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An African Summer

Kennedy Gondwe/Twenty Ten

Associated feature: Mulenga at Home (Photo feature)

Location: Kitwe, Zambia

Every summer Africa’s finest footballers go home after playing in European competitions. This summer, however, the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba and Stephen Pienaar will be spending their summer representing their nation at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Zambian striker, Jacob Mulenga, who plays for Dutch premier league side, Utrecht, plans to watch the tournament from his home in Kitwe with his friends and family.

Six years ago Zambian striker Jacob Mulenga was just an ordinary teenage footballer content to play a few games for his local side, Afrisport. However, one season in the local league was enough for him to catch the attention of French League Two side, Chateauroux, who signed him before any of the local clubs could make their move. Today, Mulenga returns to his native Zambia as a hero after helping his Dutch side, Utrecht, to win another Europa Cup place.

The lanky striker has just concluded a memorable debut season, scoring 10 goals in 31 appearances. With an Africa Cup quarter final finish in the bag, Mulenga has won the respect and admiration of his countrymen. In his hometown of Kitwe, located on the Copperbelt province, the 26-year-old reflects on the just-ended season.

“It feels really good coming back home after a long season,” he says. “On a typical day I will basically be with the family. I think that is just what I need to be doing so that when I go back I do not have regrets that I didn’t see them enough.”

The Utrecht star’s morning routine begins with a trip to his sister’s place to pick up his nephew before going to his parents’ house to visit his mother. “I will see my mother and chat for a bit and then I will visit my brothers at work. At around 5pm I head back home.”
Mulenga explains that a visit home is a welcome break from his lonely life in Holland. “I understand why some people find it really hard going back to their clubs and get late for training after going home. Of course that is not an excuse because you have to respect your job,” he says.

Mulenga looks back to the second half of the season, which he says was long and made him miss his family.
“As you get half way through the season you start working hard, but when winter starts it gets very frustrating and you want people to talk to, you want be around family and you don’t have it there, so coming back is something that we really look forward to.”

The gruelling demands of the later stages of the season are particularly tough for players who are far from home. “The moment the season starts we are all excited about the whole season, but the moment you come to the end it becomes really hard because you have to know whether you are playing for something or not. Then you start missing your family,” he says. “For me my family means everything to me. It is the only thing I want when I am away from football.”

Mulenga phones his family everyday to get an update on what is happening at home. “Football is a job, but God and my family come first. I have to speak to them every day. It is more of a motivational factor and it keeps me going,” says the soft spoken striker.
Just the sound of a family member is enough to see him through the day. “I left Zambia when I was 20. I had never stayed by myself so my family really had to be there for me. We just talk about how everything is going. Sometimes we don’t talk about anything sensible, but it’s the feeling of being in a family that helps.”

Unfortunately, it is not always good news from home. There have been times that the youth has had to deal with news of death and funerals.

“When there is a disaster at home they will definitely tell me straight away. They know I know how to handle and everything,” he says. “It will affect me a lot but then again that is the way life is, you just have to handle it. In times of grief make sure you give them support, even just a few words will help them a lot.”

He looks back to the moment when the season closed and he had to take the trip back home. “It is a big boost for me personally although for some it is a downfall,” he says. “I know I have got a certain number of months to work really hard and after that I will be home with my family and I can tell them just how I was working really hard to get to this point.”

For Mulenga, the trip home is often an anxious one. “I used to get anxious every time I got on a plane, but now I am quite used to it because I have done it a lot,” he says. “Every time you start off for Ndola or Lusaka then it actually hits you, you are going home.” He adds: “When you jump off the plane you see them (family members) then everything changes. I feel emotions I cannot even explain.”

Like many football stars who make the long trek home after a period in Europe, Mulenga has to deal with people asking him for money. “A lot of people just ask for bits of money. It is something I look at in a completely different way,” says the promising star. Mulenga in a rather embarrassed tone says it does not bother him that people ask him for money. “We won’t hide the fact that in Zambia there is a lot of poverty and everyone needs help I try and do my part as much as possible,” he says.

There have been times when the Utrecht star has had to say no to people wanting handouts. “Some people get really offended when you can’t help. They will say, “I have known you for a long time and I have been supporting you for a long time”, but you just have to stand by your reason. You can’t help everyone,” Mulenga says.

“If you are going to help someone just make sure you are going to help them for good reasons and if you know they are going to use it wisely.”

When asked whether he budgets for the needs of others, Mulenga was careful not to give too much away. “I do not budget how much I am going to spend on people, but if people need help I do help. If I go over to Lusaka I give people about K400-500 000, just helping out everyone or meeting friends.”

When the time comes for the soccer star to return to Holland, he feels a sense of grief to leave his homeland. “When I go back to Holland I have a sense of disappointment. I have been happy here, but there I live by myself, I am not married, no kids, I will be alone,” he says.

When the focus shifts to football, Mulenga expresses delight at qualifying for the Europa Cup. “It felt good qualifying for the Europa Cup, although I think we could have done it by finishing fifth and gaining automatic qualification.” For a club that has waited for so long to have a shot at continental glory, Mulenga sounds too modest.

“We lost a couple of games and drew a couple unnecessarily which pushed us back into the playoffs. Of course the fact that they (Utrecht) have tried it for three or four years and they are always out of the playoffs actually made qualifying really special,” he reminisces.

Already Mulenga is looking beyond the earned slot and hopes to help take his team to the group stages of the Europa Cup. Mulenga wants to count himself among the players to give Zambia a presence in Europe’s elite football quarters by finishing top next season.

In Mulenga’s mind, the Africa Cup was a turning point for the country. “I think with the Africa Cup going so well, European teams are more aware of Zambian football. It could mark a turning point for our game,” Mulenga says.

With regards to missing out on the World Cup Mulenga is not too worried, and looks forward to the next attempt. “I can’t say what effect it has had because Zambia has never been to the World Cup before.” He adds, “To me what is killing the game in Zambia is the infrastructure.”

The clock is ticking and it won’t be long before Mulenga is separated from his family once again and boards a plane back to Holland where communication will be reduced to phone calls and e-mails.

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