Words and questions by Alex Gwaze (Researcher)
2020 will go down in history as the year the world shutdown. But before the novel COVID-19 pandemic locked us down on March 11, 2020 – a young man from Zimbabwe achieved his dream. After racing for 14 days, Graeme Sharp became the 1st Zimbabwean in history to complete the Dakar Rally on a motorbike on January 17, 2020. Completing the Dakar Rally is no easy task. Motorcycling alone demands balance, coordination, endurance, leg, and upper body strength. Now add those demands and multiply them with the stress of racing against 158 other motorcyclists from 60 nations, across the Saudi Arabian Peninsula (just dry earth), for 7500 km. Not for me, but something that Graeme dreamt about doing. So, I had to ask him why the Dakar Rally? There are plenty of other sports one can do with a bike like Motocross, Superbike or Speedway. “What made him go – riding all over a foreign country’s hot ass desert – in leather – is for me”?
GS: “I think the challenge, both mentally and physically were huge attractions. The Dakar is not called the hardest race in the world for nothing. Combined with the fact that it had never been done before in terms of a Zimbabwean entering and finishing the race. In a way it was an unchartered journey and I had to figure it all out along the way”.
Graeme was not the only Zimbabwean attempting to make history in January 2020. Zim’s top rally car driver and two-time African Rally Champion, Conrad Rautenbach (2017’s Dakar Rally Rookie of the year), had also entered the rally after a 2-year absence. Conrad was hoping for a podium finish or a stage win in his 2nd appearance; unfortunately, he was just shy of his goal, coming in at 4th position. However, it was Graeme whose time had come, and it was a long time coming. Graeme first travelled to the Dakar in 2013 in a supportive role so that he could “observe and learn” from other Africans who were attempting this incredible feat. It was there where he met David Reeve from Zambia (who completed the rally after 3 attempts) and Darryl Curtis who raced for South Africa; these two racers soon became Graeme’s mentors. So, by 2017, after conducting his research and finding his mentors, Sharp’s childhood dream to emulate the exploits of Alfie Cox started shaping up into a vision of making history – after some encouragement from his mentors. But first some preparations for the future. Although Sharp made history in 2020, it was not his first rodeo. Graeme knew what he was getting into before he even entered the rally. I know this because, when I asked him to describe a particular situation during the Dakar Rally “when everything that could go wrong went wrong” and how he overcame it, he took me back to 2019, saying:
GS: “Luckily most of my mishaps happened in the various qualifiers before Dakar which meant I’d dealt with my share of ‘in race’ challenges before we kicked off in Saudi. Not to say Dakar was without its challenges, I was just confident I could deal with them appropriately. Back in Sonora, Mexico, in early 2019, I had a bad crash in the dunes early in a special stage, popping my camelback and damaging my bike. I then had to ride the rest of the stage without the water and the fluids I needed. I ended up badly dehydrated by halfway through, with temperatures in the high 40s. I had to push on through to the end. A tough day for sure”.
Pushing through tough times is something that we Zimbos know all too well. I guess this is why so many Zimbabweans have connected with Graeme’s journey. When we talked about the media’s positive reaction to his Dakar achievement, and how it has become a positive story not only for his family members and team, but for thousands of Zimbos (who are metaphorically travelling through a desert plagued with unforeseen dangers), I asked, “how has the public’s response affected your everyday life”?
GS: “It’s humbling, there are so many people who helped me get there and I appreciate the good fortune in being able to achieve such a challenging goal in such a difficult time. I hope if anything I’ve given some inspiration to those facing their own challenges at this time. We can overcome obstacles with the appropriate preparation and support”.
Sports have always been part and parcel of inspiring people during challenging times. And in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter and #ZimbabweLivesMatter campaigns, sport stars are again reminding the whole world that we still have a lot of work to do as the human family unit. This got me thinking about how sports figures can alter the perception of an entire nation. And, as we all know, a lot of people outside Zimbabwe have a vastly different perception of what it’s like to be a “white” person in Zimbabwe – especially after the land reforms and the ‘great white exodus’. So, I thought it would be a good opportunity for Graeme, to describe in his own words, what it was like “growing up in Zimbabwe during the Bob era as a teen and now during ED as an adult”?
GS: “I was born post-independence and see myself as a son of Zimbabwe first and foremost. My identification or citizenship as a Zimbabwean should not be characterized by race, colour, or creed. My underlying hope is that Zimbabwe and its people reach their true potential and Zimbabwe finds its deserving place in the world regardless of its leadership”.
Graeme is clearly a proud Zimbabwean who has not only raised our flag high but has also etched his name in the history books alongside Nick Price, Peter Ndlovu, Kirsty Coventry, Elliot Mujaji, Stephen Muzhingi, Cara Black, Heath Streak, and more. While that is sinking in – Peter, Heath, and Kirsty have all become household names for their achievements on and off the field. Peter has successfully won the league title with Mamelodi Sundowns in South Africa as the team manager, Heath established a Cricket Academy, and Kirsty is now the Minster of Youth, Arts, Sports, and Recreation in Zimbabwe. All good examples of what someone once said to me – “when you make a plan, plan for after you have achieved your goals too”. In Graeme’s case I would remix it and say, “when you plan, plan for after the desert”. So even though he is still young I had to ask him, “what does the future look like for Mr. Sharp”?
