A long road in worn-out shoes

The refugee football team scoring success in Zambia.

A child on a bicycle passes by as a football team gather for training on a field in a refugee camp in Zambia
A young refugee boy on a bicycle rides past players from Meheba Academy FC [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]
A young refugee boy on a bicycle rides past players from Meheba Academy FC [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]

Meheba, Zambia – Gift Mukanya waits as Mr Fidel stitches a zig-zag path across the side of his orange football boot – part of the only pair the young striker owns.

At the shoe repairman’s outdoor stall in the main marketplace in Meheba refugee settlement in northwest Zambia, Gift eyes a pile of second-hand shoes for sale. But none of the cheap, plastic options available in the camp will do.

His refugee football team, Meheba Academy FC, has made it to Division One of Zambia’s provincial league. It has a major game against a top rival team in two days, so a hand-stitched repair job is the only choice the 24-year-old has.

Mr Fidel pushes his needle through the last line of black stitching, ties off a knot and hands the boot back. “10 kwacha ($0.40),” he says.

But Gift is running low on cash. Knowing the game is important, the vendor agrees to give it to him on credit. And if the team happens to win on Sunday, he won’t have to pay him back at all.

A football player wearing worn-out boots that have been patched together
Player Gift Mukanya managed to get his damaged football boot hand-stitched at the local market in Meheba  [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]

Gift carefully packs the boot away in a small, zipped pouch, his sock-clad feet in flip-flops. Beside him, also wearing football gear and slip-ons, is 25-year-old Nathan Mulimbi, Gift’s teammate, friend and nephew.

The two - one the team’s captain and a skilled defender, the other its highest-scoring striker - chuckle as they agree that football must be in their blood.

Nathan’s mom is the eldest of 12 children born to parents from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gift is her youngest sibling. Though years of conflict separated some of the family members from each other in the 1990s, by the mid-2000s they found themselves reunited in Meheba, but this time as refugees.

Gift and Nathan stroll through the narrow, sandy alleyways of the market - past small shops selling basics, trestle-table vendors and kiosks for mobile phone data. Metres away, the main gravel road passes the primary school football grounds that serve as Meheba Academy’s home field, the offices of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and Gift and Nathan’s homes.

The same road meanders out toward other parts of the settlement where some 40,000 people live. It’s a community that mirrors the team Gift and Nathan play for — mostly refugees, but also Zambians, living, working, surviving and playing together.

A marketplace in Meheba refugee settlement, Zambia
Some 40,000 people live in Meheba refugee settlement in Zambia's North-Western Province [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]
Some 40,000 people live in Meheba refugee settlement in Zambia's North-Western Province [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]

Meheba's emerging football revolution

Meheba is officially a refugee camp. But really it’s a vast, sprawling village the size of Singapore.

Opened in 1971, Meheba is spread over 720sq km (278sq miles) in the Kalumbila district of Zambia’s North-Western Province, and houses refugees from countries including the DRC, Angola, Rwanda, Somalia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Meheba is also home to around 8,000 Zambian nationals and 9,000 former refugees who now have temporary or permanent residency permits.

Mud brick houses with thatched or corrugated iron roofs separate open fields, farmland, a few schools and primary care clinics. Outdoor toilets and boreholes are the norm, and electricity comes from generators or solar power.

The camp is split into eight areas: Blocks A to H. Block D, where Meheba Academy is based, is the more developed administrative heart of the settlement, housing government offices, NGOs and the main marketplace.

While finding work is possible, Meheba is isolated from most commercial activity in the country, besides farming and mining, and for the jobs they can get, residents need expensive official documents before companies can hire refugees.

To make a living, most residents toil in the heat and rain, farming what they can on plots given to them by the government. Some also do “piece jobs” (casual work) at small shops on the outskirts of the settlement.

Leisure activities are scarce, with no real options for entertainment or nightlife. But in pockets around the settlement, there are usually people playing football.

