City of Johannesburg fire fighter canoes his way to success
For many rural communities, the river serves as a source of life-giving waters with multiple streams of functions. It is what locals turn to for the sustenance of their livestock, to keep clean and for many children, a source of entertainment, for them to live with reckless abandon. It is through self-expression in this unrestrained environment that a young village boy acquired an affinity for canoeing, a sport that rarely makes its way to lesser-affluent communities.
Nzolo Nkosi, a 32-year-old born in rural Mkhambathini outside Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), South Africa, was introduced to the sport at the age of 12. “I did canoeing from school when someone introduced it as a sport in the valley back home. The valley is called the Valley of a Thousand Hills.” The valley hosts one of the country’s biggest canoeing events, the Dusi Canoe Marathon, which is where it all started for him.
Nkosi never looked back and seized every opportunity to be inside a canoe, rowing back and forth the valleys of the capital of KZN, Pietermaritzburg. His passion, love and dedication earned him a spot in the South African junior national canoeing team at the age of 17, contending in his first international competition in Senegal. There, he managed to get himself two gold medals and two silver medals in 2005, just before he moved to Johannesburg.
“I came to Johannesburg in 2006 when I was 18 to look for greener pastures. I was initially here to visit my friend, who also canoed. I lived with him and that’s when I decided that I am not going back to KwaZulu-Natal. This was because I couldn’t go to university, my parents were not working. It was clear to me that there was no way that I was going to study,” Nkosi says. When he moved to Johannesburg, he battled at the beginning. It was never going to be easy in the City of Gold.
As he was already involved in the sport, he would frequently visit the Dabulamanzi Canoe Club at Emmarentia Dam, in the north of the city. He would borrow a boat to paddle around and people began to notice him and would ask about him. That’s how he bagged his first job as a gardener. One of the canoeists at the club, Jacques Theron, eventually gave Nkosi the job after enquiring about him. Theron told Nkosi he had to start somewhere to get somewhere and gave him a place to stay. However, he had to pay rent.
He left the friend’s house to start a life of his own in Johannesburg. He worked hard to stay afloat. “I was using the money that I earned to pay rent and put food on my table, that’s when I was pushing harder in my canoeing, making sure I win some cash at events. It was about R200 an event. Winning every weekend could tie me over for the month so I had to make sure I train and work hard to win and eat,” he says.
Nkosi was approached by another canoeist, Brad Fischer, this time, offering him a job as a driver. Thinking it would be easy, he started saving more from his canoe winnings for a driver’s licence. He received his license and the job was his. “I chose Nkosi because of his enthusiasm, discipline, his drive and his concern for the younger guys and his team mates. He stood out,” says Fischer.
Nkosi recalls his first day on the job. “The following morning, I went dressed in my nice clean clothes, they were not fancy. My job was to deliver documents to clients. I was given a few envelopes and a map book. It was the first time seeing a map book. I had six documents that day, I only delivered one and it took me the whole day because I couldn’t use that book. I had to study the book that night and later things got easier and I earned R20 an hour.” That was more money and he still kept the garden job. He also trained at the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club. At this point, he had three incomes, which wasn’t much combined but it was better than what he had initially.
With his savings, he went on to train as a basic ambulance assistant in 2007 after seeing that there were a lot of injuries in the sport.
In 2008, another canoeist approached him and offered him a job at a retail store; he quit within 10 months because his love for aquatic activities was diminishing. Fortunately, he got an offer from Fischer to manage the canoe club in Soweto. The previous manager had left the watercourses for another job.
Due to the persistence of his employer encouraging him to forge his own path, Nkosi saw a fire engine and pursued being a fire fighter. By this time, Nkosi had qualified to move to the senior category in his professional canoeing career. “It was tougher there but because of my hard work, I made the Gauteng team and eventually, the senior national team. We went to the African Championships in Ivory Coast in 2009, there I got two silver medals. By that time, I was already a coach of the Soweto team,” he says.
The same year, he registered for basic training which was for four months; he had more money saved because of the multiple incomes. He then volunteered at the Rosebank Fire Station. Shortly, Nkosi was a full-time fire fighter for the City of Johannesburg. “When I started working at the station as a full-time fire fighter, I saw the club was going down and losing members. I thought to myself, ‘there’s something missing’. When I came to Johannesburg, I got help from a canoeist, my career started with these guys, the sport worked as a stepping stone for me to be a full-time fire fighter,” he says.
“So on my off days, I would go and put my energy at the club and make a change in other people’s lives. Four days at work and four days with the club. “I teach kids how to swim, how to canoe and take them to racing, as well as, assist with school work, this is how I relax when I’m off work. I am giving back because this is the sport that changed my life and I want it to be a part of changing other people’s lives.”
Tinyiko Nahwayi is a mother of three children who are part of the club in Soweto. She is proud of her children, seeing their grades improving at school and participating in the sport. “The kids are in the house, if not, they are at gym or at school. We also get food parcels for each child. I’d like to thank Nkosi. These kids are like this because of him. He has time for them, he can communicate with them and treats them the same. He always inspires the kids,” says Nahwayi.
Back when Nkosi started canoeing, he says KZN was the only team that had most black players compared to the rest of the teams in South Africa. Today, there is an increased number of black people who participate at a national level. Nkosi says, internationally, the sport does not receive much support. For a majority of black people, it is not easy self-funding the sport. The organisation Canoeing South Africa covers a certain percentage but the individual has to cover the rest. That is why you find black people targeting mostly only the events taking place in South Africa, he says.
The Dusi Canoe Marathon, which runs for about 120kms from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, has three stages and has a grand prize of R40 000. That is one of the biggest prize monies won in South Africa. If one wants to prepare for and win the marathon, they will be spending more than the R40 000 to prepare. The funding goes towards buying the best equipment by those who can afford it. A canoe costs between R16 000 and R30 000.
Besides canoeing, Nkosi is a runner because in the line of duty, his body needs to be fit, hence exercise is important. He also cycles for charity, raising funds for the underprivileged.
The fire fighting canoeist still competes and is studying fire technology. “My goal is not to go and win a gold medal; with the silver medals I’m happy. The win that I want is the win that is won by someone I taught to swim and canoe; to see a young kid from an underprivileged background having a smile on his/her face, happily jumping and claiming that win, getting gold and finishing a race. Seeing them smile makes me happy, that’s good enough for me, it’s not about the money,” Nkosi says.
Source: Forbes Africa