Sunday, June 13, 2010

Africa on the Big Stage

I've been home in New Jersey for five days now, feeling a bit strange and not sure how the adjustment back to the US is going. People ask me, and I realize that I don't even know exactly what I'm thinking, and it all feels like a blur in a lot of ways. So, without the ability to process or reflect very much yet, I'll do what comes more naturally: talk about football.

The timing of this World Cup is perfect for me, as it gives me the chance to relax and enjoy the biggest event of the game that I love at a time when I need to relax and move slowly. It is also timely because I've just spent two years in Africa and am now watching Africa's first World Cup. Watching South Africa play Mexico in the opening game, the pit in my stomach told me that I was rooting whole-heartedly for South Africa. I celebrated when they scored the first goal of the tournament, a stunning goal from a player with the wonderful name Tshabalala, and predictically, the South Africans danced. I realized that in this World Cup, more than anything, I am pulling for the Africans. South Africa, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Cameroon - I just want one of them to go far.

It might seem strange, as all of those countries are very far from Uganda and culturally very different. They could be rivals. You wouldn't root for Argentina because you had spent time in Uruguay; you would hate Argentina. But this is different. An African team doing well would be celebrated across the continent, millions of people cheering for their "neighbors." Never mind that a Ugandan might know nothing about Ghana: they are fellow Africans, and the success of Ghana would be success for a Ugandan. Africa is a continent that is downtrodden, that has borne the yoke of colonialism, of slave traders, and of murderous rubber-traders, and now bears that of tyrants, of violence, of tribalism, of corruption, of poverty, and of AIDS. It has been said that Africa's biggest crisis is a crisis of confidence, and so I hope for the encouragement of seeing an African nation go far, of seeing people like them, people with whom they can truly identify, succeed on the world's biggest stage.

Am I dreaming? Maybe. But the excitement about this tournament is palpable in Uganda, and people are crazy about any African team when they come up against competition from outside the continent. I found that Ugandans don't seem to identify themselves strongly as Ugandans, rather they identify first with their tribe, and then as Africans (likely one reason that colonial boundaries can lead to African nations being dysfunctional, but that's another, much longer story). There is a sense of African-hood, perhaps arising from their shared skin color and their history of being ruled over by Europeans, which means that Ugandans could revel in a victory by Cameroon as their own victory. At least I hope so. That pit in my stomach is hope. Hope that so many people I know, and millions more that I don't, can take courage and confidence because of the world's biggest game.

So three cheers for Ghana, who secured Africa's first win with a victory over favored Serbia earlier today. May it be the first of many celebrations across a beautiful, downtrodden, and joyful continent.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Hanging In the Balance

Yesterday I had a frightening reminder of how dangerous road travel is here, and how precariously life is always perched on the edge, needing almost nothing to push it one way or another. On the way over the mountains, we came to a line of vehicles waiting, and we were told that the Kalita (the coach bus that connects Bundibugyo to Kampala) was stuck. Well, not only was it stuck, it was teetering on the edge of a sheer drop, having spun its wheels on one of the muddy corners and slid toward the edge. One back wheel was off the edge, but it had come to rest, tipped at a terrifying angle, perched precariously above a long drop. There were probably about 70-80 people on board, all of whom escaped without injury. Another foot or two to the left, and I doubt any would have survived - it was hard for me to guess where the bus would have stopped rolling.

A sobering thought for me was that I had contemplated taking the bus yesterday. A couple weeks ago, as I considered my travel plans, I thought that Kalita might be a good option. In the end, I opted to hire a car, a decision that I now consider to have been a very, very wise one. But it reminded me how little control I am in and how quickly life can change. The threat of accident or sickness striking at any time is a constant backdrop to everyday life. As recent events all over the world testify, this isn't unique to Bundibugyo or Uganda, but it does seem more obvious here than in many places.

Friday, May 14, 2010

football pictures

A few more pictures from the tournament. I hope to get Scott's at some point, but these will have to do for now.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A goodbye party

My time in Bundibugyo is winding down, a sad realization, and one which forces me to think about how to say goodbye and how to communicate to people that I really care about them, even though I am walking out of their lives. The fact that I'm going to school makes it easier, I believe, as everyone here is eager for the chance to pursue studies, and just about everyone I've talked to assuress me that I'll be coming back here once I'm a doctor. Apparently about half of Nyahuka town is praying for this. What odds do I have against such petition?

