A different pitch on life

2009-01-28 00:00

FOR the Trust Feed youngsters who go almost daily to practise their soccer on the patchy municipal soccer field shared by grazing goats, the name Aubrey “Lethi” Khumalo is proof that dreams can sometimes come true.

Now an U19 player with Maritzburg United Football Club, Khumalo is described by United’s youth development director Katz Naidoo as “an excellent player with a bright future”.

Khumalo’s success is a source of deep satisfaction for 35-year-old Themba Ndaba, founder and chairman of the Sports Against Crime and HIV/Aids project, which encourages young people to put their energy into sport as a way of learning about themselves and others.

“Khumalo’s one of ours. His family still lives in the area,” said Ndaba, who took a day’s leave from his job as a warder at New Hanover Prison to talk to me and introduce me to some of his other young hopefuls — boys and girls from the rural community of Trust Feed near Wartburg.

Born in New Hanover 35 years ago, Ndaba said he grew up playing soccer. At the height of his prowess, he earned the nickname “Dambai” after a Moroka Swallows player with a similar style. With hopes of turning his passion into a career, he travelled to Northern Province in 2000 to try his luck with former club Ria Stars.

Things didn’t work out (for reasons unrelated to his ability), so Ndaba returned to KwaZulu-Natal, determined to ensure that if he couldn’t make it to the big time, other youngsters with talent should at least be given the chance.

In 2003, while working for a cash loans company and with help from some of his colleagues, he founded his sports against crime and HIV initiative, which he saw as a way of giving children constructive and healthy avenues for their spare time and energies. And hope. “Sport keeps them busy and gives them the chance to dream of playing professionally,” said Ndaba.

In 2006, he secured a job as a prison warder with the Correctional Services Department, a post which put him in an ideal position to continue his existing work with juvenile offenders. He asked for a transfer from Serfontein Prison in Pietermaritzburg to New Hanover Prison so that he could return to develop his community.

“When I grew up in this area, it was bad. My family were so poor, we would sometimes go to sleep without food. What money I have now, I feel I must use to help others.”

After school and on weekends, Ndaba, with the help of other members of his community, co-ordinates the coaching of soccer for both boys and girls (teams range from U20 to U10), as well as volleyball and netball. “The children look happy when they play, even if they are hungry. I’m often here at 7 am and I don’t mind spending the whole day with them.”

Working on the basis that “sport and education combined can make a person powerful”, Ndaba — himself a father of two small boys aged four and one — said he tries to motivate the children he works with to do well at school, helps them apply for jobs and find part-time holiday work, and co-ordinates a local writers’ group.

One of the benefits of Ndaba’s efforts has been the intervention of professional teams and coaches in the sporting activities of the Trust Feed youngsters. Ndaba’s teams now get a chance to play against professional clubs. “In the beginning, they’d beat us easily,” he said. “But we have improved.”

Maritzburg United’s Naidoo said that over the past year, he has built up a “close working relationship” with Ndaba and his players. Once a month, the club visits the area to hold coaching sessions for the players and to offer training to local coaches. “The work we do is part of Maritzburg United’s social responsibility drive, but it’s also good for us because it helps us identify future talent,” said Naidoo.

“Most people don’t want to do anything on weekends, but Themba is passionate about the game and wants to do the best he can for the people in the area,” said Naidoo.

Ndaba’s determination also came up in a conversation with Chris Schädle, former owner of the Wartburger Hof.

“Themba doesn’t give up. What he’s doing is great.” Schädle, who left the Wartburg area after his parents were killed at the hotel in late 2007, was instrumental in securing second-hand soccer shirts for Ndaba’s players from a German club called TSV Walhöfen. The consignment was handed over shortly before Christmas.

In the Trust Feed community, where the more fortunate people are employed as farm workers or receive a state pension on which to support large households, there is little money to spare for transport to matches or to buy sports equipment such as soccer boots. Thus, much of Ndaba’s time is spent trying to raise funds.

Working without his own computer or camera, Ndaba has registered the project as a non-profit organisation, opened a bank account and put together a business plan. While he’s succeeded in developing ties with professional sports people and bodies, he’s had limited success in attracting consistent funding, although he said that Naidoo, Echo columnist and university sports administrator Thabo Dladla, and the local office of the Department of Sports and Recreation, can always be relied upon to lend what help they can when asked.

But for Ndaba a shortage of resources is no reason to stop making big plans, including the introduction of a greater variety of sport in the area and the construction of a new soccer field. “We need to have our own field, so that we can practise at any time,” he said. “And this year I want to visit Germany to see how the club [TSV Walhöfen] works and to talk about the possibility of sending over some of our players.”

For 20-year-old Knowledge Dlamini, who has just finished a diploma in accounting at Mangosuthu University of Technology, Ndaba makes things happen in Trust Feed. “Without Themba, there’d be no soccer teams in the area,” he said.

Ndaba is helping him apply for jobs. In return, the young job-seeker assists with soccer coaching. “What Themba is doing is good. Young people are doing lots of things they shouldn’t … they spend time in taverns. Here, on the field, their lives can change,” he said. “Just look at Lethi Khumalo.”

• To help the Sports Against Crime and HIV/Aids project, phone Themba Ndaba at 084 838 9817.

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