Gisborne their new home
If Gisborne football had a prize for the most enthusiastic player who most obviously enjoyed the game, Thistle's Mcxevior (Max) Mika would have been a perennial contender.
For the past five seasons the Zimbabwean immigrant has been a tireless presence in the midfield of John Stirton's Eastern League first division side Massive, or – if called on – the Pacific Premiership teams coached by Matt Hastings or Garrett Blair.
Now Mika, his wife Florence, son Tavonga, 9, and daughter Tia, 6, are settling into new surroundings in South Auckland, but the 37-year-old diesel mechanic says he will always regard Gisborne as his New Zealand home.
He and Florence had started talking about going overseas in 2013. They had been living in South Africa, in the city of Kempton Park, near Johannesburg, since they were married in 2009. Violence, the political situation and a desire to see what the world had to offer were behind their decision to emigrate.
They were particularly interested in Canada and New Zealand, so when a friend who had moved to New Zealand passed on news about an opening for a diesel mechanic in Gisborne, Mika sent off his CV.
Back came the offer of a job with Weatherell Transport Ltd. “With no hesitation”, he accepted it and started work in mid-November 2014. His wife and children arrived the following month.
It was at Weatherell Transport that he was named Max by one of his workmates who said the given name Mcxevior (pronounced Maczavior) was too hard for everyday use, and the shortened form stuck.
He wanted to thank business owners Steve and Jane Weatherell for giving him the opportunity to live and work in New Zealand, and workshop manager Red Kernohan for helping him settle into work in a new country.
Mika loved football but since schooldays he had played only for a junior club – the Kwekwe Stars – and in a few social games.
His father Frank had died in 1998 and, from the age of 16, his focus was helping provide for his mother Reginah and younger sister Talent. His apprenticeship studies and work pushed sport into the background.
In Gisborne, though, he thought playing football would be a good way to meet people.
Stirton noticed him watching a practice session and invited him to join in. Come to think of it, they were short that weekend . . . would he like a game?
“That was the beginning of the adventure,” Mika said.
He would forever cherish the way he, his wife and their children were welcomed into the club. He praised the leadership of club committee stalwarts Ron Young, Shannon Dowsing, Mark Pearce and David Ure, and the guidance of coaches Stirton, Hastings and Blair.
He was also grateful to Central Football's Blake Mulrooney, who had got Tavonga to play for Gisborne's under-10 reps.
Among his best memories of football in Gisborne were the clashes between Thistle and Gisborne United in the Eastern League first division – or the Championship as it was called last season – and the Pacific Premiership.
“It was always good to compete against those guys – the likes of Stu Cranswick, Damon Husband, Corey and Josh Adams, and Kieran Venema . . . good lads.”
With Thistle, Mika received winners' medals for the Eastern League Division 1 title in 2015 and '16, the Bailey Cup in 2015 and '18, and the Championship title and the Chris Moore Cup in 2019. In all competitions across five seasons, he scored 45 goals.
This year, Mika has played one game for the Matt Bouma-Higgins-coached Papakura City – in central midfield – against Papatoetoe at the beginning of last month. They lost 2-1, but he was looking forward to the next game, and then the postponements started. Tavonga had also joined the club, at under-11 level.
On the work front in Gisborne, Mika spent two years at Weatherell Transport and then three at CablePrice (NZ) Ltd, who were the distributors for Scania. He attended courses in Wellington for further training in Scania trucks and their repair and maintenance, which stood him in good stead when he successfully applied for the job of workshop foreman at Scania New Zealand's first service centre, in Drury. He started there in December, and he and his family have settled in rented accommodation in Wattle Downs near Manurewa.
Both he and Florence made use of the opportunities for further study while in Gisborne. He studied occupational health and safety to diploma level with the Southern Institute of Technology, and started National Certificate in Business (first-line management) studies with the Motor Industry Training Organisation. He is excited at the opportunities that might yet arise.
