business grew. Not only was he able to acquire a proper workshop, he also managed to buy two houses in Highfield and later on three cars to afford his big family quite a comfortable life.
Tatenda, a keen soccer player as a kid who had trialed out at lower division outfit Zimbabwe Crackers, began playing cricket at Chipembere Primary School in Highfield because a certain boy named Stuart Matsikenyeri — like himself a future international — had been singled out by the headmaster during assembly as being disciplined and bright because he played the gentlemen’s sport.
A Zimbabwe Cricket Union (ZCU) development programme around the early 1990s drew thousands of boys in the Highfield and Glen Norah suburbs, with young blacks who played on the club scene in those days coaching the youngsters.
Particularly active in Highfield had been Stephen Mangongo and Walter Chawaguta — both decent cricketers later to coach Zimbabwe’s national team — and the enterprising Bruce Makovah, another gifted cricketer later to become Zimbabwe’s chief selector.
The biggest influence on most of the boys was Mangongo, a man whose life, ever since he was first introduced to the game himself in the early 1980s, has been pretty much cricket and nothing else.
Mangongo, a known fiery character, has always believed in forceful methods to whip players in line, as Taibu testifies.
“Steve used to beat us and today it would be understandably unacceptable,” writes Taibu.
“For me, though — at this specific time — it probably straightened me out. I am actually happy I got them. Maybe I look it at that way because I came from a home where my dad would use the same method of punishment.
“The way I interpreted it was that they both wanted me to do well — they would beat me because I had made a mistake. If they did not want me to make that mistake again, they hit me. I saw it as good for me. When I talk to my kids about Steve, I tell them that he was a person who really cared about my cricket, and when I talk about my dad, I say that if it was not for those beatings I would not be where I am today. In some ways, it makes even more sense to me now than it did then, though I would never act in the way they did as a coach or as a parent.”
Though hardworking, the excessive drinking lifestyle of his father — who was previously married — meant Tatenda and his five siblings from their mother’s side saw less of their dad.
Dad’s habits rubbed off on oldest child Joseph Jr, a brilliant athlete who did not go far in sport because his life was consumed by alcohol and ill-discipline from an early age.
Joseph was not the only errant member of the family. Kudzai, two years younger than Tatenda — a brilliant cricketer and handy rugby player at Churchill (where he was expelled) and Prince Edward — lost his way after playing a few first-class cricket games from Mashonaland and Manicaland.
These days Kudzi, according to his more famous brother, operates the old family house in Highfield as a brothel.
Joseph Sr and his wife Margaret also had three daughters as well as the last-born child, a son called Tapiwa who was a gifted sportsman at Prince Edward but never took his talents beyond school level.
The ZCU development programme and the wonderful work of such selfless men as Mangongo should be given credit for giving cricket in Zimbabwe the impetus it did by nurturing a generation of black players on which the game resorted to for numbers during the troubled era of post-2004.
Such was the organised manner of this project that even some white and Asian parents greatly admired the concept and sent their sons there to learn.
“One parent was so impressed that he asked if his son could join our practices in future,” Taibu writes.
“Coming from a white parent, this was a particularly bold move. The boy’s name was Andrew Stone, and from that day on he joined in with our sessions. He had entered a world of dusty fields, concrete pitches and bins for stumps.
Andrew and his parents fitted in immediately, and in time he started to play as well as us, if not better. Andrew’s success encouraged another rich parent to bring his child along to our practices. Mohammed Sirdar was an Asian boy who went to Sharon School, and he too settled into the group quickly. As they learnt from us, we learnt from them.
Among other things, our spoken English began to improve, because we constantly had to communicate with them. Our first language was Shona, the dialect of Shona people, the largest ethnic group in Zimbabwe. We also learnt about general cricketing etiquette from Andrew and Mohammed. We became better boys as they became better cricketers.”
Taibu’s father died in 1994 when he was only nine. His mother would follow eight years later when he was 17. His mother’s death was a particularly massive blow to take because she now had taken over responsibility of family leader, although her cricket-playing son was now able to come to support her with his early earnings from the game.
The untimely loss of his mother also hurt him deeply because at the time of her death, he was beginning to earn more from cricket, but he had constantly declined to give her more money because of goals he had set himself to achieve.
“Mum, I am not going to be giving you all the money,” he had told her. “You are very sick and the only sane boy you have is me. Your first-born Joseph is an excessive drinker and in no condition to look after Tapiwa if you die. For me to be able to look after someone else, I must have a solid base, and so I am going to save some money and buy myself a house.”
The news of his mother’s death was broken to him by Jackie, her sister, whilst walking into town from Churchill, where he had been watching a schools rugby game.
“My last few moments in mum’s company had not been the best, we had spent those moments arguing about my future and about money,” says Taibu.
