Chris relates a story about an alumni of Mtuba Football Academy, one of Woza Soccer's international partner programs. If you're interested in experiencing MFA and Zululand soccer culture for yourself, consider joining Woza's 2017 South Africa Leadership Course.

I have never met Mvumeleni Mathenjwa, but I've heard a great deal about him from many people I know in his hometown of Mtubatuba, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it speck on the map in South Africa's rural Zululand region. Out there he's a bit of a local hero after rising from a tiny, local soccer academy to the upper echelons of one of the most prestigious high schools in South Africa.

In so many ways Mvumeleni's story, a small piece of which I'm about to share with you, is representative of the programs Woza seeks out as partners around the world and the impact those partners have on real lives.

Back in 2010, I lived in Mtubatuba - a dusty little town known, if at all, for its sugar cane refinery - for nearly a year while working for Grassroot Soccer (GRS), an NGO that leverages soccer to help disadvantaged communities. My job with GRS required me to work with local soccer coaches and eventually brought me into contact with someone who I heard could be a key relationship, a real "soccer godfather" of Zululand. This Futbol Don Corleone was named Sheldon Hughes and he ran a soccer academy in town called Mtuba Football Academy (MFA).

What has always impressed me the most about Sheldon's program is not the talent on display (of which there is much) but rather the incredibly positive role MFA plays in the lives of its players.

That's where Mvumeleni, the subject of this post, comes in.

Mvumeleni Mathenjwa comes, in Sheldon's words, from "deep, deep in the bush," referring to the most rural areas outside of already-rural Mtubatuba. "Out there, the people are really poor. No streets, no lights...he would have gone and fetched water from the well." When Mvumeleni showed up for his first day of Mtuba Football Academy as a scraggly 8-year old village kid, Sheldon quickly saw his potential. Over his years at the academy Mvumeleni turned into a very special player. Zululand's soccer godfather doesn't mince words when talking shop about the sport he loves and, in his typical way, keeps it simple when assessing Mvumeleni's career at MFA: "Very big. Very strong. Very aggressive. Excellent player."

It wasn't just the soccer skill, though.

"He was a kind, very lovable type of a kid," says Sheldon. "Yes, he was a hungry player, but he was hungry to succeed in other parts of his life." MFA offered a structure that its players yearned for. With many of its members coming from very poor backgrounds, Sheldon, his corps of volunteer coaches and MFA in general became a source of all kinds of support: access to a sport they loved, clothes, school tuition, and life skills (when not regaling the boys with his performance assessment of either them or his beloved Arsenal over the weekend, Sheldon loves to open academy training sessions with a parable about living a respectable life).

Mvumeleni grew up in this environment of support through soccer, playing his way up through MFA's age categories and eventually captaining several of the academy's top teams. As Sheldon recently told me: "Mvumeleni maintained the best - I'm telling you, best - attendance records in academy history." It's worth noting here that Sheldon meticulously tracks the 200 MFA players' attendance record not only for academy training sessions but also for school attendance and grades, which he follows with an overprotective-mother-like tenacity throughout the school year. When checking in on Mvumeleni, Sheldon heard only good things; he was an academic standout, achieving some of the highest marks in the region.

This success on and off the soccer field attracted the attention of Durban High School, one of the most prestigious secondary schools in South Africa. DHS offered Mvumeleni a full scholarship to attend their campus in Durban, the big coastal city lurking just a two-hour drive away from tiny Mtubatuba.

Undaunted, Mvumeleni has been extremely successful in Durban - continuing his progress in the (now much nicer) classrooms and (now much flatter) sports fields of his new home. This school year (which starts in January in South Africa), Mvumeleni's senior or "matric" year of high school, he was named the "Head Boy" of DHS - the equivalent of student body president and the highest honor a single student leader can receive. It was a huge moment for the skinny Zulu village kid from way up north.

Sheldon put it this way: "He basically came from nothing. MFA molded him into the type of person that could get a scholarship like that and then succeed at that school."

There are incredible organizations all over the world using soccer for social impact - from large international NGOs like Grassroot Soccer all the way down to smaller programs like Mtuba Football Academy. Although Mvumeleni has never been a direct participant in Woza trips to Mtubatuba (he moved to Durban before our first trip arrived in 2014), his story is an example of the impact that Woza can have on all types of partners, all over the world. Our trips bring much-needed awareness, equipment and funding to deserving programs like MFA that don't always attract donors and support.

Since Day 1, our goal with Woza has always been to make sure all of our partners around the world continue to operate, grow and positively impact local communities. Mvumeleni Mathenjwa's story is a great reminder of just how powerful that impact can be.

To see MFA's soccer culture for yourself, join Woza on our 2017 South Africa Leadership Course.

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Woza offered financially accessible international summer service trips for high school and college soccer players, using the game to create connections across cultures and support Sport for Development and Peace organizations around the world. With soccer, service work, and cultural immersion at the heart of each itinerary, we strove to broaden the perspectives of players by demonstrating their abilities to connect with people of all backgrounds and engage long term in soccer-focused social impact. 

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