Dayimani's startling statement about his 'rags to riches' story
INTERVIEW: For six days straight after the United Rugby Championship Final Hacjivah Dayimani steadfastly refused to take off his kit.
He wandered around Cape Town in striking Stormers blue, medal draped around his neck, leaving a trail of joy and empty beer bottles wherever he roamed.
His social media blew up. He sipped champagne in his shower as soap cascaded down his match jersey. The city mayor sought him out and the two of them drank lager together and discussed the social problems that continue to lurk beneath Cape Town’s glossy façade.
The rugby public revelled in Dayimani’s antics, but this was no crass publicity stunt. To understand his full-kit, alcohol-aided pilgrimage, you need to rewind the clock. You need to ready yourself for a tale of horrors, grief and unimaginable hardship. Most of all, you need to listen.
“I celebrate big,” Dayimani says.
“It might seem arrogant to people, like ‘who does he think he is?’
“However, I am celebrating my life, not that moment. People judge you on what they see, not the depth you started from.”
In Dayimani’s case, his start was deeper than the Mariana Trench. An itinerant and traumatic childhood saw him lurch from province to province and school to school.
His parents were not together and he bounced from his mother’s one-room township shack in Cape Town to his grandmother’s house far to the east before being sent to find his estranged father in Johannesburg.
Siblings and half-siblings – Dayimani has ten in total – crammed into these homes, sleeping wherever there was space on the floor. Food was a luxury. A working shower was rare bliss. Often, his only option to traverse South Africa’s arid highways was to hitchhike.
Dane Galley, his agent and close friend, says Dayimani “literally had to fend for himself at an age when most kids are watching Peppa Pig”.
This is no exaggeration. Dayimani laboured on building sites at eight years old to help his mother make rent. He sold snacks to his primary school classmates for a meagre profit. He flogged oranges on the township streets so the family would have enough money to feed themselves.
Later, when visiting his mother from boarding school, he took shifts pumping gas at a petrol station to pay for school shoes. An age-grade coach once lambasted him for finishing last in a three-kilometre time-trial, not realising Dayimani had hitchhiked several hours and walked a couple more simply to get to training. Never mind that he was running in battered hand-me-down boots.
His story begins in a tiny corrugated iron shack in what is now Joe Slovo, one of the most grossly impoverished areas of Cape Town. There are no idyllic beaches, catwalk models and cloud-puncturing skyscrapers here. People teeter constantly on the brink and when Dayimani’s mother, Lushabowang, lost her job and her home, the family were plunged into crisis.
“Our new landlord had a construction company and I asked to go and work for him,” Dayimani says.
“I was seven or eight years old, riding in the bakkie [flat-bed truck] to the elite areas, where we’d fix paving, do construction work, lay tiles. I loved it.
“He had an orange farm and we sold his oranges in the townships to help with rent. I travelled very far and became good at it. I’d sell out five bags of oranges, and it became a business. Eventually, we were eating the profit because we had to buy food.”
One afternoon, Dayimani’s mother wept as she packed him and his little brother into the back of a taxi and told them to head for Cradock, 800km to the northeast. They hitchhiked to their grandmother’s house where she promised to join them the next day. He has never lived with her again.
“I came from a background of crime. My older brother was in and out of prison, my cousins were in and out of prison, my friends too. My mum sent me away from Cape Town not just because circumstances were tough but also the bad influences I had around me. I have friends in prison today.”
Dayimani’s grandmother cleaned houses in the wealthier neighbourhoods and somehow got the boy enrolled in a prestigious English-speaking school. Surrounded by wealth, he was transported back to the days of laying slabs and hauling rocks for the plush Cape Town slickers. He never felt like he belonged.
“Some of my classmates were the sons of the city mayor, politicians, businessmen. I was in class with the kid whose house my granny cleaned and I suffered from low self-esteem. Imagine sitting next to that kid.
“My granny worked at 30 different homes per week to make ends meet. And it got to the point where she couldn’t look after us anymore. She said: ‘Hacjivah, I really think you should go look for your dad, for a better future’.
“She gave me plastic bags full of food and ZAR150 [less than £8]. A bus to Johannesburg was ZAR800. I went to a place in Cradock where trucks stop, and hitchhiked about 9-10 hours to Joburg where this guy dropped me off at my dad’s door.”
Frank Times Ifeanyichukwu was not thrilled to see his son. He had a new wife and a child-laden home and travelled often to his native Nigeria. His wife had little interest in acquiring a stepson.
By then, however, rugby had captivated Dayimani. He had feasted on the sizzling brilliance of Bryan Habana and the 2007 world champion Springboks and found a sport in which he thrived.
On the pitch, unlike in life, the playing field was level. Township urchin or millionaire’s son, it mattered not.
