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Tough guy Kaitano Tembo’s tragedy to triumph tale is just amazing

By Robson Sharuko

A LESSER mortal would have been consumed by a personal tragedy so horrific, when it struck at the turn of the millennium, it was so devastating its consequences were as grim as they can ever come.

Kaitano Tembo then Assistant Manager at SuperSport during the 2017 Nedbank Cup Final joint press conference for Supersport United and Orlando Pirates at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban on on 22 June 2017 © Gerhard Duraan/BackpagePix

He was only 30 back then and certainly not old, clearly not wise and probably not emotionally strong enough to deal with a tragedy of such grand proportions.

One minute everything had been going according to script, life was good, the young family was intact and happy and they were traveling back to their base in South Africa carrying great memories of their visit back home.

Their trip had taken them to Kadoma, his hometown, where he had met some old friends and members of his extended family and now he was driving back to work at his base in Pretoria, South Africa.

His wife Monica sat opposite to him, on the front passenger seat, the one she had occupied since they left their Pretoria apartment on this journey back to their roots to reconnect with the people who helped make them the celebrity football couple that they had become then.

His little daughter sat on one of the back seats, where his younger brother provided her with company, occasionally blowing some jokes to entertain her, on this long road trip back to their South African base.

They had covered a big chunk of the trip, left Masvingo in the distance, and were now on their way to Beitbridge for the passage into South Africa, the country where this young family was now earning a living.

Then, just like that, everything changed.

And where there had been light, there was now a lot of darkness, where there had been beauty, there was now a lot of ugliness, where there had been hope, there was now a lot of hopelessness and where there had been life there was lifelessness.

By the time it was over, with the car having overturned and landed on its side after veering off a road which some have described as a death trap, his lovely wife Monica was dead.

He had somehow escaped with his life, but with a broken arm and his daughter, too, was still alive, but in pain while his brother had also escaped from the horror with just injuries which, with the passage of time, would heal.

His daughter and brother were rushed to Mwenezi Hospital while he began the difficult and painful exercise of trying to deal with the physical and psychological demons which were devouring his soul.

Those who have lost a dear loved one, and I am one of them, know exactly how difficult, if not impossible, this exercise is where you are bombarded with so many questions which you can barely answer and which you can barely comprehend.

For Kaitano Tembo, this was his make-or-break moment where his future would be defined, where the future of his innocent little daughter would be defined and where the future of his extended family would be defined.

It’s either he would let the enormity of the tragedy consume him, and in the process destroy his future, and that of those who depended on him, or he would find the strength to rise from all this and find a path back into the light.

He knew he needed God’s grace to help him find a way out of these ruins, God’s strength to help him find a way out of this tragedy and God’s guidance to help him find a way out of this darkness.

There were days, in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, when he doubted himself, doubted his strength, which had been a remarkable feature of his identity as a no-nonsense defender, and doubted his will to soldier on.

Not without his Monica, the woman he had chosen to be his life companion, the one whose shoulders usually provided a cushion for him to lean on in difficult times and the one who had given him his lovely daughter.

But he reminded himself of who he was, Kaitano Tembo, the tough one whom they had even nicknamed Ngwenya at Dynamos, with the Glamour Boys fans finding a resemblance between him, in terms of their no-holds-barred approach, and the immortal Shadreck Ngwenya.

Reminded himself of who he used to be, long before he arrived at Dynamos from Kadoma, a tough guy who had grown up in the tough neighbourhood of Rimuka, where nothing was given and everything was earned.

Where real boys never gave up, no matter the circumstances, where they were taught at a very early age that there were no freebies in this world and you have to earn everything through sweat and blood.

I should know because this is where I spent some of my primary school holidays, at House Number 35 Nzou Street in the heart of Rimuka, a stone’s throw from the stadium and not far from Rumwe shopping centre.

A street behind the big house where Clive Kanyemba raised a family that would give our football a fine forward called Cypren, who went on to play for Highlanders only for him to die young before fulfilling the talent he had in abundance.

My uncle, Mudhara Zulu, was also a football coach of note in Kadoma, who coached Kaitano during his early days, and his house in Rimuka used to provide me with refuge for my vacation on the days I chose not spending my holidays at home in Chakari.

