JACK ZIMBA, Chipata
ROGER Federer may be ranked number two on the world tennis rankings, but he surely earned himself first place in the hearts of the little children in the rural parts of Eastern Province.
The tennis star, who is regarded as the best player of all time, was in the country to visit some projects sponsored by his charity, the Roger Federer Foundation.
His trip took him to Lundazi and Chipata.
In Chipata, Mr Federer travelled to Chief Kapatamoyo’s area, where he opened a community school called Kamulaseni.
The school was built with help from his foundation by an organisation called People’s Action Forum (PAF).
With help from the Roger Federer Foundation, PAF is reaching out to about 28,000 children in 41 community schools in the seven rural districts.
One of the objectives of PAF is to improve girls’ retention in school.
After a short but bumpy ride on a dirt road, the Swiss star was welcomed at the school by a horde of pupils – the little ones dressed in coffee-brown uniforms while the older pupils wore blue uniforms.
The tennis star straightaway went into play with the pupils.
Mr Federer clearly does not like officialdom and he made little, if any, official statements about the charity projects. Instead, he interacted more with children.
He engaged in child play with the little Grade One pupils, making a hand pyramid as they all placed their tiny hands into his palm, his beaming face swamped with awe-struck little faces.
Then in one classroom, where he met some more little boys and girls, he hopped around the room on one leg, with the little ones in toll, pretending to be crossing a crocodile-infested river.
But the older grade six pupils wanted to show Mr Federer something more serious – a traditional dance.
In a nearby open field, the girls danced citelele in a circle, clapping and singing.
Mr Federer seemed to relish the moment and he tried to wriggle his waist like they did. But his frolicsome dance only made the older girls giggle and laugh at the sight.
“It’s good to feel uncomfortable sometimes and today I made myself feel uncomfortable. Life is not always easy, you know,” he would later say about his terrible dancing.
After the dance, Mr Federer half-trotted to a netball ground where he played netball with the girls using a ball made out of plastics, popularly known as ichimpombwa.
“This is like warm-up for me before a game,” he said.
It was here that he also met a girl called Tangu Zulu, who is in Grade Six.
Tangu looked like any other teenage girl, but her story was different, one that interested Mr Federer.
At 14, Tangu is nursing a six-month-old baby. She had dropped out of school over a year ago after falling pregnant, but is now back, pursuing her dream to become a teacher.
Tangu’s older sister, Chaiwe, had recently eloped with a boy, but she, too, is back in school.
Mr Federer wanted to meet the girls’ parents, and so after playing netball, he walked about a kilometre to an isolated homestead, stopping over briefly at a well where a woman was drawing water, just to fulfil his curiosity, I guess.
He then spent about 20 minutes interacting privately with the family.
Mr Federer told me about his desire to connect with the children he helps and try to understand their situations and so sometimes he chooses to meet privately, away from cameras.
“That was a very important and intimate moment for me to try and grasp at least something of what they are going through – where they are sleeping, how they are going to school,” he said about the visit to Tangu’s home.
Back at the school, the atmosphere had turned festive. Chief Kapatamoyo had arrived, accompanied by his impis.
Women were preparing food in big pots in the open air.
After opening the school, Mr Federer was accorded the honour of a Ngoni warrior by Chief Kapatamoyo, who gave the king of tennis a shield and headgear made of animal skin.
The tennis star was then escorted to a tennis court by the impis singing and stomping their feet.
A bush near the school had been hurriedly cleared and lines drawn on rough and dusty surface with a sagging net hung in the middle. This is where the tennis star was to demonstrate his tennis skills.
Mr Federer hit the ball a few times watched by 200 or more people who had gathered for the school-opening ceremony, including the pupils.
If anyone in this crowd ever gets the chance, the next time they will be able to see this star again will be at the famous Wimbledon Stadium in London, sometime in July, when he will be defending his title against some big names in the game such as Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic.
At Wimbledon, he will be watched by 39,000 cheering spectators and millions more on TV across the globe.
Yet here he appeared so ordinary, a little-known figure to many of them.
That many people in this rural place had hardly heard about him until now did not really matter to Mr Federer.
In fact, in a soccer-crazy country, a number of the young boys wearing worn out replica jerseys of football icons – Ronaldo, Iniesta and Messi came to meet the tennis champion.
“In a way I’m happy they don’t know me, but at the same time it’s for me incredible that they don’t know the sport of tennis, which is hundred something years old,” he said.
One thing seems true of Mr Federer, he does not like to make a big show of his stardom or charity.
He is reported to have rejected VIP treatment and transport, including a V8 4X4 vehicle to use during his tour, opting instead for ordinary vehicles. And so he hopped on any vehicle available during the tour – it did not really matter.
And as he flew from the great mountains of Eastern Province back to the Swiss Alps, Mr Federer seemed pleased with the impact his foundation has made so far.
“So many great things have happened on this trip,” he told me.
But opening the school seemed more special to him.
“Opening the school was great. It excites me that I have the power or the chance or luck, I guess, to open a school like this through playing tennis. That is something I will carry back home,” he said.
“Seeing that the help is going where it is supposed to go, I think that is our greatest concern otherwise it is a waste of time. So going into the field and seeing that there is a change and a positive impact in the communities is the best feeling,” he added with a broad smile.
That one thing – his smile that is – he managed to maintain throughout his trip, which also sold him away to selfie-hunters.
In the lobby of the Protea Hotel in Chipata, they came one after another.
JACK ZIMBA, Chipata