Recently, that hobby has turned more serious with some Meheba teams making waves outside of the camp. The women’s team Meheba Queens FC are in Division Four of the Kalumbila district league; the men’s team Meheba Rangers FC are in Division Two of the provincial North-Western league; and Meheba Academy FC are in Division One of the same league, their eyes firmly on national success.

Football players on a field in a refugee camp in Zambia
Gift, left, trains with other players on the football pitch at Meheba D primary school [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]
Gift trains with other players on the football pitch at Meheba D primary school [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]

Fast like Mbappé

“We’re going to win on Sunday,” says Nathan, who became captain of Meheba Academy this year.

They are up against the league leaders, Mushindamo Bullets FC. But, says Nathan, “We trust ourselves.”

He praises his teammates, including Gift, whom friends call "Leo" after his favourite footballer Lionel Messi. “But really he has qualities of [French footballer Kylian] Mbappé, he is very fast,” Nathan says.

Gift is optimistic too. “We know we'll be facing a good team as well … but at the end of the day we'll show them that we have been in the game for some time.”

Since the team started in 2017, it has progressively made its way up the rankings. But it hasn’t been easy.

“We lack equipment, we lack balls, we lack boots, jerseys,” Nathan lists off. With no salaries for the coaches or players, no outside sponsorship, and a surrounding community of refugees who are already struggling to make ends meet, even the basics - like new football boots - are hard to get.

A football player gets ready for a match
A player puts on socks with holes in them before going to training. He keeps a better pair of socks for the match itself [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]

The UNHCR helped sponsor the team with a team kit. It gives them access to a bus that transports players to away games.

But even with the help, the team faces multiple challenges: When they travel for away games, they need money for food, for bottled water, for fuel for the bus, and for accommodation when they need to stay the night before a match. They return to Meheba directly after a game ends, even if the match is hours away, to cut expenses.

Home games are hard too. They have to fundraise to pay referees, and the dressing room is a semi-open space next to a row of classrooms at the local primary school.

“In terms of material and financial support, it's difficult. A lot of things are needed,” Meheba Academy's coach Peter Kakesi says. Seeing opposing players in better football kits or with bottles of mineral water, when they have to find a tap to rehydrate at half-time “becomes a psychological defeat” for players, he says.

Peter, who came to Meheba from DRC in 1993 when he was just four years old, grew up with the same reality. It’s what makes him want to do more for younger refugees today.

Football players train on a field in a refugee camp in Zambia
Nathan, right, Gift, left and their teammates attend daily training in Meheba [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]
Nathan and his teammates attend daily training in Meheba [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]

‘They have got the talent’

At an early morning training session two days before the big game, the players gather on the primary school football field, as pockets of younger boys huddle under trees and on towering anthills surrounding the pitch to watch them.

Coach Peter, a stocky 36-year-old in blue tracksuit bottoms and a black T-shirt, greets the players as they arrive. Also a priest, Peter shakes their hands, looks them in the eye and gathers them in a group. He tries to lighten the mood with jokes before the physical training. The first thing he does at the start of training is to “study the mood of players” to gauge whether they seem nervous, unsettled or upset, he explains.

On the day of training, Peter notices something off with one of his key strikers. He approaches him and learns that the player’s boss from his job working at a local store did not want him to attend training as often. The player was worried about keeping his job and yet didn’t want to let the team down.

Last season, during a game in the neighbouring city of Solwezi, Nathan remembers how Peter helped him after he got a red card for having a mid-match spat with the opposing side’s coach.

“He called me. He talked to me. Then from there, I cooled down,” Nathan says, commenting that Peter “takes us as one, as his brothers”.

Peter is realistic about the challenges his players face, as he went through many of them himself - starting as a young refugee with football potential who was awarded scholarships and made it all the way to football academies and coaching programmes in the capital, Lusaka. But he has also faced barriers and administrative hurdles that hindered his progress in working with a bigger team - including the 10,000 kwacha ($409) cost of a work and residence permit that he could not afford. Outside settlements like Meheba, refugees are also typically paid less than Zambians for the same job.

