The bus screeched to a stop. But it was not yet Road Port, its final destination. It was at Meikles Hotel, right at the heart of Harare city. The Zimbabwean artist’s music blared loudly from the bus radio, as passengers disembarked from the bus. I was told the artist’s name is Jah-Prayzah. His music had kept us entertained for the entire day-long trip. Though his genre of music was a bit different from that of the great Oliver Mtukudzi, I thought Jah-Prayzah was also of international class.
As disembarking passengers scratched me with their fat bags, I thought about the things the country had been through over the past decade or so. From the inflation, to the tension that led to the resignation of Comrade Robert Mugabe. There was now a dollar bond as their currency in circulation. It was amazing that despite the hard times, chess talent still thrived and grew around here.
Now my attention was diverted. The lady I was sitting next to was also getting out of the bus. Her name was Queen. Though she appeared a little confused when I asked her if she knew Tatenda Zengeni or any of the Zimbabwean chess players, I found her friendly and jovial. Like a school girl, she enthusiastically waved at me as she went out of the bus. As for me, waiting, even until morning, was the most practical thing as it was already 11 PM.
Suddenly I heard somebody call my name “Khisho! Khisho!” I thought I had imagined it until it sounded closer and closer.
“Yes Sir, I am Khisho”, I responded to the man who was calling. He started laughing and said: “So it’s you Khisho ?”
Though he looked different from the pictures I saw of him on social media, I responded by saying: “I presume you are Victor Chimbamu”. He laughed again as he said, “Yes, Victor himself …welcome to Harare”, as he helped me with my bag.
“From here we will board a combo”, he said as we stepped out of the bus. But I was later to understand he meant a minibus. Being New Year’s Eve, we passed through a well adorned Harare City, sparkling with decoration lights.
As we walked, he kept saying: ‘’Khisho the great writer is finally here”, as I kept complimenting the beauty of the city, of course interrupted by occasional, but timely Victor’s utterance of the word: “mind! “, whenever we crossed the busy city roads.
“But I am dog tired, I need to rest. How far is your home?” I asked him as we boarded a minibus
“Roughly 45 minutes “he said.
“What? That’s a whole distance from Blantyre to Zomba “, I complained as if I knew he knew the two Malawian cities.
“It could even be less than that”, he said obviously to comfort me.
In no time we were at the Chimbamu residence in Under WaterFalls, where I was treated to a succulent meal before retiring to bed.
The next morning, getting to the tournament venue, we were welcomed by a group of junior players sitting at the entrance of the Cause Way Building. We waved at them as we entered the building. The Arbitration team was already setting up the boards. Chimbamu gestured at one of the arbiters.
“Meet Murimi, he is our first International Arbiter”, said Victor as he patted my shoulder. “And this is Khisho, Africa Chess Media journalist”, sounding like he’s introducing some WWE heavy weight.
“I think I know Murimi, I read about him in one of your articles on Africa Chess media”, I told him as we shook hands.
It was great to see how hard the arbitration team was working, making sure things were in order. They all seemed to be chasing after time. As chess players entered the room one by one, they briefly looked at me, perhaps wondering which section B player is this.
As the room became filled with scores of chess players, I understood what they mean when they say, “we had people working behind the scenes”. Arbiters, including ladies Fungi Mushaninga and our own Margret were doing a great job.
To pass some time, I chatted with some lady who told me her occupation is farming. She asked if she could blitz with me. We played as we waited for the arbiters to finalize their things. Then another lady joined in, basically to watch us play. I later learnt her profession was a policewoman. I was impressed that people of diverse professions were taking up the game in Zimbabwe.
The chief Arbiter called the fourth round to be underway. Home boy, Thabo Elisha was on board one against International Master Gillian Bwalya of Zambia. It was a well-balanced game, but Elisha was using an extra psychological ammunition. He occasionally stood up from his chair to intimidate his Zambian opponent by standing behind his back, a weapon often used by Razorblade in my home country. In my heart I was like: “He must have shared notes with Razorblade”.
Walking around the playing hall taking pictures, it was also great to see young players wrestling it out on the chess board. One particularly caught my eye in the ladies section, a 13 year old girl WFM Hazel Mudonda . She confidently threw the pieces forward into battle as she played the senior players, embarrassing some of them with beautiful checkmates.
I was like, “this girl should play our girls back home.” It was clear the birth of chess schools like Young Masters and Knights Chess Academy was improving the complexion of chess in Zimbabwe.
