IN 1995 I left home for the wintry climes of Sweden on national duty. I was on a teacher exchange programme representing Zimbabwe through the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) and an organisation called AFS.
I left a very preg_nant wife only after having postponed the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to wed the love of my life the previous year. My then headmaster (who will remain nameless) even dared question how I deserved the honour of representing the country. Sour grapes perhaps, but as they say, they couldn’t keep a good man down.
I was first posted to the southern coastal city of Malmö, in the plains of Skåne County. This is where the name Scania comes from. My host family was in Staffanstorp, a small commune outside the city, near the university town of Lund.
My host “parents” Ulf and Agneta Nilsson, a trade unionist, were good people. Ulf was my colleague at Pildammskolan, a place of Swedish education history that was later pulled down to make way for the magnificent Øresund Bridge across the strait between Sweden and Denmark.
I could regale you with endless tales of my adventures while there, but none has really recaptured my “Themba comes to Europe” experience than the day my bicycle was stolen. You could ask, what’s so special about getting one’s bike stolen? Not until you hear the interesting twist in this seemingly bland story.
Apart from being a historically significant city, Malmö happens to be a favourite destination for migrants from all those conflict-ridden countries of the world. Sweden has always had very liberal policies, opening its borders and world-class social welfare system to all manner of refugees.
The school where I taught was a cosmopolitan mish-mash of world cultures from those of East European, Middle Eastern to African and Latin American origin. It became the very fabric of Pildammskolan and the pride of the refugee rehabilitation experiment that the government was so eager to showcase.
Many of the students at the school came from a notorious part of the city called Rosengård. This was, and still is the ghetto where most immigrants find themselves settled after going through a rigorous vetting process. It’s a very rough neighbourhood to grow up in.
Rosengård, interestingly, was once the home of one Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Unless you live under a big rock, you should know that Zlatan is a football superstar who plays for Manchester United and now earns millions. He was born in 1981 to a Croatian mother and Bosnian father and started playing football at age six.
I started hearing about Zlatan when I was teaching in Malmö. He must have been 15 then but was already making waves in the junior teams of Malmo FF, the team I supported by default. Malmo lost every other game but still made it into the Europa League. So we watched them play a couple of international teams.
I also wondered what the fuss about Zlatan was. Back home in Zimbabwe, we had youngsters who emerged from the juniors to become world stars like Peter Ndlovu. But what seemed particularly special about this boy to the Swedes was that he was emerging from a community in a wretched neighbourhood.
In other words, against all odds, something good could come out of this particular infamous ghetto of Rosengård. It showcased how sport could be successfully used to help integrate immigrants into mainstream Swedish society.
Perhaps you are still not getting me. You see, of all the places I could visit, my Swedish hosts made sure Rosengård was not among them. They did not want to be held responsible for whatever they imagined would happen to me while there.
They even called it “Pakistan,” a very derogatory local word used when referring to immigrants. It must have been lost on them that I was also a potential “Pakistani” as if that would deter me from wandering over there.
But we all know the saying, that while you can take the person out of the ghetto, but you cannot get the ghetto out of him. I naturally gravitated towards Rosengård because that is where most Africans lived.
You see, I got very lonely and homesick, and for someone from the mother continent, one got tired of being surrounded by white folk all the time. I did not want to sound ungrateful to my hosts, who did all they could to take me instead to Lund. The stiff, nerdy, university types they preferred me to mix with, really put me off.
I wanted the rough, tough and tumble that the Swedish ghetto offered with all the rich aroma of real home cooking and the tales my homeboys and students from Ghana, Gambia and Nigeria shared. Their stories were nothing short of captivating, of how they crossed several African and European seas and borders to get to their version of Utopia after tearing their passports to pieces to become stateless.
Back to my hosts — I was offered a bicycle that I could use to ride around the neighbourhood of Staffanstorp, and perhaps do a bit of exercise. I would use it to ride to the bus stop where I would secure it when I took my multi stop trip to Pidammskolan, in Malmö city where I taught.
I had to catch two buses plus a train to get there. I would then collect the bicycle at the end of the day and ride back home. Yes, I always found it where I had left it along with those belonging to commuters like myself. I marvelled at this sense of security until one fateful day.
I was late for the bus, which was always on the dot so typical of all forms of transport in the first world. One minute late and you miss that bus and all the subsequent connections.
I quickly jumped off the bike and did not lock it. I simply did not have the time otherwise the bus would leave me behind. What would happen to it, I said. Famous last words.
Well, as fate would have it, I found it missing when I got back in the evening. I was well beyond exasperated. It was my hosts’ most prized bicycle and they had offered it to me in confidence! We reported the theft to the police and they said that chances of its recovery were slim to none.
Our bicycle, along with many others stolen in Staffanstorp that day, could well be on their way to Eastern Europe in containers where there was a ready market. It was bye-bye bhayisikili for me and understandably, my hosts did not risk replacing the stolen one. It had to be the footron for me from then on!
So here comes the link. I recently came across a story that said that when Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a boy, he had a bike that meant the world to him. The bike got stolen, so Zlatan started stealing bikes himself. A form of revenge perhaps.
“Where his teammates lived in villas and were driven to training in Volvos, Zlatan lived in a block in Rosengård and cycled on stolen bikes,” the report said.
Apart from a few other foreigners, Malmö FF’s youth side were mostly made up of middle and upper-class Swedish kids, though of course for a kid from the ghetto the difference between the two was negligible. They passed, he dribbled. They played, he fought and stole bikes.
This is a revelation that shook me back to the agony I suffered watching my Swedish hosts remonstrating at how careless I was in losing their precious bike to petty immigrant thieves. Zlatan must have been 14 or 15 at the time and was stealing bikes by his own admission.
So, could it have been possible — though the argument could prove tenuous to prove — that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Manchester United multi-million-pound football superstar, could have been the one who stole my bike in 1995? Go figure.