From goat herder to conquering the world

The other side: Away from the track, Makwala is passionate about farming
The other side: Away from the track, Makwala is passionate about farming

Isaac Makwala went from regular village boy's duties of herding goats and cattle to conquering the world in a classic case of rising from humble beginnings.

Makwala’s journey to the world stage is captured in a new book, 'The Solo Runner: The Untold Story of Isaac Makwala' written by former athlete and academic, Tshepang Tshube. The 400m athlete's childhood is traced primarily to two settlements, Malelejwe and Tutume. According to excerpts in the book due to be released next month, Makwala grew up with his brothers herding goats and cattle at Malelejwe cattlepost, while his sisters helped their mothers cook and care for the younger siblings.

Both boys and girls fetched firewood and water for the family. At the time, Makwala as a 10-year-old boy would walk about three kilometres to fetch water with his siblings. These chores were done after school, on weekends and during school holidays. "There was nothing extraordinary about this practice because it was a common occurrence across communities in Botswana. At the time, Makwala did not have any thoughts or ambitions of being an elite athlete. He did not know there were people in the world who earned a living through sports. The few professions at his disposal were being a teacher, a driver or a soldier. Like many boys in his village, his dream was to become a soldier.

The military camouflage uniform and swag inspired Makwala and his childhood boys to favour joining the military," reads an excerpt from the book. Makwala’s life was never on a silver platter. When he reflects, he becomes emotional. At one stage Makwala pondered quitting, especially when he did not do well in junior school. Makwala told Mmegi Sport that the idea to publish a book was the brainchild of Tshube who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sport Science at the University of Botswana. “It has been two years since we started discussing publishing this book. Tshube approached my wife about the idea and she consulted me.


But it has been something that I wanted to do after the solo run at the 2017 London World Championships. I was to work on it with some people but the project was not a success,” he said. Back in 2017, Makwala was barred from running the 400m on allegations he had a stomach virus. World Athletics gave him a reprieve and he ran solo in the rain posting 20.53 seconds in the 200m to qualify for the semi-finals. Barely two hours later, he had to run again in the semi-finals where he was given the inside lane, made even more difficult than usual by the accumulation of rainwater. But he still managed to finish in the second place in 20.14 seconds, behind American Isiah Young, who was the fastest qualifier. “I am still running with a broken heart. I was ready to run the 400m, that is the race I have been training for.

I do not run the 200m very often,” Makwala told the media after the emotional run. He explained that The Solo Runner is about his life starting from childhood. “We used the London incident because that is when most people started knowing me, the whole world started to following me. When my name crops up, the solo run is mentioned,” he said. Makwala said he was barred from the 400m final because people were claiming he was sick. He said it was a painful thing and hard to take. “It was a painful moment and difficult to accept.

I had to run alone. It was emotional. They had set time for me to beat and qualify for the 200m semi-final. I had missed my main race, the 400m, for which I had gone to compete in,” he said. Makwala said working on the book was difficult because he had to relive the incident. “When I talk about the incident, I become emotional. I am retiring without a World Athletics Championships medal and that time it was an opportunity for me to win a medal. I do not know what would happen at the next World Athletics Championships,” he said.

Makwala said the book is expected to serve as motivation to other athletes. As a young man growing up in Tutume, Makwala was not gifted academically. He completed his Form Three at Pandagala Junior Secondary School in 2002. He went for primary education at formerly Mpani now Magapatona. “I had to stay for over a year at Malelejwe. By then I thought my life was over. Lady luck smiled on me when I enrolled at Nswazwi Brigade. That is when I joined athletics until what I am today,” he said. Makwala said he did athletics at primary and junior schools and he knew that he was good at it. When he discovered athletics in Nswazwi, he joined it. “One of the days as we were going through our paces, Francistown Runners Club visited our training. They liked what they saw in me. I became their athlete and in 2006 I competed at the National Stadium where I was selected into the national team,” he said. Makwala said at the time it was not easy to be selected into the national team. “When you were in the national team, you knew that you were a good athlete. Other athletes that I found there had trained overseas. When the countries were mentioned, your head would spin,” Makwala said.

The biographer, Tshube saw Makwala when he met him while he was with the national team for the first time at the then Lelwapa Lodge in 2006. “I was an athlete by then. I have seen his life transform since then, until the 2017 World Athletics Championships when he was barred from racing, until 2018 when he won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. From where he was up to today, I felt it was an inspirational story that needs to be told,” he said. Tshube was curious about what happened in 2017. What was the chronology of activities? What was the first thing that happened until the solo run? He felt that there was conflicting information from World Athletics and Botswana Athletics Association (BAA). “It was important for us to know exactly what happened and that was one of the reasons we needed to document this.

We have a lot of athletes who made history in Botswana but none of them had a book written about them. I felt we needed to start that culture,” he said. Tshube said it was not an easy project because the first thing he did was to visit Malelejwe where Makwala stayed after failing Form Three. “I took a vehicle, a research assistant and a photographer and we took a road trip. He was present when we arrived there and we saw his cattle. It was an important part of the project for us. We then met his parents. It was not difficult because Makwala facilitated everything,” he said.

Tshube conducted interviews with Makwala and the coach who discovered him. He then went online to watch his old interviews. The Solo Runner project started in 2018. Tshube said from November 20, the book will be available on hardcover, Amazon, Kindle and other online platforms. He said the book will be available at the launch and that is when the book cover would be released.

He said at the moment they are keeping everything else under wraps. Tshube said there will be a countrywide tour after the launch. “We want the story to be told. We want people to read the book and we believe people will read the book. I think there is a culture of reading, it is just that it is not talked about. It is not that profound. We want people to be inspired. We want a child in Tonota to be like a person who was staying in Malelejwe and is now successful in life,” he said. Tshube said they want people to look at the solo run and interpret it from a positive perspective. “It was how he responded after being barred from running. He was like 'I am here to run'. We want people to be inspired. He did not do well at school but he found running and he has done well at it,” Tshube said.

Editor's Comment
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