Long read: We became brothers through football

Joseph Kamwendo

Over in Europe, a career that takes someone to two or more of the continent’s greatest football clubs—in different countries—is considered a basic measurement of a player’s ability, and legendary status.

In Africa, this is not quite a common thing because, for many players, Europe has always been the dream destination if one excels here.

Hence movement within the continent is infrequent, even between the big-name clubs in African football.

Among the few to have achieved this rare continental feat, though, is the gifted former Malawi international, Joseph Kamwendo.

The tricky winger—who dazzled crowds in South Africa’s Premiership Soccer League (PSL) with his bag of skills during his time with Soweto giants Orlando Pirates between 2009 and 2011—would go on to play for Congolese glamour side TP Mazembe who, like the Buccaneers, are former champions of Africa.

Stints at different clubs— including Danish side FC Nordsjælland as well as moves back to Malawi and then Mozambique—came before Kamwendo joined the two great African teams.

But for the former Malawi captain, turning out for Pirates and Mazembe is a major highlight of his career.

“Playing for big clubs like Orlando Pirates and TP Mazembe was something I always dreamt of when I was a little boy,” Kamwendo, who is now retired in his native Malawi, tells The NewsHawks.

“I did manage to do that, and when I look back, representing those two great clubs, I tell myself that I should be proud of it. It’s something I will cherish for the rest of my life, knowing that it wasn’t something that was easy to achieve. It took quite a lot: passion, dedication…you know…I worked for it. I will always look back and say thank you Orlando Pirates, and thank you to the chairman Dr Irvine Khoza, for the opportunity he gave me to represent this great club and the same goes to Moise Katumbe, the chairman of TP Mazembe. These opportunities placed me on the world map. When we talk about big clubs in African football, you can’t ignore Orlando Pirates and TP Mazembe. I thank God for the achievement.”

Pirates and Mazembe are indeed iconic clubs in their respective countries, some of the best-known names in African club football. Featuring for both clubs is something 33-year-old Kamwendo understandably records as a career accomplishment.

However, try to talk to football fans from Zimbabwe, especially the very passionate supporters of Harare giants CAPS United. Rest assured, the CAPS faithful will only be too keen to correct you that Kamwendo did, in fact, play for three different great clubs of the continent, including theirs.

It is hard to believe it has been 16 years since fresh-faced Kamwendo took the road trip from Malawi to Zimbabwe as a 17-year-old prodigy to sign for CAPS, his first professional contract in the game.

In reality, CAPS cannot be spoken of in the same vein as the likes of Pirates and Mazembe in terms of continental appeal.

In Zimbabwe, though, CAPS are no small boys.

They are generally regarded as the third-placed of Zimbabwe’s traditional “Big Three” clubs, after Dynamos and Highlanders, and in much later years they have gone on to supply the South African market with more talented players such as Kaizer Chiefs star and former Mamelodi Sundowns maestro Khama Billiat.

In the capital Harare, where they are based, CAPS polarise the support base of the city with their more famous local rivals Dynamos, Zimbabwe’s most successful football club and one-time African Champions League finalists.

The great Harare derby reverberates across the city from early in the week to match-day, something akin to Kaizer Chiefs versus Orlando Pirates in South Africa.

FC Nordsjælland; Mighty Wanderers; Vasco da Gama; Mighty Wanderers; LD Maputo; Don Bosco; Mighty Wanderers; Tshakhuma; Mighty Wanderers.

This has been Kamwendo’s journey in football since leaving Zimbabwe at the end of 2005, but CAPS still brings up a flood of good memories for the ex-Flames star, so much that midway through this interview, he suddenly erupts into renditions of some of the club’s popular fan songs.

Dai mamutora maenda naye, Jehovah babadai mamutora maenda naye…!” attempts Kamwendo in one Shona song, a popular tune with the CAPS supporters, taken from an old chorus that pleads with God to take someone along with him to a much better place.

And CAPS did take Kamwendo to a better place, signing for Orlando Pirates from the Zimbabwean club in 2006 after just nine months in Harare, a “platform” that the diminutive attacker is eternally grateful for.

“CAPS United will always have a special place in my heart, they gave me the platform to showcase my talents, they showed me to the world,” says Kamwendo.

“What I achieved with the club in 2005 in particular would not be possible if I hadn’t got the support that I received from my teammates and the club’s executive.  Being my first professional club, it was a great move for me. I did learn a lot in Zimbabwe, when you talk about professionalism of the league, and how professionals should behave. I should say Zimbabwe was the best and will always be another home for me, especially CAPS United. I was allowed to play my normal game, with the support of fans and management. It made me play my best football, and for that I will always have that love for the club.”

Well-known prodigious talents aside, what also triggered the big move across the border to South Africa was that in 2005 when CAPS won the second of its back-to-back Zimbabwean league titles, the wizardry of Kamwendo had come to the fore in a blinder of a season for the young Malawian, who was duly voted the country’s footballer of the year.

Kamwendo remains the only foreign player to have been crowned the Zimbabwean league’s best.

“Knowing that the Zimbabwean league is one of the best leagues in Southern Africa, if not in Africa, it gives me enormous pride to be the only foreigner to have won that award. When I joined CAPS, I never thought of becoming the best but, because of my teammates, I stood out and played my best football. Being a foreigner, it wasn’t going to be easy to adapt and play my best. But because of the support from everybody, and I must say today that CAPS United fans are the best in Zimbabwe, it actually seemed quite easy in the end. It was a collective effort. Everybody did a tremendous job for us to achieve the feat. So, 15 years down the line, I still look at that accolade and remind myself that I achieved something truly special. For that, I’m thankful to CAPS United and I always wish them all the best in Zimbabwe and in African football.”

