Zim dynamo takes the US by storm
Zimbabwe-born footballer Joseph Ngwenya has come a long way since he kicked around a ball made of old mealie packets.
Ngwenya recently scored the equaliser in the 80th minute of a game between his American major league team, Houston Dynamo, and Colorado Rapids.
Looking back on his childhood in Bulawayo, he says he practised in the streets.
"We only had one field in Njube, and we weren't allowed on it - it was reserved for the players in the leagues," says the young star, "so we'd play on the streets and use rocks as goal posts. We had to be careful of the cars, though. Other times it would be on the dusty pitches near home."
A highlight for then 11-year-old Ngwenya were the trips to Barbourfields Stadium in Bulawayo.
"I grew up a fan of Highlanders. The atmosphere at a match at BF was unbelievable. There was a stand called Soweto - all the dedicated fans went there. We couldn't sit down; everyone was supposed to stand and wear black and white.
"When a player scored they would jump on the fence and shake it, others would be sitting on the advertising board."
His talent was spotted at high school.
"There was a guy, Ilan Elkaim, who knew our headmaster at Mzilikazi High School," said Ngwenya.
"He used to help youngsters come to America. My head spoke to him about me and he organised my flight to the US."
In 2000 Ngwenya obtained a scholarship to study at Coastal Carolina University, where he studied for a BSc in mathematics and science and played college football, before moving on to the Cape Cod Crusaders in 2003.
In 2004, major soccer league team Los Angeles Galaxy wanted him on their books. "In America there is a draft for all the college players when you graduate," he explains. "LA Galaxy picked me. To celebrate I went to a club with my friends and danced the night away."
Of his time in LA, he says: "Everything is so big in LA, the traffic is much busier. [But] the people are much friendlier, unlike in New York."
In 2007 he joined Houston Dynamo. Here he made his mark by scoring one of the fastest goals in Dynamo history (11 seconds). He also scored in the Major League Soccer Cup final, which the club won for the second year in a row.
Ngwenya has had stints with other clubs, including the Austrian club SK Austria Kamten and Bayern Munich. In April Houston Dynamo welcomed him back.
Of his many career highlights he says: "Winning the American league championships was my best moment. I scored in the final. We were playing New England. It was a difficult match, we were down most of the game, and it was tough. I scored the equaliser."
Ngwenya describes his disciplined routine "I practise in the mornings, daily. It's mostly happiness, but in a competitive team you have differences and at times you knock heads.
"It's hard work physically - you have to contend with the weather - it's very hot this time of the year. At the end of the day I can't complain - I only have to work two hours, other [people] have to work eight hours."
While footballers in countries like England are known for high salaries and spending splurges, life as a soccer player in the US is less glamorous than elsewhere, according to Ngwenya.
The iconic status goes to the basketball players instead.
Ngwenya says he has tried to save as much as he can, and, since things are tough in Zimbabwe, he tries to help out wherever he can. He still travels home to Njube to see his mother and sisters.
One of his main challenges has been adjusting to the type of football played in the US, compared to how it's done in Zimbabwe. "In Zimbabwe the way we play is with flair and skill," he says, "In the States it is more organised; you have to get the ball and move it tactically. In Zimbabwe, players try to go on the field and entertain the crowd."
He reckons that other youngsters from Zimbabwe could make it in the US too, despite the obstacles.
"We have good players in Zimbabwe. It's about exposure, the opportunity to come here," he says. "It is really tough to get a visa - a lot of boys wouldn't get the chance to come here. I came here through school, and it was a lot easier."
So, football and family apart, what else does the Houston-based forward miss about home?
"I miss my friends. The guys I grew up with [most of them are in South Africa now]," he says.
"I miss the food; amacimbi, and buying roasted peanuts and corn off the streets."