The only one I knew in the ladies section, Tatenda Zengeni could only recognize me after she had played her 17th move (I checked her recording sheet). I had taken a close up picture of her. She looked at me to see the face of the new photojournalist, only to wear a surprised face. She thought I was joking when I told her that I was coming.
On board 2 Botswana’s IM Providence Oatlhotse was in a locked game with Tapiwa Jele of Zimbabwe. The infiltration of international players had clearly spiced up the event. Godwin Phiri, Clement Mayimbo, Thomas Zulu and the Komodo Timothy Kabwe were some of the international players that had invaded the event.
“There is transference of skill through these international interactions”, the Vice president of Zimbabwe Chess Federation Clive Mphabela, a vibrant intelligent guy, who is also an ardent practitioner of the Japanese martial arts had earlier pointed out in a casual conversation. There were Zambians, Batswana and Swaziland players battling it out in the playing hall. Even the numbers were very impressive. There were over 200 bent heads in the playing hall, including the under 10 players, who were playing in their own section.
Things were also happening in the Madala’s section where Shorai Ropi, Prince Dapetha , Ronald Makombolero were dictating things. Though most of the games in the section were a comedy of errors but all seemed to be enjoying the day.
As I walked through the playing hall, suddenly I heard a booming voice: “Those that are done with their games please, go out”, it was Elton Hangarayi. I at first thought he was using a microphone until I turned and saw that it was his natural voice. Looking at him closer, I remembered I had met him in Baku 2 years earlier, a guy dedicated to chess, a great asset to the Zimbabwe chess fraternity.
Most of the games were over, so I went outside to interact with the players
There outside I met Ruvarushe Moyo, a towering young police officer whose wife, also a police officer, was also participating in the same tournament
I also met Gift Bwalya of Zambia. He was happy to see me. Our friendship dates back from the 2015 Zone 4.3 in, Blantyre Malawi. As he put it, he was neither playing nor arbitrating, so I thought he was there to cheer lead the Zambian team.
“Hey Khisho take a picture of me with Caesar Masuku here”, he shouted and continued.
“This is Mr Masuku, a chess promoter in Zimbabwe”. We exchanged pleasantries with Caesar. He told me about Afri Steel and how they are promoting chess in Zimbabwe. However, Masuku refused to be equated with the Malawian chess sponsor Tiwone Mdina…” No I’m only a promoter”, he said. But he impressed me when he talked of sponsoring online chess tournaments.
Then there came a pretty girl, Kudzanayi Charinda. Though I’ve ever written something about her in one of my articles, I was meeting her for the first time. I was baffled not only by her beauty, but also her combination of being a lawyer and a chess player at the same.
Then Ruvarushe Moyo introduced me to Vitalis Mapuranga. He said “Vitalis, this is Khisho”. Vitalis took a quick look at me and started laughing uncontrollably. “Khisho the joker!”, he shouted, creating a buzz of interest among the people around. “So Vitalis is a small guy. I thought he is a giant”, I retaliated. I was impressed that young men like Vitalis were ubiquitous in Zimbabwe chess. It was clear they had a well set up program that would woe the college boys into chess.
A few more guys, including Zambian Clement Mayimbo, Kudakwashe Zinbowa, Prosper Machengo recognized me for the Sunday Inspiration. I was humbled about how the inspirations were popular among chess players in Zimbabwe.
The next day was a free day, no games. So I spent much of time in the streets of Harare before retiring to Lion King, the Harare chess center. After touring the city with Ruvarushe Moyo and Victor, we went back to Lion King. Basically people were blitzing and chatting over the game of chess.
One Dr JB, as he called himself, said he was only there to chat with the chess players.
“I only enjoy associating with chess players, their company makes me relax well, he kept saying. In general it was great that the city had a good chess center where players gather for some chess. The “sadza” there was also good.
Another interesting thing at lion King. One guy, probably a college student, came to me and said:
“Hi Khisho , on Lichess I am Jessel, you should definitely know me”. The name quickly rang bells. I had been his casualty in several Lichess events. It was cool that I was meeting him in person. I thought to myself that Lichess and other online chess sites have helped to make the chess world one.
For the next day, it was a three horse race between Gillian Bwalya, Spenser Masango , and Providence Oatlhotse
In the end it was I a tie at the top between Gillian Bwalya and Providence Oatlhotse, but the Bucholz tie breaking system favoured Bwalya, while in the ladies category it was 13 year old WFM Hazel Mudonda who carried the day followed by Zimbabwe’s International Tatenda Zengeni.
Next morning I started off back to Malawi with the impression that chess in Zimbabwe is alive and well.