Because of that I came to know the area well, came to know fine footballers like Partson Muzhuzha and Winter Moon, boys from the hood who were so good I will bet my last dollar that had they played in today’s football, where a lot of mediocrity resides, they would have become stars of the Warriors.

And I also came to know the people of that area well, that they don’t quit easily, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Kaitano Tembo chose defiance, when faced with tragedy, and willed himself to fight on to defy the odds and give his daughter a chance in life.

Yesterday, after years of toiling in the trenches of SuperSport United, a club he has served with both distinction and loyalty for 20 years now, Kaitano was rewarded for his contribution to their cause by being named head coach of the side.

It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

THE MAN WHO HONOURED HIS DEPARTED WIFE

Four years after the fatal crash that claimed his wife and left his daughter and brother in hospital, while keeping him out of action for four months as he nursed a broken arm, Kaitano arrived in Tunisia as part of a special group of Warriors.

They were the pioneering group of Warriors to plunge into the battles of the AFCON finals — something which a generation of some of our greatest players had failed to do in their careers.

Moses Chunga, who — like Muhammad Ali before him — finds romance in calling himself the greatest of them all, among the footballers to emerge from this country, never played at the AFCON finals.

And he isn’t alone in that category.

Stanford “Stix” Mtizwa, Stanley Ndunduma, as excellent a player and consistent a performer in the Warriors colours, Ephraim Chawanda, so formidable we called him the ‘Rock of Gibraltar,’ Madinda Ndlovu, Willard Mashinkila-Khumalo it even Joel Shambo never made it that far.

Neither did Vitalis Takawira and Tauya Murewa, John Phiri and Onias Musana, Jonah Murewa and Joseph Machingura, Ephert Lungu and Ephraim Dzimbiri, Joseph Zulu and Henry McKop to name, but a few of real stars of our game.

But Kaitano and his Class of 2004 did it, with the boy from Kadoma arriving in Tunisia with the added responsibility of being the vice-captain of the team that was led by the greatest Warrior of all time — Peter Ndlovu.

Somehow, in four short years, he had found a way to defy the tragedy that had struck him that day when the horror crash took away his wife to assume the responsibility of being the second in command of his national team in its first maiden dance at the AFCON finals.

Now, that’s character.

And in a world full of boys who want to pretend as if they are men and, in a world looking for role models who provide inspirational stories to help us find ways out of the darkness, he had provided us with a shining example.

The Americans have found a way to create their heroes, through the power of movies, who inspire their kids to defy the odds and to reject being swallowed by challenges.

One of such heroes is Rambo, the action hero, who is an army on his own, with his powerful muscles and intoxicating courage he finds a way to always beat the odds.

And while Rambo might be a fictitious character, Kaitano is a real character and the way he refused to be choked by tragedy and rose to fight again, both for club and country, is simply sensational.

Remarkably, what impressed me the most was that, even in his finest hour, as he became one of the 11 immortals who first played for the Warriors in an AFCON finals match in 2004, he never forgot someone who mattered so much to him, but who was no longer there to support him.

“My wife meant a lot to me, she really supported me during difficult times and dedicating the tournament to her is the only way I can thank her for what she did,” he told Steve Vickers who was then working for BBC Sport.

“It was difficult, but a lot of people supported me and I was able to pull through.

“It made me a stronger person as I had to look after our daughter and as football is my career, I couldn’t give up.”

What he didn’t tell Stevie is that they are not made to give up in the tough environment of Kadoma and it’s something I know very well.

After all, Kaitano is my age, we both 48, the generation that was born when the World Cup was televised, for the first time in its history, in colour.

Maybe, on second thoughts, that is why the Lord made sure the majority of us, those who came into this world in 1970, had to have dark features and the arrival of colour television would help parade us in better light on the occasions our images were broadcast to the world.

For Kaitano was the original ‘Munhu Mutema’, long before William Mapfumo, who also went on to play for Shabanie, came along.

And he played for a great DeMbare side, winning three league championships in the four seasons he was at the club, in 1994, 1995 and 1997.

