Kampala, Uganda. – Unlike much of Africa, football is not the main sport at Reverend John Foundation School in the Ugandan capital.
Instead, the sport of choice is a downright American activity: baseball.
“Baseball is our main game” at this school, said teacher Emmanuel Bazani. “Even girls like it. They want to participate after they see boys do it. We say if boys can do it, girls can too.”
Baseball is not widely played in Africa, but Uganda seems to have become the port of entry for the most popular sport in the United States and the Caribbean.
Last year, a team of Ugandan baseball players delivered warm international news. They qualified for the Little League Baseball World Championships in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, but their visas were denied by the US government due to a lack of documentation.
“We cried for two days,” said George Makhobi, the coach who was to accompany them to the United States. “He meant a lot to these kids.”
Augustus Oweny was the first policeman. Although he’s now too old to be in the Little League, he still shows up in drills, serving coaches who see this as a sign of his commitment.
Oweny, 13, wants to be like Jimmy Rollins, who plays a short role on the Philadelphia Phillies. Oweny met Brolins when the American visited Uganda in January, and this memory leads him to dream of one day playing in the major leagues.
His hopes of playing baseball made it especially painful that the State Department refused to grant him a US visa.
“I felt very sad,” he said. “They gave us back our passports and said we weren’t going. Some of us cried. I love this sport and I see my future in it.”
Sports fans in Uganda say the success of Reverend John Foundation School in international competition has contributed to baseball’s popularity among schools that were skeptical of American sports.
The school is preparing for a national baseball competition where the winner will travel to Poland in July. It is the first international opportunity for the Ugandan youth after they were unable to travel to the US Championship.
The visa refusal generated a wave of sympathy, but it also inspired a fundraiser who raised enough to bring a team from Canada to Uganda that the Ugandans would have faced had they gone to South Williamsport.
In January, the Ugandans beat the Canadians 2-1. Coach Muchobi said the win was further proof of Uganda’s talent in baseball.
But the sport still lags behind football in Uganda. Although it arrives home with schools attracted by its relative newness, the government is now supporting the introduction of the party into schools.
Makhobe said about 60 schools are promoting the sport, and a national league was launched this year after it won the support of sports authorities. The season started in mid-March.
Barnabas Moisega, the former soccer player who was chosen by an American missionary in 1989 to introduce baseball to the East African country, said his goal of “expanding the sport” has been achieved.
“In those days, we had about six balls and bats,” he recalls. “That was it. The gloves came much later.”
Richard Stanley, the American coordinator of the Uganda Minor League Baseball, now works with 10 schools and “many would like to join”.
But Stanley — who has spent more than $2 million on baseball programs here, including the only stadium in the country — said there are problems even at at-risk schools like the Reverend John Foundation. He said Ugandans rely heavily on donated equipment and matches are often informal. He wants to see more serious.
“The problem with Reverend John Foundation School is that they don’t have space for their games, which is the real problem with baseball in Uganda,” Stanley said. “In order to develop players and sports, we need teams that play multiple times, not once or twice a month.”
“This seems to be the idea of many schools in Uganda, and we are trying to break it. This is the situation that prevents access to truly competitive international teams.”
The Canadian-Uganda competition was watched by more than 300 fans, including 70 Canadians and Americans, according to Muchobi.
Everyone was excited,” Makhobi said. “We thought all hope was gone after we couldn’t go to America. But the victory over Canada gave us that hope back.”
Right to Play, a humanitarian organization that advocates for children’s rights, raised more than $100,000 to fund the match between the two countries. Not all of the money was spent, and Makhobe said the remaining $35,000 would be spent on building a new stadium, sponsoring children’s baseball players’ education and supporting competitions.
The 12 junior league students who would otherwise have competed in the United States are now studying at different schools. Some orphans and recruits from the poorest neighborhoods of Kampala have come close to giving up.
Baseball coaches hope to recruit more players.
One potential player is Isma Kyasanku, who comes every Wednesday to watch after-school rehearsals. “I want to join them,” says the 14-year-old. “Most of my friends play baseball.”
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