But since returning to Meheba, Peter has found a team he is committed to mentoring. At the same time, he also urges his two young sons to get involved in the game, the elder one of whom has secured a football scholarship to a school outside the camp.

“You see refugees, they have got the talent," Peter says. "If they are helped, if they are well sponsored, well cared for, they have got the talent to gain what they have lost in terms of sports.”

Football players train on a field in a refugee camp in Zambia
Loveness, the 19-year-old captain of Meheba Queens FC, trains to one day play in a 'great team' [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]
Loveness, the 19-year-old captain of Meheba Queens FC, trains to one day play in a 'great team' [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]

Girls united

A 30-minute drive down Meheba’s main gravel road and out of Block D eventually brings you to a small mud brick house in Block C where Loveness Kasolo, the 19-year-old captain of Meheba Queens FC, lives with her grandmother and three sisters.

Loveness wasn’t yet a teenager when violence in Katanga in the DRC claimed the lives of both her parents and she was forced to flee. With the help of a family friend who found her and her siblings and brought them to safety, they eventually made it to Meheba.

Sitting on the floor of her family’s dimly lit front room, a switched-off television behind her, Loveness remembers admiring women’s football teams she saw on TV. In 2021, she joined Meheba Queens.

“I just want to play in any great team in the world so that one day I will also be watched on the TV,” she says in Swahili.

Loveness holds her right knee, clearly in some pain.

During a game last year, an opponent tackled her, injuring her knee. Medics at a primary healthcare centre in the refugee camp only massaged it and gave her painkillers, she says. With no money for an x-ray or to visit doctors outside the settlement, the injury appears to have worsened.

Where she once played as the team’s playmaker — in the midfield, up front as a striker and racing back to defend - she’s now limited to being the goalkeeper for most games.

“Once the pain starts, I can't even stretch my leg,” Loveness says. “This injury is like something stopping my dream.”

But she’s determined to chase her passion. “After the injury, [my grandmother] stopped me from playing but I wasn't comfortable with that,” Loveness says. “So whenever there was a game I'd just sneak off and then go to play.”

Football players train on a field in a refugee camp in Zambia
Many players on the Meheba Queens team do not have football boots and train in flip-flops or bare feet [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]

A year later, Loveness is still leading the team. During a training session at the primary school football field where Meheba Queens play their home games, she runs laps ahead of the other players.

On the sidelines of the pitch, small groups of supporters - most of them younger girls watching the Queens in gentle awe - gather as they train. But where the men’s teams face resource constraints, the girls have even less.

Their football is borrowed, the team kits they wear don’t always match, and some of the players have no shoes at all - they run barefoot or in flip-flops across the patchy school ground.

Loveness isn’t blind to the challenges but says the team has a valuable, if intangible, asset.

“The thing which attracts me to this team is unity… we are united in case of any problem,” she says, remembering a time when they were stuck without transport and had to make their way to a match. Even without resources, “we contributed as a team and we managed to go”, Loveness says

“And we won the game.”

A young man holds a baby, standing next to women and a girl near a field in Zambia
Gift lifts his nephew Dylan while his mother Mbuyi Ntambwe, sister and niece, wait to go to church [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]
Gift lifts his nephew Dylan while his mother Mbuyi Ntambwe, sister and niece, wait to go to church [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]

‘It doesn’t pay’

Down the road from the football field where her son Gift plays, Mbuyi Ntambwe has a different view of the sport.

Born in DRC in 1958, she gave birth to nine children, including Nathan’s mom Mutonji. In 1993, rebels attacked the family’s home in Lubumbashi, beating Mbuyi’s husband until he was unconscious and killing two of their children.

After that they fled with the younger children, eventually making it over the border to Meheba where Gift was born in 1999.

Mutonji, who was married by then, stayed back in DRC for a decade more with her husband Emer and their children. But rising violence in the country eventually forced them to leave. So six of them, including a six-year-old Nathan, walked all the way from Lubumbashi to Meheba in 2004.