The experiences of Zimbabwe had prepared Kamwendo well enough for the rigours of the South African PSL, a more demanding environment in which numerous foreign players—some of them much hyped upon arrival in Mzansi—have dismally failed.

“After I came back from Denmark and I briefly returned to Malawi, I then played for Orlando Pirates, which is one of the best clubs in Africa, and the transition wasn’t easy.  I found it challenging at first,” Kamwendo says. “But having played in Zimbabwe helped me a lot because most of the guys I used to play with in Zimbabwe, or against, had also moved to South Africa around the same time as me. Guys like Gilbert Mushangazhike, (Zvenyika) Makonese, (Carlington) Nyadombo, (Willard) Katsande, you name them. In fact, I only met some of them for the first time in South Africa.  But knowing that I had passed through Zimbabwe on my way to South Africa, I took all the Zimbabwean players as my own brothers. Whenever I needed them, for guidance, when I was lost, I used to go to people like Gilbert Mushangazhike because I played with him at Orlando Pirates. Makonese as well. We did become brothers through football.  So, I always look back and ‘say thank you guys, thank you for the opportunity, and thank you for being there for me’. I had made friends with these guys when I was playing for CAPS so when we met again in South Africa, we used to encourage each other that football was the same, that we just needed to remain focused and play according to instructions. So when you look at the two leagues, Zimbabwe and South Africa, you can’t compare the two. Zimbabwe is not too far, but I will say the South African league is more professional that Zimbabwe’s.”

Failing to cope with the level of competition in South Africa aside, off-field distractions – mainly due to sudden material comfort from the rich pickings of the league – is another common hindrance to the progress of young foreign players in the country.

For Kamwendo, who played more than 100 matches for Malawi, self-discipline was something he considered non-negotiable in his pursuit of a longer and successful career in South African football.

“Knowing that I was coming from a poor country, Malawi, we are not as rich as South Africans, I went with the knowledge that I was there to do a job,” says Kamwendo. “I had people that I supported back home. I had my own family. So on that side I would say yes, as a person, as I human being, I had to have cars, I had to have a nice house when I was there. But that didn’t take my focus away because I knew why I was in South Africa. So I would say yes, those things were there, but I managed to play my best football because I knew what exactly took me to South Africa.”

Kamwendo singles out his best memory in South African football as his debut goal for Orlando Pirates against English Premiership side Tottenham Hotspurs in a Vodacom Challenge match in 2007.

With game-time now limited at Pirates, the Malawi ace left to join lowly Vasco da Gama in 2010. Although he viewed it as a plausible move for him at that time given the circumstances, Kamwendo, in hindsight, admits he left Vasco da Gama prematurely, at a time he needed to show the Cape Town club some loyalty.

“Leaving Vasco da Gama when they were relegated, I still feel like I should have stayed with them and help them to come back to the PSL. But then I decided to leave and return to Malawi.”

Having left relegated Vasco da Gama, Kamwendo returned to Malawi again to rejoin his boyhood club, now renamed Be-Forward Wanderers.

It was another emotional return for the pin-boy of Malawian football, his country’s first real sporting superstar of the modern era.

Kamwendo’s unassuming nature and big heart makes him a genuine Malawian folk hero, and when you add his century-plus international caps for the Flames, it effectively seals his legendary status in the country.

“In my international career with Malawi, I would say I did achieve what I wanted,” says Kamwendo.

“As a young boy I wanted to represent my country at the highest level. I managed to do so. I captained the team for five to six years. I think that was the best I could have done. But also, playing 117 caps for my country, and being the highest of my generation, I will cherish that for the rest of my life. The best memory was to help my country go to the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations and beating Algeria 3-0 in our first game in Angola. Off course, there are regrets: failing to qualify for the 2012 tournament with the Flames, we had so many chances of qualifying for that tournament.”

Kamwendo made a brief stopover in Malawi before proceeding to Mozambique, where he featured for LD Maputo.

It was whilst in Mozambique that TP Mazembe came calling with a five-year offer.

“I mean, coming back from South Africa to Malawi wasn’t going to be easy, knowing that I was playing at the highest level, for one of the biggest teams in Africa,” he says.

“So, coming back, people thought that was the end of me, not knowing what God had in plan for me. I only played for Be-Forward Wanderers for three months, then I was off to Mozambique, where I played my best football again. And then TP Mazembe came and signed me from Mozambique, which was a five-year contract. So yes, coming back from SA to Malawi, the experience wasn’t that good. But I was telling myself that I’m still good enough to compete. I knew that I wasn’t finished. I was just back here at home to resurrect, play my best football again, and then go and play again at the top.”

Earlier this year, Kamwendo launches a foundation aimed at improving lives through a variety of sporting disciplines played in Malawi.

“I am proud of what I achieved in my playing career, and I don’t take that for granted, I will take this opportunity to also help the upcoming stars so that they achieve their targets,” Kamwendo says.

“The aim of the Foundation is to go back to rural areas, remote communities, and scout for the best talent. We want to find kids that maybe have lost parents, pay school fees for them, keep them at our foundation, train them as footballers, netballers, and women’s footballers.  Our aim is to give back to the community, but at the same try to produce as many stars as we can. So, we are kindly asking those wishing to support us that the door is open. Alone as Joseph Kamwendo Foundation, we can’t afford to do it. We need the support of the general public, everyone in Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Africa, all over. I want to give back. With the little knowledge I have, and the experience I have through my playing career, I want to help the youngsters of today, I want to go and give them hope that they can still achieve regardless of where they come from. In football, if you remain focused, if you’re dedicated, if you have passion for the game, you can always achieve. My role is to help as many youngsters as I can so that we improve the game here in Africa.”