When I am asked, ‘what are some of your favorites parts about living in rural Africa?’ I almost always answer football (soccer for you North Americans). I love football for many reasons, but one of the more recent reasons is because football is a reflection of those who play it. Football inherits the personalities and cultures of people. Ugandan football is different from Canadian football, which is different from Brazilian football, which is different from Korean football.
I think the final match of the recent district tournament best captures not only football in Uganda, but life as well. Against long odds, our village, Tekera, made it to the finals for what I understand was the first time ever (sometimes it is hard to gather these details). The tournament was a 4-month long adventure that included a group stage and a knockout stage that involved home and away matches. The finals were to be played on Eid Day (locals here pronounce it eedee), the end of the Muslim holiday Ramadan and a national holiday in Uganda, but the crazy thing about Eid Day is that they never know when that day will land. Eid Day falls on the full moon, which means that they can never confirm when that will be until very close to the full moon. All of this meant that we did not find out when Eid Day was until 10pm the night before when people in the village heard it on the radio and circulated the news by word of mouth. I was recovering from a bad cold at the time (don’t ask me how I got a cold in Africa) and I was not thrilled that I had to play the next day on short notice, but it was not the first time (nor will it be the last time) I was informed about a football match with little notice. As they often tell me with these things, ‘this is Uganda.’
The morning of the match was cold and overcast, even raining at times, but it had cleared up by late afternoon. We were playing Kitengesa, the perennial winner of the tournament, on their home pitch. This didn’t bother me because their pitch was much nicer than ours – meaning it had slightly fewer mounds, holes, rocks, cattle dung, and paths strewn across the pitch. Our football team came to the pitch in usual fashion – loud and late. Players and fans were spilling out of lorries and trucks, all to eager to let anyone within earshot know that they had arrived. Our team incurred a fine for being late, but no one seemed to pay much attention to it – I think they knew they could talk their way out of it or something.
By the time the match got going, there were well over 2000 fans who lined the pitch on all sides, which helped because the field didn’t actually have any lines. A local politician came to the match with a large entourage and one person in the entourage had the politician’s face plastered on a jerry can they carried above their head as they followed her all day. The little kids would follow me around the field before the match, stretching as I stretched, until I had to shoo them away before our pre-match talk so our coach could give the team final instruction, none of which I understood, only to be followed by 3 or 4 other people, presumably fans or friends (some of whom I had never seen before), also offering instruction. Coaching is by committee at times, and often it seems like anyone can elect themselves to the committee. Through it all I nod with a serious face attempting to give the impression that I know what they are talking about.
We started the match going uphill and into the wind and we had a difficult time controlling the flow of the game. Our team is pretty undisciplined, which can make the football here as fun as banging your head against the wall if you playing a must-win match, but we make up for it with our athleticism and energy. Twenty minutes into the game as we were beginning to settle into the match, the ref suddenly stopped the match for an extended period of time, close to 10 minutes I would guess, in order to settle the fans down. This happened again in the second half and both times I could do nothing but walk around in circles and look off into space as the ref tried to deal with the mob of fans. These stoppages of play were especially annoying because I knew the ref had no hope of settling the fans down. During the stoppage in the second half I asked a few people what was going on, only to learn that the fans who stood behind the opposition’s goal (I should point out these were the fans from our village) were sending curses, as in Old Testament-like curses, onto the field and the opposing players. They take these things very seriously because it is still a significant part of village life, so understandably the ref had to do his best to squash the curses. My first thought upon hearing this was one of empathy for the ref, an emotion that I do not normally feel towards them, but my second thought? ‘Yep, this is definitely Uganda.’
The match was close, with both teams having their moments but neither team able to break through. The game ended in a 0-0 draw and went to penalties. Penalties are never a great way to end a match, let alone a tournament, but we had no other choice because we were rapidly losing light as the match had started a few minutes late – no thanks to our team, of course. Our team was shooting first so I went forward to take it as the few thousand fans created a wall many people deep around the 18-yard box. The penalty spot was essentially a patch of sand, and it was too big not to place the ball outside of it. I made a comment to the referee that it might be better to do the penalty shots at the other net, but the ref was having none of it. He seemed a little indignant that I wasn’t happy with the penalty spot, so he responded by saying, ‘This is Uganda.” I thought, ‘yeah, yeah, I KNOW this is Uganda, but seriously, we are literally kicking the ball on the beach.’ But there was nothing I could do so I went ahead and thankfully scored. As I sat down a gentleman from the crowd ran up and handed me money thanking me for scoring; I have scored many penalty shots in my lifetime but this was the first time (and unfortunately probably also the last) someone gave me money for the feat. I was extremely impressed by the quality of shots both teams made from the sand pit, but the one poor shot came from our team, meaning that we lost the penalties, and thus the match, 5-4.
After the match many of the players and fans crowded around a small table for the award ceremony. I sat near the front between someone’s legs with another person sitting between my legs. I was seated fairly uncomfortably for over 30 minutes as people made speeches (Ugandans love speeches) under the encroaching darkness. It was a good 20 minutes before I realized that the goat that was the prize for the 3rd place team was literally breathing over my shoulder. The award ceremony, while long, was really beautiful. You would not have known who won and who lost based on many of the player’s faces. Yes, we were disappointed to lose, but the football match was more than a game, it was a community gathering at its best.
I was the top goal scorer for the tournament so after about 45 minutes of speeches that I didn’t understand, I was awarded a pair of shoes. This was very humbling because I didn’t need shoes nearly as much as most players, but the only problem was that the shoes were baseball shoes, not football shoes. I was extremely grateful for the award, but my first thought after receiving them? ‘Yep, this is Uganda.’