The legendary Liverpool football manager Bill Shankly once sagely remarked that football was not a matter of life and death … it was, he said, “much more important than that”.
Shankly was joking and his oft-quoted line has become a cliché, but the words ring painfully close to reality for one of Lengo’s most gifted football players, Solomon Makala.
At the age of 17 last year Solomon had to give up a brutally tough job as a manual labourer at a sugar mill, concerned the toll it was taking was literally killing him. He is now pinning his hopes on Lengo helping him fulfil his dreams as a professional footballer.
At first he was grateful to land the job at a mill 70kms away from Arusha in Moshi, where he stayed with his uncle. But it meant having to wake at six every morning, seven days a week, to walk the four kilometres from his uncle’s home to the mill, where he worked day and night, usually returning after midnight or as late as 2am, to start again four hours later.
Solomon is a qualified mechanic but the mill work was heavy, physical, dangerous labour: carrying pipes and other heavy loads, and welding. Safety precautions were few or non-existent. Water breaks were scarce in the often scorching heat. On the walk home at night it was mercifully cooler, but then wild animals posed a real and present danger in the dark.
Working like this every day for six months he was paid around US$1 per day (A$1.29) for his labour, with no overtime. Saturdays and Sundays were ‘half-days’, still rising at 6am and working into the afternoon.
“We had to work the hours we were told to because of a shortage of labour,” said Solomon, speaking back at his mother’s small, neat home in Ngaramtoni. “In the end I had to leave for my health. I had a constant, massive headache from dehydration. I thought I could die in an accident or from exhaustion. Even so, it was a very tough decision to leave.”
It was especially difficult for Solomon’s mum, Happiness, relieved her son was home and safe, but worried how she would provide for her family without his wages.
A single mother whose husband left when Solomon was small, Happiness, 52, has fought hard to raise four children on her own, instilling she says good manners and values so they can be of benefit to society. The older two, Margaret and Emanuel, live far away and are in work but earn too little to send anything back. The youngest, Grace, who is in school, and grandson, David, live with Happiness and now Solomon.
Happiness provides for them all by cooking food which she sells mainly to workers at a local garage for lunch, but it is a precarious living and there is little to go around. She admits to having huge expectations of Solomon, supporting his footballing ambitions despite initially’ “pushing him to drop football because you can’t make a living that way in Tanzania”.
They both know football has always been his gift and his passion. “I realised early on he was blessed with talent,” she says. “But I was stressed because he didn’t want to do anything else!”
Solomon, now 18 and a fast, tenacious and technically sound central defender, tells how as a small child he learned to play football in primary school using a ball made from plastic bags. By age 8 he was talent spotted to play in a local team of Under 13s almost twice his age – and twice his size. Two years later, aged just 10 and still in primary school, he was playing right full-back for his school’s secondary level Under 16s, and has since moved on to play a high level of county and representative football.
Lengo founder and head coach Emanuel Saakai has high hopes for Solomon and in turn both Solomon and his mum place a lot of faith in the coach. “He convinced me to let Solomon play,” said Happiness. “That one day he will be successful through football.”
Solomon says simply: “I trust in playing football because I believe in the ‘teacher’ [Emanuel]. With Lengo, when the time comes, you can approach professional clubs for trials. You have a chance.”
While he now trains daily, coaches and plays, Solomon looks for work and helps people in the community who need exercise and therapy, sometimes straining finances further by borrowing money to feed them. “He has a good heart,” says his mum.
He knows how elusive the dream of a career in football can be, even for the most lavishly gifted, and knows he needs a ‘plan B’ career to help his family. He continues to look for work as a qualified mechanic, or as a driver, and would love to one day earn enough to open his own small repair shop.
For, as Shankly, who at 15 was a Depression-era Ayrshire coal miner and tasted unemployment when the local pit closed, said sombrely in another of his most famous remarks when asked about the pressures of trying to win football trophies: “Pressure is working down the pit. Pressure is having no work at all.”
By Dominic Biggs
Tanzania as a country is in a period of economic reform, but jobs are virtually non-existent, especially outside the major cities. In Arusha, even the competition to carry shoppers’ bags from the market for a few coins is intense. The community tends to look out for its people, so that even orphans get a space on the floor of a crowded room in a basic hut, but without income, even one basic meal a day is not a given.
Help us support Solomon in his quest to find employment as a qualified mechanic by donating to Lengo today. We partner with local companies to help our players secure employment and through donations we aim to pay our coaches a regular salary so they can support themselves and their families.