I have always argued that the team they had in 1995 was way better than the one they had in 1998 and had they not self-destructed in that loss to Express of Uganda in the quarter-finals, after having won the first leg in Kampala 1-0, they would probably have gone all the way to become African champions.

Kaitano was part of that crew and he was very good, a consistent performer throughout the 132 games he played for the Glamour Boys, scoring six goals along the way, including one in an unforgettable Harare Derby in 1996 that ended 1-1 at Rufaro.

Mphumelelo Dzowa scored the other goal, a booming free-kick that was marked goal from the moment it left his right boot, in one of the great games of the era of the modern Premiership with the point virtually ending the championship dreams of the Glamour Boys.

Kaitano was a fiery competitor and, back in the days when the Harare Derby had more substance and quality than the garbage that we have come to see in recent years, he took no prisoners although some will say he, at times, went overboard.

His season-ending tackle on Alois Bunjira that shattered a campaign in which he was poised to become the Soccer Star of the Year back in 1996, was more of an assault likely to cause grievous bodily harm than just an acceptable football foul.

But away from the football field he was a dove, a good man, which is more important than being a good footballer, and those who have had the privilege of interacting with him will testify that they don’t make them — in terms of gentleness — like this anymore these days.

IT’S GREAT TO SEE GOOD THINGS COMING TO GOOD GUYS

Life is never fair and it’s not always a case that good things come to good guys, the people who deserve the rewards that should come to such fine specimen.

Think about Benjamin Nkonjera, the guy we called Makanaky, a diminutive frame that had the heart of a tiger, as good a midfield terrier as any that will ever roam the engine room of our Warriors.

The one whose name Reinhard Fabisch always scripted first on the team sheet of the Dream Team, the one the German coach trusted to deliver, in a star-studded side, than anyone else.

The one whose beaming smile, all the time, always cast a beautiful light on the Dream Team, even on the occasions when they were against the ropes, and the opposition were in control of the game.

And the one who made such an enduring impact on King Peter’s life that the Flying Elephant ended up naming his son Benjamin in honour of this football genius.

But, as fate would have it, Benji was the one who had to die young, the one we lost to the heavens when he still had so much to offer to our football, the one whose death cast a huge shadow on our football, in particular, and our country, in general.

But, at times, life can reward those who deserve such rewards and, yesterday, one such person who has always deserved to be rewarded, Kaitano Tembo, got his dues with SuperSport United announcing his appointment as their new head coach.

Kaitano was 29 when he arrived at SuperSport United as a player, years were still identified from the word one (1999) and not two, as has been the case since the turn of the millennium, and he has spent his last two decades at the club.

A fiercely loyal individual, Kaitano rejected a number of clubs who have tried, over the course of the last two decades, to take him away from SuperSport United form whom, as a player, he clocked 149 appearances and even scored six goals.

Even when others were suggesting he was being given a raw deal by the club, who kept overlooking him for the top job, Kaitano didn’t see it that way but, instead, suggested he was still a rookie who had a lot to learn.

Now and again, on the occasions you asked him why he was hanging on at a club that appeared to believe he was only good enough for the juniors, Kaitano would tell you that everything has its time in football, just like in life.

And, just like those who support Black Leopards Football Club of South Africa, whose motto is “Lidoda Dhuva,” he firmly believed, just like the meaning of that motto, his day would one day come.

Yesterday, that day finally came and, if you ask me, it could not have happened to a better guy who was a fine footballer but, more importantly, remains a very good man.

There are some who believe he is a future national team coach in the making but that’s a subject for another day because he has to pass this tough test first. But what a remarkable story this has been for this man, a journey which saw him deal with horrific tragedy that would have destroyed the lives of many people, but from which he found a way to rise, like a phoenix, into this superman.

If you want an get amazing tale to inspire you, if you want to believe odds can be conquered, if you want someone to show you mountains can be moved and if you are feeling down, and probably out, take some time to use Kaitano as an example.

The boy from Kadoma who lost his wife in a horrific car crash, almost lost his life, almost lost his little daughter and almost lost his brother in that accident but rose from it all to become a coach of one of South Africa’s top clubs. The Herald