“I had a passion because of Bryan Habana. I remember watching him scoring tries at the 2007 World Cup and diving on the grass. Every time my mum sent me to buy bread, I’d come back home and dive on the bed like Bryan Habana.”
Dayimani’s father banned him from playing rugby. As a strict Igbo Jew, he disapproved of any sporting activity on Saturdays, the holy Shabbat.
Dayimani defied him and continued playing in secret but when his considerable talents earned him a 50 percent scholarship to Jeppe High, a prestigious boarding school where Jake White was a pupil and later a teacher, his father refused to pay the half fees required. Eventually, realising the boy’s dire straits, the school relented and offered a full bursary.
“My dad was raised as a child soldier in Nigeria, one of the worst armies for brutality,” Dayimani goes on. “He wanted us to be tough too. He loved his kids, but he was so strict that he’d rather lose his son than allow the atrocity of me playing rugby on the Shabbat.
“Joburg was one of the toughest times of my life. I went to different schools. Everyone was helping me, giving me lifts to training, giving me boots. My dad was in Nigeria a lot, and my step mum did not look after me the same way she looked after her own kids. Every time I told him, he would take her side and tell me I was overreacting. That messed up our relationship.
“I decided one day, I can’t have this, I would rather cut out my dad and live on my own. I grew up without a dad and it wasn’t going to change now. I went to Jeppe on a scholarship as a yearly boarder. I never had blankets, never had a sheet, bedding, toiletries, always had to borrow and use from other kids. I felt like a charity case.”
Rugby remained his escape hatch, a light at the end of the tunnel that grew brighter by the season. Dayimani won provincial age-grade honours before being selected for SA Schools. He had severed ties with his father and as he climbed the rugby ladder, unaware Frank fought a forlorn battle against brain cancer. When Dayimani scored a fine try for SA Schools against a touring England side in 2015, his father watched on television from his hospital deathbed.
“I scored from a No.8-No.9 move with Embrose Papier and it was a life-changing moment. My uncle called me a few days after the game wanting to talk, but I told him, ‘I don’t want anything to do with you people’. I’d had a couple of calls from my dad but I hadn’t answered them. Why would I? I didn’t want to talk to him.
“My uncle asked me to please come and speak to him, and when I got there, he just told me my dad had passed away. It felt like something left my body. Crying in front of people wasn’t an option the way I was raised – even then, I couldn’t cry.
“I went to the hospital and this lady who had looked after my dad started crying when she saw me. She said, ‘I can’t tell you how proud I am of you’. Why would she be proud of me? It turned out they’d put the TV on for my dad to watch the soccer highlights, and SuperSport showed the SA Schools rugby match, Hacjivah Dayimani scoring a try, the pundits were raving about how good I was.
“Apparently, my dad just started crying. He couldn’t stop. That’s when he tried to call me. I never picked up. That was the Saturday and he died on the Wednesday.
“I went back and listened to the voicemail, and it was just him telling me how much he loved me, that he never wanted it to seem like he didn’t support me, he wanted me to focus on the right things, be a better man. That’s the last time I heard him. And that’s when I started crying. I had this guilt and I couldn’t carry it.
“My dad was a tough guy, feared in the Nigerian community. For him to cry, he was obviously really, really sorry. He was in so much pain, hurting himself by crying. The nurses told him to stop but he couldn’t.”
Reeling from the loss of his father, and trying to make sense of their complex relationship, Dayimani toiled in school. A confusing maelstrom of emotions took hold. He met Kobie and Leyla Smook, a local white couple, who took him in, taught him life skills, and encouraged him to improve his grades. Finally, he had confidants and allies.
“I was on my own – my mum left me, my dad left me, my granny left me. I’ve been on my own my whole life.
“They were the turning point. I had this mindset growing up: try to make money, get a nice car, go back home. I had no financial literacy, never understood saving or looking after yourself first. That’s all I knew. They turned my life around, gave me the necessary tools, helped me in school where I was struggling. They were looking after me on and off the field, I moved in with them and they were basically my family.”
As life, at last, settled off the field, Dayimani’s career soared on it. He progressed through the Lions’ set-up until he became a searing rookie first-teamer. The contract offers piled up, but he wanted to show loyalty to the team who had given him his shot. Then, everything halted. His game time shrivelled. Senior back row forwards were preferred. From Next Big Thing, he became captain of Team Bin Juice. He fell into depression, changed agents, and Galley, his new representative, plotted a route out of the malaise to the Stormers. It entailed a substantial pay cut.
“I struggled so badly; no team wanted me – literally. Two years before I had so many teams wanting me, the money was bigger everywhere.
“I never played at the Lions. Not that I was not on form or injured, they just never picked me. I had to change the victim mindset of ‘why is this happening to me”‘, to ‘what is this teaching me?’
