Pacharo and Gideon Mzembe were just five and six years old when they arrived in Australia.
The Malawian brothers were born in exile in Zimbabwe, they’re family political refugees.
But after moving to Adelaide, and soon after to Queensland, the brothers took very different paths – Gideon played for the Manly Sea Eagles and Brisbane Broncos in the NRL, while Pacharo forged a career in theatre.
Now a play about a Congolese child soldier who becomes an Australian boxer – ‘Prize Fighter’ – has brought them into the spotlight together as co-stars.
The stage lights are in stark contrast to their first days in Australia.
The Mzembe brothers in Zimbabwe Source: Supplied
“For me, I remember there was a sense of loneliness that you feel because no one spoke your language,” Gideon said.
“You just left your country speaking your native tongue and coming here and you can barely put words together like ‘hello, my name is Gideon,’ and conversations would start to deteriorate from there on.
“So there was a massive sense of loneliness. There’s kids running around and you want to interact with them but the best you can give them is a smile and reintroduction of your name. You can only do that so often.”
“I followed him like a bad smell,” Pacharo said. “He was always the fastest so we made friends quick after sports day, so I just followed him around.”
While the Australian welcoming was overwhelming for the young brothers, Gideon says it was “phenomenal”.
“I mean the big feeds and meeting relatives - other people’s relatives, not our own - being invited to weddings and things like that, you just ask yourself - you’re just waiting for that next gun shot and it never came,” he said.
“After that you start to quickly adapt and comprehend that, ok we are actually in a safe place. That’s what I specifically remember, that I didn’t have to worry about my mum if I’m at school, and obviously my brother was there, I could see him.”
The brothers continue to be inspired by their parents – “Mum, I remember one stage, she was doing two jobs and doing a degree while raising three kids,” Gideon recalls – and the opportunities they have been afforded, particularly through Gideon’s football career.
But they’ve also had to deal with the guilt of being the lucky ones, and faced it head-on during their first trip back to Malawi.
“My father pulled us aside and said, ‘just because you’re over there doesn’t mean everyone over here is not thinking about you. Just remember that this person here, this other Mzembe member, your family member who doesn’t have anything, that the fact that you share the last name is humbling to them, but they have a sense of honour to know that there’s someone else over there making it big,’” Pacharo said.
“And obviously, it’s about sending help, or giving back. And I know that’s something my brother does very much.”
“It’s very emotional for me,” Gideon said. “You really want to enjoy it.
“Like, for instance this stage that we’re on, sometimes I envision our relatives watching this, because it’s a journey you really want to share.”
Pacharo and Gideon Mzembe star in the play 'Prize Fighter', part of this year's Sydney Festival. Source: SBS
Some scents from their early days in Australia are still strong.
“Yeah, perfume, knocked me for six that one there. It stinks,” Gideon said.
“(I was like) what was that?! Yeah, it was definitely perfume which we’ve obviously conformed to. But when you first smell it, it knocks you around a bit.”
“Because we were always playing sport, and we, like, I’d be honest, we smelled,” Pacharo added. “Sometimes we’d go to Crazy Clark's and perfume and deodorant it up.”
“Which now is known as theft,” Gideon joked. “Back then it’s what you had to do.”