Adam Rodgers Johns recalls the time he ended up playing in a cup semi-final in Tanzania.
Shortly after my arrival in Mwanza, north-west Tanzania in August 2015, the local side Pamoja FC, who play in the third tier of the Tanzanian football league, had an important match: the semi-final in a local cup competition. Despite having never seen me play, Ssemwogerere Gilbert, ex-footballer, gymnast and one of the founders of Pamoja, was keen for me to be involved. Shortly before kick-off, suitable footwear for me was sought and the team underwent their pre-match build up, whilst I attempted to follow the discussion in Swahili on the use of a 3-5-2 vs. 5-3-2 formation. Before long I was lining up with my teammates, whose surprise at playing alongside an mzungu (white person) must have only been exceeded by that of the opposing team and the thousand or so spectators who had gathered to watch.
I played in a defensive midfield position, and before succumbing to equatorial conditions and a lack of fitness towards the end of the first half, I was happy with my performance, having successfully disrupted the flow of the opposition on several occasions and played a few passes. I left the field to continued shouts of ‘mzungu!’ from the opposing fans, and Pamoja leading 1-0 having scored a spectacular goal – a loopy cross taken down on the knee and volleyed home. The goal epitomised the tremendous composure of the young team, no doubt a result of Gilbert’s insistence on 1/2 touch football and playing a technical game. The match finished 1-1, with Pamoja winning on penalties and securing their advancement to the final, where they would meet the Mwanza Bus Terminal team and compete for the prize of a cow.
Before long I was lining up with my teammates, whose surprise at playing alongside an mzungu (white person) must have only been exceeded by that of the opposing team and the thousand or so spectators who had gathered to watch.
I had first met Gilbert in August 2015. But it wasn’t until I returned in November 2016 that I spent time at Pamoja and became involved in the work that they’re doing. The Pamoja foundation works with children and youth who have had a difficult start in life. By providing a safe space and teaching them skills, it hopes to improve their prospects for the future. As well as football, the children at Pamoja practice gymnastics, a sport which gave Gilbert the opportunity to travel to Europe at a young age. Education is also central to the foundation, which has recently purchased land on the outskirts of Mwanza on Lake Victoria at Kagere, an important historical site where Arab Moslem slave traders and later European explorers and missionaries held bases. Here, Pamoja have plans to build a school. Establishing a football academy and bringing their team up to the first division of the Tanzanian football league is one of their main objectives.
Before the final, rumours abounded about Pamoja’s opposition, including suspicions that the opposing team had drafted in players from higher leagues, and even that they had conspired with the powers that be to bring a particularly skinny cow in fear of losing. Following a scrappy match, not helped by a referee too eager to blow his whistle, the final ended goalless,with Pamoja losing on penalties. However, the runner-up prize money (200,000 shillings, around $100) will allow the foundation to purchase a goat and host a party at the Pamoja house, where several young boys sleep and spend their days.