A family of refugees from the DRC stand outside their house in Meheba, Zambia
Nathan, left, his parents, siblings and baby nephew get ready to go to church on a Sunday morning. The family fled violence in the DRC in 2004 [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]

The continuing struggle from her family's displacement shapes Mbuyi’s approach to her son Gift’s love for football.

“It doesn’t pay,” she says, speaking in Swahili. Her husband died in 2018 and she has been responsible for running the household, taking care of her children who stay with her, as well as a grandchild and two unaccompanied minors she recently adopted because they had no one else.

Gift helps the family by working on their farm. He picks up other work including brickmaking, chalk-making and as an occasional interpreter working for NGOs in the camp. But to his mother, football is still a distraction.

Across the road from Mbuyi is Nathan’s parents’ house.

Speaking in French in his small living room, Emer recounts playing football in his youth; where his mother-in-law is suspicious, he sees potential.

“Football was not paying back then,” he says about his younger days in DRC, “but now players really get money. So if there's one or two players in the family who can get outside of the camp or into a good team, it will allow us to leave poverty.”

Two young men train using makeshift weights
Nathan watches Gift lift improvised 20kg weights made from paint cans filled with sand and cement [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]
Nathan watches Gift lift improvised 20kg weights made from paint cans filled with sand and cement [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]


The day before the game against Mushindamo Bullets, outside the small two-roomed dwelling Nathan lives in behind his parents house, he and Gift take turns spotting each other as they lift an improvised 20kg (44lb) deadlift.

The weight is really a pole flanked by two paint cans, filled with a set mixture of sand and cement on each end. The bench is made from an old drinks crate and scraps of wood, the jack from two improvised tree barks. Inside, Nathan has a heavier deadlift made from the metal rim of two truck tyres.

Every Tuesday, the team comes over to train and hang out, the players say.

Although the close-knit team is dominated by Congolese, the players are an African union of nationalities – Angolan, Rwandan, Somali, Mozambican and even local Zambians who live in the settlement.

Moses Kambango is one of them. The defender’s father works as a security guard in Meheba, so he grew up here. His teammates have nicknamed him "Mad Dog".

“When I'm in the field of play, I become crazy, I am like a mad dog, I don’t care who comes before me,” he says, laughing.

People gather in a marketplace in a refugee camp in Zambia
Nathan, Gift and other Meheba Academy players count the money they collected from supportive fans at the Meheba market [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]

Samuel Machayi, 20, who plays in the midfield and as a striker, is another Zambian on the team. His mother works in the settlement as a nurse. Like Moses, his closest friend, he says the team doesn’t see any distinction between refugees and Zambians.

Later that day, the players walk through the market to ask “well-wishers” for donations ahead of their big match. While they would like to get together for a meal before the game, the lack of funds means they cannot afford it without contributions.

But the team is popular in Block D, and many of the sellers at the market dole out some kwachas.

Nathan walks around with a book and pen, noting down names and amounts received, while Gift and the others approach vendors to make their case. By the time evening approaches, they’ve collected donations from more than a dozen people, ranging from 2 to 20 kwachas (under $1) - which will pay for their team meal the following day.

“For now, this is what we have,” Gift says.

A church priest and his colleagues in a refugee camp in Zambia
Peter Kakesi, right, greets a parishioner after preaching at the New Apostolic Church in Meheba [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]
Peter Kakesi greets a parishioner after preaching at the New Apostolic Church in Meheba [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]

Church to field

On the morning of the big game, Peter stands in front of a congregation in a black suit, tie and dress shoes. As a priest at the New Apostolic Church, he spends two days a week preaching to congregants.

Peter performs baptisms and communion and gives a rousing sermon before graciously greeting his parishioners.

As soon as the last one leaves, he rushes the 15-minute walk from the church to his small two-roomed house on the other side of the market.

Half a dozen pairs of running shoes are strewn across Peter’s corrugated iron roof. He grabs one pair, swaps it out with his dress shoes and changes into shorts and a T-shirt before rushing out again to meet the team.

