Depression among young South African males is not often spoken about, allowing stigmas around it to grow. Buntu Mbumjana shares his struggle with us. #VoicesOfYouth #YChallenge#30StoriesIn30Days WeCan24
Buntu (25) grew up between Johannesburg and the Eastern Cape where he was raised mostly by his mom’s cousin.
“Shortly after I was born, my mother moved to Johannesburg to find work and her cousin took me in. I loved living there because I had many brothers. They were my cousins but I saw them as my brothers. We were five boys and we did everything together.”
Buntu says playing soccer was one of their favourite things to do. “We never had money for a ball, there were no fancy grass fields, but we played non-stop. We would use big thick plastic bags that oranges are packaged in and make our own balls. It worked really well, we took the bags, scrunched them together and wrapped string around them to keep the shape of a ball. We always made a plan to play our favourite sport.”
Even though Buntu’s relationship with his brothers was a great one, he says that together they began making some bad choices at a very young age.
“I would be called naughty all the time and told I couldn’t follow rules. One of my brothers, who was 13 years older than me, drank a lot. I was influenced by him, he was the oldest male in the house and I looked up to him. So I began to want to drink too.”
Buntu says that he was about eight years old when he began drinking.
“We would steal money from home and buy beers at a big shop in town, saying that the alcohol was for our uncle. We would drink, hide and sleep outside because we smelled of alcohol so couldn’t go home.
“My aunt was strict, so when she found us she would beat us. But, it never changed my behaviour. I enjoyed doing what I was doing. So she sent me to stay with my mom in Johannesburg. I didn’t mind going because she was less strict than my aunt. However, I would get bored and really missed my brothers. My mom would talk to me about my behaviour, she would say that my aunt loved me and that I must respect her. I went back to Eastern Cape a few weeks later. I heeded the words of my mother, changed my behaviour and focused my attention on soccer.”
For Buntu, this return to the Eastern Cape began his journey into the world of professional soccer at the tender age of nine.
“There was a soccer club in the village, Lutateni Location, where boys who were five to ten years older than me would play. They would see all of us playing on the road but only ask me and my brother to come play with them. They said we had potential.
“My love for soccer grew from there, I believed that I could make it and play for the club. Not only because of the compliments I was getting but because of the support my family was giving me. My aunt would save money and buy soccer boots for me and my brother. As a family we would always watch soccer on TV. When other kids watched cartoons, I watched soccer. I remember my brother and I going to bed and praying that God grant us the grace to become professional soccer players.
“I played soccer at primary school and we would play through the South African Schools Football Association (SASFA) who arranged our matches. This continued until I turned 14 (Grade 9) and I began playing club soccer.
“The minute I stepped onto the field I felt like I was in another world. I can’t explain the energy I got; I felt untouchable. I was invited to stay in the hostel at high school because the school wanted me to be able to practice without having to travel long distances. It felt good, I was on my way to reaching my goal. I balanced school work and training, everything went well in the beginning.”
Unfortunately, Buntu’s demons kept following him and he began changing his behaviour again.
“When I started Grade 10 I was drinking again; I also started smoking. My aunt and the club would give me money for toiletries and food but I would use the money to buy alcohol and cigarettes.
“My behaviour affected my training, I wasn’t fit and couldn’t keep up with the team, so I was making stupid mistakes on the field. Because of this, I broke my shoulder, it was shattered and I needed to have an operation. I couldn’t play for a while and I went through a time of self-doubt and self-loathing.”
Buntu says that this was the first dark time in his life.
“I didn’t care about anything. I was 15. I thought my life was over because I was afraid that I destroyed my soccer career. I stopped going to class and drank all day. I felt like school didn’t matter and because of this, I failed Grade 10.
“At the end of the year, I went home and had to tell my aunt. I felt bad because she told me she had faith in me and I’d become a disappointment.
“My self-destructive behaviour spiralled, all my money went to my habit. One morning I woke up with sand all over my face, it had even found its way into the cracks of my lips. I looked up and I was on the side of the road. I had no idea how I had got there. People were walking all over me like I wasn’t there. I felt like a piece of dirt. I stumbled up and walked in the direction of home where I saw one of my brothers. I began crying and told him that my life was over. He told me that I would play again, and that all I needed to do was rest and ensure that my shoulder healed. He kept telling me that this was not the way to live my life.”
Buntu says he knew he needed to make a decision, he would either continue partying or focusing on his sport.