Florence studied computing, business administration and health sciences, and worked in administration for Electrinet. In Auckland she is doing administrative work for a floor resurfacing business.
It's all a long way from Harare, Zimbabwe, where they met in 2007. Florence, the only girl of six siblings, had just left school when she met Mcxevior, who had gone to the Zimbabwean capital to do his apprenticeship as a petrol and diesel motor mechanic.
Mika was born on August 11, 1982, in Bulawayo, the second biggest city in Zimbabwe, and raised in the Midlands town of Kwekwe. His father owned a shop where he repaired television sets, video cassette recorders and other electronic equipment.
When Frank Mika died, his son felt the responsibility of breadwinner fell to him.
“I had to find something like an apprenticeship so I could look after the family,” Mcxevior Mika said.
That meant moving to Harare, where he did his apprenticeship from 2000 to 2005 – working mainly on aviation equipment – with a company called Aviation Ground Services. He continued working there until 2008, when he moved to South Africa.
He and Florence were married in Harare in 2009, but work was in South Africa. They lived in Kempton Park, near O. R. Tambo International Airport, where Mika fixed ground handling equipment.
He trained for further duties whenever he could. Eventually he was part of teams marshalling aircraft, operating tow trucks and power units pulling and pushing aircraft into position, and conducting headset ground-to-cockpit communications for marshalling.
In December 2013, he was one of the operations group sent to Mthatha in the Eastern Cape province to do the marshalling for the arrival of the aircraft carrying the body of Nelson Mandela, for the state funeral and burial at the village of Qunu, where Mandela grew up.
By now, Mika and his wife were looking to emigrate. Although they were materially better off in South Africa than they would have been in Zimbabwe, they were worried about xenophobic attacks that seemed to target Zimbabweans, among others.
Mika wanted to emphasise, though, that not all South Africans were hostile towards foreigners. Most of those he met were “very nice people”.
After independence and a national election in 1980, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) had created a constitution that recognised education as a basic human right. In the 1980s, the numbers of students, teachers and schools exploded. With lessons taught primarily in English, the education system produced a generation of young adults with functional skills in English, literacy and numeracy.
Political and economic turmoil at home fed the flow of educated and skilled workers from Zimbabwe to neighbouring countries and beyond. A popular destination was South Africa, where an ability to speak English was an advantage in the job market.
Some unemployed South Africans saw the immigrant workers as outsiders taking jobs they could have had. (South Africa's unemployment rate in 2013 was 25 percent of the workforce. In 2019 it was 29 percent, with youth unemployment at 58 percent.)
Several highly publicised attacks on foreigners convinced Mcxevior and Florence Mika they should look overseas to find a place where they could raise a family in peace and harmony. They believe they've found it in New Zealand.
The nature of life in Zimbabwe is conducive to the development of a multilingual population. It has a world-record 16 official languages, including sign language. The three most widely used are Shona, Northern Ndebele and English.
Mika says most people in Zimbabwe would have seven languages, with English usually the second.
Many of the languages are similar, and some could be mistaken for those used in South Africa, such are the similarities in vernacular and pronunciation, he says.
Asked how many languages he spoke, he said, “Probably more than 15. My mother tongue is Shona, and you get five different languages coming out of that.
“I moved around a lot. I was born in Matabeleland, in Bulawayo, where Northern Ndebele is the main language. I grew up in Kwekwe in the Midlands, speaking Shona. And we originally came from the Eastern Highlands – a place called Mutare – where they speak another language, and we used to go and visit.”
Mika and his wife haven't been back to Zimbabwe since they came to New Zealand. They have family there, and had planned to go back to see them this year. But with the Covid-19 pandemic gripping the world, they can't see that happening any time soon.
Mika's work is classed as essential, so at the Scania service centre they are doing four days on, three days off, in two teams of four technicians working at judicious distances from one another.
After hours, Mika keeps fit with at-home workouts and football drills with Tavonga. Both are looking forward to the day they can get back out on the playing field.