As part of the goodbye process, I had a lunch party for a bunch of friends today, kids and young men who I've been involved with and gotten to know. I really do love many of the people in this group, and these are some of the ones who it will be truly difficult to leave. I was counting on about 25 people coming, but of course, with food is involved, about twice that many showed up at my house, many of them rather peripheral kids who I've seen but don't know. I bought spoons and plates this morning, but wasn't prepared for the numbers that came. A woman who prepares delicious Ugandan food did the cooking for me - if you thought I would be cooking Ugandan food for 50 people, you would be crazy. I've probably only cooked dinner for teammates abotu 10 times in the past 2 years. It was delicious, a big spread that was a treat for all involved, but even with chicken, beans, g-nut sauce, cabbage, sombe, and 22 cups of rice we had to carefully ration, and ran short of food by the time it came down to Vincent and me. The kids watched a movie (probably the main reason they like me) while some of the older guys helped me clean up, but the real fun started after that.

The sky grew dark as rain clouds rolled off the mountain, just as we were starting to kick a football around in front of my house. The rain broke as we set up the goals (reeds stuck in the ground about 2 feet apart), and we embarked on an epic, hour and a half long game of barefoot mud football. Vincent and I squared off against each other, joined by other kids between the ages of about 8 and 15, and laughter was the word as we slipped, slid, and fell all over the place. Face plants in mud puddles. Smooth slide tackles. Defenders falling flat on their butts. Sliding, fist-pumping goal celebrations. It was great to just run around in the rain, laughing, playing, having a good time. At the same time, we managed to play some decent ball, as a few of these kids are going to make some very nice footballers in a few years. By the time we were through my yard was left with about half the grass that it started with, and for the first time in 2 years I was about the same color as everyone else around me.

It was a fitting way to begin saying goodbye to these kids, as football has been a big part of my time here. Food, football, and laughter - all things that I have loved sharing with them in my time here.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The National Tournament, part 1

I'm back in Bundibugyo after 8 days in Masaka for the national secondary school football tournament with the Christ School boys. It was an experience to remember, without doubt. A week of contrasts; smiles and frowns, excitement and discouragement, sun and rain, joyful celebrations and maddening frustrations. I’ll put some pictures here, but the best ones will be those that Scott took, which I’ll post later.

We left Bundibugyo early in the morning in pouring rain, leaving me to worry for everyone’s safety on the tortuous road over the mountains, but despite sliding around a fair amount, we made it safely to Fort Portal and paved roads in reasonable time. Right as we left Fort, there was a sobering reminder of the danger of road travel, as we came upon the scene of a very recent accident, the mangled car lying upside down in a ditch, passengers still stuck inside. We pulled over and ran back to help pull them out, and based on the condition of the vehicle, I thought it was likely we would have to pull a dead body from the car. My first thought was to call an ambulance, only to remember that there is no ambulance. I was thinking about waiting for EMTs to arrive, to make sure that we stabilized peoples’ heads correctly, only to realize that there could be no such considerations. While there was a lot of blood, everyone was alive and we got them out quickly. Most had head wounds and were probably concussed, but we got them in a minibus that would take them to a hospital in Fort, where the driver would be reimbursed for his ambulance service. As we got back in our minibus and pulled away, I looked at the driver and reminded him to drive us carefully. All this, and we had only been gone for 4 hours.

The tournament itself was a good experience and a time of incredible frustration. The organization left plenty to be desired, but after two days all the schools had their players screened and registered. Two of my starters were not cleared right away, owing to slight discrepancies in their names on various documents, but after petitioning the disciplinary committee and meeting with them, the boys were cleared to participate. (In Bundibugyo, names are very fluid, and a person’s name can easily change over time, and additional names can be added or can fall into disuse, making these sort of procedures difficult. One of my players used three names on his primary school leaving exam, but now only uses two, almost getting himself disqualified in the bargain.)

