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Saturday, May 09, 2009

J and J's National Football Tournament Adventure, part 2: the games

The Ugandan Ministry of Education and Sports organizes a number of yearly competitions, football (soccer), volleyball, netball, as well as music and drama, and scouting. After watching "War Dance" I was eager to see one of these events, and after a week at the National Football Tournament I'm an even bigger believer in their value. Coca- Cola sponsors the boys' football, but the girls' national gathering is relatively new. This was the first year they tried to hold both the boys' and girls' tournaments in the same town at the same time: 80 boys' teams and 26 girls' teams, with their retainers of coaches, chaperones, cooks, and drivers, probably easily two to three thousand Ugandans, Julia, and me (and one other American, a peace corps volunteer who was coaching a team). We arrived just as the impressive lady in charge was screening all of the players to be sure they were legitimate students . . . and though she was surprised to see Julia, she accepted her papers and welcomed her in.

The girls' teams were organized in four groups of 6 to 7 teams each, so that each school could expect five games as they played the others in their group for the first round. Since our team had only played ONE GAME EVER, we knew this would be great experience! As one might imagine, housing four to five hundred girls at one school and well over a thousand boys at another, scheduling dozens of matches a day using pitches all over town, providing referees and line judges . . . was a monumental task done in daily meetings, with no computers, just posters and charts and markers. Fluid schedules were the order of the day. But the officiating was professionally done and the pitches were in excellent shape.

Our team came in 4th in our group of 6. Not bad for our first time out, especially considering that our group included the national champions for several years running, a team that had represented Uganda at the East African Championships. We tied one game, won one game, and lost three. In every game the girls played with strength and endurance and real heart. Even when they were behind they never gave up. I was extremely proud of them, knowing how new all of this was to them, yet seeing them gel as a team and fight for victory. Two of our losses were very close games in which we controlled the ball much of the time. Since Ashley had gone back to the US for the month, the boys' coach Alex served as coach for the games. He's a pleasant and respectful young man to begin with, and it was fun to see him really start to believe in the girls more and more as the week went on.

Julia played in the second half for three of the five games . . not bad for a 12 year old among girls who average 16-20. She held her own, well trained by her brothers, and had several completed passes, steals, and one good shot on goal. Interestingly her main value was probably spirit. Clearly when she came on the other team wondered who she was (I heard some girls query if she played for the Netherlands national team!), and the spectators reacted with cheers (and some jeers). I saw her laughing with the girls she guarded as she stuck close "marking" them. She had a blast.

All of the girls came away inspired to train hard for next year. They tasted a small dose of success, a precious draught in their lives. They interacted with girls from all over Uganda, different tribes and cultures and schools and backgrounds. They saw women confidently coaching and refereeing. They spent a week in a place much different from Bundibugyo, for many of them the first time to be so far away from home for so long. Back at the hospital yesterday I remarked that most of the young mothers of children on the pediatric ward were within the same age range as the girls on the football team. What a contrast, to be a 16 year old representing your school and district in a national tournament, wearing a uniform, running and playing, hearing applause . . . or to be a 16 year old cradling an ill child, education over, a husband who probably drinks and beats you, a mother-in-law who expects to be served by you, very little opportunity to be affirmed except in producing more children.

Three cheers for girls' sports.

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