“All these events played around in my head until I came to a halt in the street, like I was sinking in quicksand.
My eyes were watery, and I looked up to the skies once more in search of answers to the questions. I asked of myself: ‘God, who is going to look after Tapiwa?’ The boy was just too young to be without a parent for guidance. I felt I was the only member of my family who could look after him well, to give him a fair chance to do well in life, but how was
I going to do that when I was still just in school?”
Throughout the book, Taibu writes fondly of his relationship with his mentor and confidante Andy Flower, a man he developed an even deeper relationship with after the 16-year-old Churchill schoolboy’s selection for a tour to the West Indies in the late 1990s.
Taibu reveals how Flower, viewed as Zimbabwe’s greatest of all time, once confided with him how he felt that the majority of the national team players were “weak” and unworthy of places in international cricket.
“They are good in our local competitions and when we are practising,” Flower told a young Taibu.
“But when it really matters, when the fight is really on against tough opposition — against Pakistan, against West Indies, against England — they put their tails between their legs. They are weak. If they ask you to emulate them or try to coach you, do not listen. If you are going to emulate your game on someone, pick Aravinda de Silva or Sachin Tendulkar, because of your height. I would not advise you to pick Lara. His technique is awkward.”
Taibu writes that his first blatant case of racism in cricket was when he failed to make his first-class debut for Mashonaland because none of the selectors or administrators notified him of his selection, only hearing of it through rumour the previous night.
“The game was supposed to be the following day. What was I meant to do? I sat at the telephone until 9pm, but still nothing. I did not know how I was going to get to the ground the next morning, as I didn’t know where we were playing, and we no longer had a family car,” he explains.
“I asked my sister if one of her friends would drop me off at the Harare Sports Club first thing, so I could find out where the match was being played. Viola Muza, who used to run the ZCU office pretty much alone, informed me at 8am that the game was being played at the Country Club, so again I got my sister’s friend to rush back. When I arrived, the teams had already concluded their warm-ups and the toss. Clearly, I was not playing. The manager looked shocked to see me, and unhappy to say the least. He shouted at me for not arriving at the ground on time, despite the fact that I had been given absolutely no details about the fixture. I had always known that there would be opposition to me making my way in the game, but I never knew it would be this strong. I was glad my sister had not stayed to witness this.
“He (the manager) had not advised me of anything at all; I was there on hearsay. This is how he treated me? Instead of making my debut, I was made to do the drinks for the game. This was the first time I came face to face with opposition that bordered along the lines of racism. It was the way the coach spoke to me, the way he shouted at me.
There have been people over the years who have spoken strongly about the way they feel to me, but not in the way that he did that day. I do not remember the exact words, but I remember him saying something along the lines of, ‘That is how it is with you people.’ I was thinking, ‘You people? Which people?’ That did not sit well with me at all. I do not believe myself to be the sort of person who quickly turns something into a racial matter, but to this day I believe my judgement to be correct on this one. I was yet to turn twenty years old. Thankfully, my upbringing had prepared me for injustices such as this.”
With the national team, Taibu remembers well a race storm on tour when fast bowler Henry Olonga confronted white teammate Neil Johnson for using an inappropriate nickname, “Nugget” in reference to Mluluki Nkala.
“Ever since I had been in the changing room with the national team it had seemed a happy place to be, with everyone always joking around, but one moment upset that tranquil environment,” writes Taibu.
“Mluleki Nkala, who I had roomed with on the tour, had several nicknames in the dressing room, one of which was ‘Nugget’, which was a type of shoe polish in Zimbabwe. Mluleki was given this nickname because of his dark skin colour. It is not something that he seemed to feel uneasy about, he was called it every day and it was not just the white players that used this nickname. On this particular occasion it was Neil Johnson, who Mluleki was particularly close to, that used this nickname, and for some reason it seemed to spark something inside of Henry.
He was raging. ‘Take your words back,’ he said to Neil. Everyone just stood there. ‘Take it back, you can not be making fun of someone’s colour.’ ‘You are overreacting Henry,’ said Neil, and Murray Goodwin came over and said a similar thing. Neil asked Mluleki if he minded the term, before Henry released his bombshell: ‘That is why Mugabe is taking your farms off you.’ All hell broke loose.”
In the politically-charged book, Taibu also talks about meeting Zimbabwe’s vice-president Joice Mujuru after his first major fallout with the cricket authorities. He also recollects serious threats on him from Temba Mliswa, then a Zanu PF activist, as well as cabinet minister Bright Matonga. He further writes about how he was provided with 24-hour security at his suburban house by Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono following those threats.
Taibu also opens up about being betrayed by teammates as well as the disintegration of his relationship with officials, particularly the powerful board member and later CE of ZimCricket, Ozias Bvute, with whom he had started off on very good books.