GS: “There are many Zimbabweans who have done and continue to do great things internationally and at home – we have a proud sporting heritage and are known for ‘batting above our average’. Taking on challenges in foreign lands and raising our hands to be counted, the Zimbabwean spirit runs deep and proud and dares to dream! I’m not sure where exactly I will channel the Dakar legacy – but I like to believe it will be towards the good of our future generations, tourism, or conservation. When the next Dakar pilot from Zimbabwe steps up – I’ll be available to assist wherever I can and make sure a Zim flag is raised in the sands of Saudi Arabia once again”.
The future for this young man seems to be somewhere between Ecotourism and Motorsport. In fact, this is nothing new to Graeme who established a Motorcycle Club at his high school (Falcon College) to explore the Matabeleland wilderness at the tender age of 16. Motorsports are particularly important to him – this is what he had to say:
GS: “Sport, regardless of type, holds many life lessons and tests the essence of who we really are as human beings. It is in my opinion one of the reasons why sport in general is so popular around the world. COVID-19 has disrupted our social, business and sporting environments and many things are up in the air for the time being. However, there are several initiatives that have been discussed in terms of growing exposure and experience for other Zimbabwean riders”.
Besides the COVID-19 fallout, the Zimbabwean sports scene has always been under funded and the career prospects for our sport stars are extremely limited. We are all aware of the migration of exceptionally talented athletes who go off and represent other nations. This situation is unfortunate and unavoidable in our current state. However, this does not mean that is the end of the story. Graeme once mentioned in his interview with GQ “that growing up in Africa forces you to have a backup plan and to always be on the lookout for solutions”. So, while discussing this issue of ‘talent-exporting’ I asked him what he thinks “Zim sports stars in the diaspora can do to rebuild the Zimbabwean sports scene and aid the remaining local sportsmen and sports women”?
GS: “The sporting journey of our local athletes and the attractions that take them abroad are directly linked to the state of the local environment and their time (as peak athletes) being limited. They need to maximize their potential and achieve their goals in an environment that supports their objectives and enables them to perform at their best. Unfortunately, this is not available in Zimbabwe at the moment. So, I think what Zim sports stars in the diaspora can do for local athletes right now is to make them aware of the different avenues for growth out there (trainers, competitions, programs, institutions, sponsors, facilities, etc) and mentor who they can. Athletes cannot afford to wait for things to get better, they have to look for opportunities for exposure, support, and experience”.
Even for a seemingly solo activity like riding a motorcycle, Graeme also required a team of experienced supporters, from his friends and family to his head coach (Grant Mitchell) and his sponsors (Zapalala Supermarkets, Autoworld Zimbabwe, Blue Steel Water Treatment Systems, TrenTyre, One Stop Solar, Alveo Water, Bad Rabbit Studio, Crosfit Kyma, Ambrose IT, MIRA Motorsport International Riding Apparel), Matriach Ecotourism Safari’s, Solgar, Prosport, CrossFit Kyma, Padenga Holdings, and STIHL). Having so many people and companies invested in your success must have been nerve-racking, so I asked Graeme how did he “balanced the responsibility of being the frontman for a lot of peoples hopes and efforts with his own personal goals”?
GS: “I think you have to first and foremost focus on what’s needed to get the job done. The role of ambassador and flag bearer comes later once you’ve put in the lonely quiet hours and you line up internationally. And then that responsibility is part of the course – you can’t expect to not have it at that point. People become invested in your journey and want to be a part of it which is awesome. I’m so grateful for the sponsors, friends and family who got involved and made it happen”.
Besides his friends and family, the motorbike obviously has a significant role in Graeme’s personal journey, almost it seems, since day one. Besides the obvious mobility and access to hard-to-reach locations it affords him, I was interested in finding out how the motorbike has influenced and shaped his growth as a human being, on a much more personal level.
GS: “I think the motorbike essentially provides me with a platform to test and grow my character, build relationships and experience things that very few people have. From travelling to exotic, far flung locations around the world, to seeing my own back yard in a different light”.
Graeme is well travelled, having been to Mexico, New Zealand, Europe, and Saudi Arabia. So, the final question I asked him was “what is it about Africa, specifically Zimbabwe, that makes you feel at home”?
GS: “I’ve lived abroad for over a decade, a fantastic opportunity to travel and experience the world. But Zimbabwe is home, I’m not quite sure what it is – but whatever it is it cannot be found elsewhere and I can’t shake the sense of belonging I get here. Sure, we have our challenges, frustrations and hopes of better days – however no place is perfect. And we need to focus on the future and work towards that dream”.
FOLLOW Graeme at: http://www.instagram.com/graeme_sharp_dakar