A man and his wife stand in front of their mudbrick home in a refugee camp in Zambia
Coach Peter and his wife Mary in front of their house in Meheba settlement [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]

At a small restaurant on a side street in the market, the players are gathering. The donations from well-wishers the day before have paid for a meal of chicken, fish, offal, rice and nshima, a Southern African staple made from ground maize.

“Today is our day no matter the circumstances,” Didier, a player in a red T-shirt and white shorts exclaims. Just outside, Peter is doing a last test on the weight and circumference of the footballs they will use in the game, to make sure they are regulation compliant.

The coach explains his “counterattack system” to get Mushindamo Bullets on the backfoot. “We expect to score earlier,” he says, “Early goal, and then defence”, which means he is leaning heavily on his strikers like Gift, the players he fondly calls his “goal creators”.

After lunch, the team makes their way to the primary school. Peter gives them a last pep talk while the players put their blue-and-white kits on.

“No matter how much pressure it will be, don’t run away from your responsibilities,” Peter tells them.

Football players on a field in a refugee camp in Zambia
Nathan, right, tries to gain control of the ball during a match against Mushindamo Bullets [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]
Nathan, right, tries to gain control of the ball during a match against Mushindamo Bullets [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]

The most valuable fan

Gift’s feet are a flash of bright orange as he runs across the field in his stitched up football boots. Around him, several hundred spectators from across the settlement, and others from outside, have gathered.

On one side of the pitch, classroom benches from the school provide seating for the coaches and substitutes from both teams, while on the opposite side, a flatpack UN refugee shelter is decked out with chairs to accommodate visiting officials from the government and Zambia’s football association.

Nathan positions himself at midfield. Gift, a striker, stalks the wings, laser-focused on executing Peter’s strategy to get them an early advantage.

Mere minutes into play, he gets the ball, sprints past opposing players, shoots and scores.

Gift beams with pride as the crowd erupts into a roar of jubilation.

Less than 10 minutes later, Gift makes another attempt at the goal, and then twice more. He fails each time. Then, 10 minutes before halftime, the Mushindamo Bullets score, making it 1-1.

At half-time, Peter reassesses the strategy as the team regroups in a semicircle outside the mock changing room they used before the game. Around them, spectators hover, eager to soak up whatever they can of the game.

Suddenly, Gift breaks down, overwhelmed by a surge of emotion. Peter offers him a comforting embrace and the striker is soon ready to go back in.

In the second half, Gift comes out swinging, again scoring just minutes into play. Some fans run out onto the pitch to embrace him.

But the joy is short-lived: Mushindamo equalise two minutes later.

Play continues with both sides jostling for the ball and the favour of the referees. But the match ends in a 2-2 draw.

Football players on a field in a refugee camp in Zambia
The Meheba Academy FC team poses ahead of their game against Mushindamo Bullets. The team includes refugees from the DRC, Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Somalia as well as some local Zambians who live in the settlement [Hélène Caux/UNHCR]

After the opposing team leaves and the crowd has mostly cleared, Peter gathers with the team at the edge of the field.

He admits he’s disappointed by the outcome but is still glad that a draw gives them one point, taking them closer to their goal of moving up the league tables.

“My boys were confident, they were speedy, they had good technique,” Peter says.

“We were playing the league leaders, so it was hard. But fortunately, we did our best,” Nathan says.

“I gave it everything I could,” Gift says. He pulls a 20 kwacha note out of his right sock, saying some excited fans have even given him money in appreciation of the goals.

But the fan he’s most grateful for is one he wasn’t expecting: his mom.

“This was actually her first game coming to watch me. I just saw people telling her, ‘Oh, your son is very good.’” He hopes it might help her soften her stance towards him playing, even if it hasn’t earned him money yet.

As for his boots, “they’ve kept up,” Gift smiles, looking down at the scuffed and muddy pair still being held together by stitches from Mr Fidel.

“If we can be among the best with worn-out jerseys and boots,” the striker says, “just imagine what we could do with more.”

This article was produced with the support of UNHCR.

Source: Al Jazeera