I was accompanied by two Christ School staff members: Ajeku, an assistant coach, and Bwampu, the games master (and a former CSB footballer himself). Alex, the other coach, couldn’t come because his wife was in the hospital waiting to deliver, so significantly more responsibility fell to me. I sat in the meeting where we drew the teams into groups, and I randomly drew us into a group with the host school, St. Henry’s.

A word about the host school. St. Henry’s Kitovu is a massive boys secondary school, rolling in money from the looks of things. 1000 students, many dorms, dozens of classrooms, three football fields, flush toilets, three canteens (stores to buy food and supplies), and acres of space. I saw their O-level test results: 91% of their students scored in division 1, and only one person scored as low as division 3. To put in perspective how hard that is to achieve, it was a major accomplishment the first time that a Christ School student scored as high as division 2. St. Henry’s is also culturally on the inside, as Masaka is right in the middle of the Baganda people, the country’s largest and most powerful people group. In effect, St. Henry’s is the opposite of Christ School. It is old while CSB is young, it is wealthy while CSB runs on a tight budget, it is from an empowered place and an empowered people while CSB is from a forgotten district and a marginalized people.

All of this set the scene for a remarkable turn of events, as the organizers announced that the tournament’s opening match, occurring at the end of the opening parade and ceremony and attended by all other participants (and TV cameras and radio stations), would be played between the host school and Christ School Bundibugyo. My eyes got big and I turned to look at Bwampu, and we both burst into laughter. We were excited and nervous - excited at the opportunity on the big stage and nervous at the prospect of getting humiliated on it, emotions that seemed to be shared by the boys when we told them. It was a veritable David and Goliath (physically too - their players are a lot bigger than ours). This was the sort of story that movies are made of.

On the day of the game, the Coca-Cola banners went up, the giant inflatable Coke bottles were inflated, the Coke marching band played, and at the end of the ceremony, my boys walked onto the pitch through a big red Coca-Cola tunnel, with young children holding their hands, just like the pros do. There was a gleam in their eyes; they realized this was a once in a lifetime experience. I was a bit of a phenomenon, the only white face among thousands of Ugandans of all shades, and as I walked to the coaches area the cameras clicked the people chattered.

Well, no movie will be made of this story. Usually, the David doesn’t beat the Goliath, though you tend to hear about the times that he does. This was not one of those times. We came out strong, controlling possession, passing well, dominating the game to an extent that after 20 minutes, I thought to myself “We’re going to win this game.” Eventually, however, the greater experience of the other team paid off, in combination with our lack of exposure to high quality competition, and they exposed weaknesses in our defense that teams in Bundibugyo hadn’t. We were down 2-0 at the half, but I was still confident and the boys were still upbeat. The game ended 4-0, but the game was nowhere near as lopsided as the score suggests. Of course we were disappointed, but I walked away with my head up, and so did the players. Based on our solid performance, one good but moody player came up to me and said excitedly, "Master! We can win!" I think it was a moment of realization and confidence that, though we were from a backwater place, we could compete on the big stage.

Before I could leave the field, however, I was grabbed by several reporters from with video cameras and microphones, setting up a comical situation in which I could barely walk twenty feet without being grabbed for another interview. I guess I have now had my 15 minutes of fame. The match was broadcast on the radio into Bundibugyo, and while the scoreline wasn’t flattering, Bwampu began getting many calls from people who had listened and who felt like, from listening, our boys were doing very well and had the better of possession. I think that it was a moment of pride, even in defeat, for many of the players, realizing that they were representing their district and that people back home were following them and proud of them.

More to come when I have more time to write…

Friday, April 16, 2010

Fearing Like a Man

My hands are soft. I notice it most when cooking. People will grab the thin metal saucepans right off the fire with their are hands, unfazed. The first time I saw this, I assumed that the pan was not very hot, and picked it up to move it elsewhere. You can guess how that worked out, and the painful burns left me wondering how he could have handled it so easily. Occasionally, when a pan is really hot, I've seen someone grab a leaf or two and use them as insulation, I would still burn through the leaf.