“I was the person who could save my family, the first in my family to have a proper job, the first to not give up, to chase their dreams. If I’m not picked, I think about my whole life, I’ve always been the underdog, never the favourite, so what is this to me? I’m in a privileged position. Then I would get injured and be like, ach, why am I complaining? I must stop being a spoiled brat.”
The rank austerity of his childhood shapes Dayimani’s view of the game. He shoulders the constant pressure of feeding, clothing and educating a vast family that expands by the year. All of them rely on his success and his wage. When he takes the field, one prong of a deadly Stormers back-row trident, he knows how many depend on him to hoist them from poverty.
“My mum, my brothers, my sisters, everyone benefits from this sport. I feed them through this sport. If I don’t perform, they don’t eat. I tell myself that all the time. Some guys play for passion or fun and don’t care how much they earn. For me it’s bigger than that.
“I need to do so well that the other nine kids get the same opportunity I got. The only way I can do that is to fund it. I have to get them into better schools, into varsity, into better jobs. I have to buy them stuff. That’s the only way they can make it out of where they are.
“Many people say money isn’t everything. Yeah, but sometimes in my life, money is the only thing. For most of the guys I play with, money doesn’t affect them because they’ve always had it. They look for sentimental things like having a happy home. In my family, we don’t care if we’re happy. Happiness comes last. We need food. With brands and sponsors, I don’t do promotional stuff for free clothing, I need to be paid so I can look after my family.
“That’s when I have that sniper mindset: kill or be killed. After I left the Lions, I thought: ‘You can’t be playing ahead of me, because you don’t need it as much as I do. I look after so many people. You are doing this for fun. I have to play ahead of you.’ It’s a weird way of looking at it, but it’s reality.”
How that mindset has told this season. The Stormers roared into the play-offs, dispatched Edinburgh and Ulster in the knockouts before smiting the Bulls to win the whole lot.
And how Dayimani’s chaotic past continues to follow him. Minutes before kick-off in the Ulster semifinal, Dayimani learned he had yet another sibling, a brother a few years his elder and a top-class provincial cricketer. The two are making efforts to form fledgling bonds.
“My mum was very young when she gave birth and the child was taken away. She was scared of her dad, scared she would be judged. They thought the child may have died. Life went on, until the semifinal, when she rang me right before I ran on the field to say I have an older brother.”
Come the glorious end of the game, the URC clinched and a troop of local children enlisted to hang medals around the necks of their heroes, Dayimani allowed himself a quiet moment of reflection.
“I probably have the same background as this little black kid giving me my medal, and everyone is watching me play against all the odds. I picked up the kid in the air and held him. This shit is not part of the script. This was not meant for us. If you picked the kids from 15 years ago you thought would win the URC, you would not have started with us, you would never have gone to us.”
And so began the bender. Six days of Cape Town cavorting, sometimes alone, often with teammates. Dayimani took his medal and his kit to Joe Slovo, to all the deprived spots that pock-marked his early life. Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis admired from afar and reached out. Dayimani hopes to use his newfound status to better those for life mired in Cape Town’s toughest districts.
“I even went to the place I was born in my kit to show the people, it’s possible,” he says. “I went back to all the places where I used to cry and changed the narrative. I came back as a champ.
“When I met the mayor and told him I was from the township, he was shocked. We started speaking about politics, how we can help people in townships break out sooner, and how we can help close the gap between rich and poor in Cape Town.
“I told him how I used to see things growing up. Even with TV, my mum and family couldn’t watch me play because they couldn’t afford the TV packages. How is a kid from the township going to watch rugby on TV? I only learned rugby because of the school I went to.”
After a blockbuster season, Dayimani is a wanted man. He will turn 25 in September when the URC begins again and several moneyed suitors have emerged.
Glasgow Warriors are among the keenest, while a Top 14 club have also made their interest known.
Both are willing to offer a significant pay rise.
For Dayimani, and the many who depend on him, a seminal decision looms.
“We’re building something at the Stormers and I can see it. I could stay here and stick with something that works. But I could stay and not win anything again or not play well again and earn what I earn now, rather than going overseas and my family will be sorted. That’s a conversation I’m having.”
Through it all, he thinks often of the Joe Slovo township, and of the father he lost, found, and lost again.
“Maybe I’m living for my dad. My siblings look at me like a father. I look after them. I try to be the best version of my dad for them, because they were robbed of having a dad.
“Even when I play, sometimes I just express myself, I don’t care what people say, it’s bigger than sport for me. Tomorrow I might not have a contract and be back on the streets; no-one is going to care. I might as well do what I want to do. I live for him.”
After six days, Dayimani finally took off his kit. He quietly donated his shirt to raise funds for a school for autistic children. It will not be his last act of charity.
Hacjivah Dayimani left his township penniless and quivering in the back of a taxi and returned a champion, a winner, an inspiration.
By Jamie Lyall, RugbyPass+