“My second year in Grade 10, I limited my drinking and partying and focused more on school. My shoulder had healed so I could play soccer again. Returning to the field was not easy. When I ran, I had a burning sensation in my chest and when it was cold my shoulder would hurt. But I kept going, I knew if I wanted to be a professional player I needed to get my fitness up, so that’s what I did.
“That year, I passed Grade 10 and I was approached by a professional club who wanted me to play for them. I was excited, I was 16 and on my way.”
Kokstad club offered Buntu a place in their development team.
“I was willing to make sacrifices to achieve my goal. I would travel 50kms to and from the club after school. At the Sasfa tournament in Pietermaritzburg, a scout from Sweden saw us playing and approached our coaches. The day after, they called a gathering and told us who had been selected to go to Sweden. When I heard my name I zoned out imagining the plane and the new place I would be going to.”
Buntu spent close to a year in Europe in Germany and Sweden.
“The places where we lived were like nothing I had ever seen, even the air smelled different. I would wake up before my alarm clock as I was so eager to get my new life going… Getting fit and professional became my main goal. This was the opportunity that would take me to new levels.”
Sadly, the trip was cut short and the team needed to come home.
“All we were told was that the money allocated for our living expenses had gone missing from the municipality in South Africa. We never received any more information and were back on a plane to South Africa the following day.
“Even though I knew that it had nothing to do with our team’s performance, I still felt bad. I thought I had missed my opportunity. If I was better the Swedish club would have kept me. This experience further affected my self-confidence.
“I returned to school and worked hard. Because of the trip I missed two school terms and I needed to catch up if I was going to pass Grade 11. My work paid off.”
Buntu’s grandfather’s death made him reconsider his choices in life. “We were driving from our village to fetch people for the funeral. The driver fell asleep behind the wheel, I tried to turn the wheel, but the car spun and then rolled twice. Five of us were in the car, we all survived, but I had a bad neck injury.
“My friend and younger brother stayed in the hospital and I was sent home to recover where I received physiotherapy.
After the accident and the funeral, I realised that my soccer career could finish at any time and that I couldn’t depend on it so I stopped playing. I needed to focus on passing Grade 12.
“I decided to take extra lessons from the teachers that were offering them, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do more than just play soccer. At the end of Grade 12, I passed and knew I wanted to remain in sports so I went to the University of Johannesburg to study Sports Management.”
Always drawn to soccer, Buntu began playing for the university’s second team, motivated by his brother who was playing in the first team.
“Soccer is in my blood so I wanted to play for fun. While I was playing one day a scout from a semi-professional club asked me to join his club. I felt a slither of excitement because it made me feel I was back, however, I was cautious because I didn’t want to get my hopes up. After some time I dropped out of university. I played for few years in semi-professionals clubs and got injured few times. Each time I was playing I ended up leaving the clubs because I would feel despondent and sad. It was the strangest thing, soccer brought out the best and worse in me. When I finally reached a big team, Chippa United Football Club, an accident on the field caused my knee to rupture. The pain was excruciating! I knew that my dream was dead.”
After spending some time in hospital, Buntu’s dark state of mind festered. “I felt disgusted with myself I was living with doubts and regrets always blaming others. I was angry and would fight with my brothers and aunt. I would sleep all day, not eat, had headaches and forgot a lot. I thought of myself as a wasted talent so believed the world was better off without me. My aunt took me to the doctor who said that I was stressed and depressed. He gave me medication and suggested I go for therapy.
“At first I was resistant, but my aunty and my mom said I needed help. One night I got into a huge fight on the side of the road, I wanted to hit the guy with a rock. I realised that this was not who I am. I remember sitting down and thinking to myself that I really do need help or else I was going to get hurt or hurt someone else.
“I spent a few months receiving counselling and taking anti-depressants. Speaking to someone helped a bit, but I think the main thing that helped me was the support I received from my family.
“I moved to Cape Town to start afresh. I reflected on my life and for the first time saw a way that I could still be involved with soccer and help people. I started training young boys and shared with them what I have learned through my experiences. My future plan is to become a professional coach. I want to inspire youth to pursue their dreams.
“We should all pursue our dreams with ferocity, we should be hungry to achieve. However, sometimes our dreams as we imagine them are not what life wants us to have. When this is the case, you need to be able to pivot your dream and change its shape. I did this to my dream and I now live a life in flow.”
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