The other day I was eating at a friend's house, and was in the little kitchen building with him and his sister in law, marveling at the toughness of her hands. A saucepan of boiling water sat on the crackling fire, to which she added maize flour to make posho (think grits). Posho, however, requires a lot of vigorous stirring, and these saucepans have no handles, so she firmly grabbed this blazing hot pan with one hand and began stirring with the other. Occasionally she would change her grip, probably for a break from the heat, but her hand was usually down on the side of the pan, basically among the flames that were licking around her fingers from below. She didn't flinch, didn't show a hint of discomfort. I told my friend how amazing this was to me, and he told me that women here have much tougher hands than men.

He told me about a saying that women have. When multiple women are together cooking, if one of them reaches for some leaves to protect her hand from the scorching heat of the pan, the others will ridicule her, saying, "Why are you fearing fire like a man?" Cooking is so much a part of the identity of women here, that one can be shamed for not having that food-preparation toughness, and resorting to the soft means of protection that men use.

I'm guessing it's callouses, and nerves damaged due to repeated burning, and simple toughness. One way or another, women here are tough. This discussion leaves out the fact that, before building the fire, women collect and carry the firewood. I've seen women who must be 70, tiny, frail looking, and hunched over, carrying on their backs massive loads of firewood that must weigh 60 pounds or more, bent almost 90 degrees at the waist, looking at the ground, slowly putting one foot in front of the other as they move up the road. It's incredible.

So here's to tough women who provide for their families, who spend most of their days doing the mundane things like hauling and splitting firewood, peeling matooke, and taking hold of blazing hot pans - and who don't fear like a man.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Christ School is the champion of Bundibugyo district! Yesterday, we met our biggest rival in the district final. Our first half was brilliant, and the boys did everything I asked of them: keeping their heads in a high-pressure game, possessing the ball, keeping it on the ground, good passing, organized defense, and a high work rate. The only thing lacking was our finishing, and we went into halftime up 1-0 when it should have been 3-0. Nevertheless, I was upbeat and pleased.

I could never have guessed what would follow, as the second half was absolutely horrible. We lost control, the boys lost their poise. I was screaming to my players, "Keep the ball on the ground!" Their coach would then immediately scream to his players, "Don't let them keep the ball on the ground!" One thing I love about soccer is that it is a player's game. The coach can train and prepare, but once the whistle blows, it's up to the players. There's no micromanagement from the sidelines. That aspect of the game drove me crazy in the second half. I was screaming, pacing, shaking my head, my heart pounding, my head in my hands, powerless. Coaching is an entirely different game than playing.

However, we held on for the 1-0 victory, and a wonderful celebration ensued. It took me a couple minutes to transition from my angry coach mode into victory celebration, but it was a lot of fun. One young player in particular impacted me. He's a good kid, very hard working, the kind of player I like to have, and one who will go on to be a big player for this team. He had come on as a substitute to give us a little more defense, and was injured late in the game on a nasty tackle from an opponent and had to be carried off the field, grimacing in pain. As soon as the whistle blew, his arms went in the the air, fists pumping, head back, with pain and joy in his eyes. He looked to me like he might start crying. The emotion in his celebration helped me realize how big this is to these boys. Some of them are orphans, all of them endure a lot of challenges, all of them come from a forgotten corner of this country. This victory which makes them champions may be one of the most meaningful and positive things to happen to them. And now they have the chance to represent their district at the national tournament. There was a crate of Mountain Dew for the celebration, and the boys opened them and shook them like champagne, a fun and happy sight. I helped carry the injured player over the the middle of the celebration so that he could join in the Mountain Dew shower.

Many of these boys have never been outside of Bundibugyo, and I'm excited to have the chance to go with them to Masaka for nationals. We'll meet taller, more skilled players. We'll meet schools with a lot more money. But we'll get to represent Bundibugyo - these 20 boys who get to go on a huge adventure, the biggest opportunity of their playing days. Seeing a new part of the country, opening their eyes, traveling, feeling good about themselves, camaraderie, confidence, learning, growth. That's what I hope for, and I believe it will be a good opportunity for me to invest in them and to show them that I care for and believe in them, even as I prepare to return to the US.

After the game, I told the players that we have a lot to talk about on Monday (not happy things, mind you), but that now was the time to celebrate. And that gave me some freedom to celebrate too.