For the second time in two weeks, pride in Uganda is at an all-time high.
In last Sunday’s men’s marathon in London, 23 year-old Ugandan Stephen Kiprotich outlasted two of his Kenyan training partners to win Olympic gold. It was his country’s second-ever gold medal—a long awaited victory after a forty-year drought.
This week, the East African nation is again rejoicing—this time over the accomplishments of around a dozen 11 year-old boys.
The youngsters from Lugazi made the trip to Williamsport, PA for the Little League World Series last week. They are the first team ever from Africa to play in the annual tournament.
2011 would have been the first, as a team from Kampala, Uganda defeated Saudi Arabia to qualify as the representative from the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region. However, at the eleventh hour, officials from the United States Embassy in Uganda denied the team’s visa applications, citing discrepancies in the ages of some of the players.
Take two has been a success—the new MEA representatives are the talk of Williamsport, and deservedly so.
It’s difficult to think of a situation in the history of sports in which the score has been such a minor detail.
Part of the reason is that the context is so different for Uganda than for the rest of the baseball world. For example, the United States is the birthplace of Little League baseball and has a fifty percent chance of winning the tournament each year.
Other countries like Mexico, Curacao, Japan and Chinese Taipei (formerly Taiwan) have had competitive programs for years, support from hometown heroes playing in the MLB and recognition on the international stage.
For Uganda, the building process has been progressing at a crawl. According to 303 Development Corp, a non-profit organization from the United States whose goal is to develop Little League Baseball throughout Uganda, there are “15,000 children sharing about 700 gloves” within the national baseball program.
Funding has only been provided for three regulation-size Little League fields in the entire nation. The vast majority of the young men who would be interested in baseball do not have access to the facilities, equipment and coaching that have the potential to mold them into great baseball players.
But in Uganda, unimaginable hardship has long extend beyond baseball. Currently, there are around 2 million children without parents in Uganda, 45% due to AIDS. 30,000 people currently live in refugee camps, which offer horrible living conditions and extreme risk of both AIDS and malaria.
The inhabitants in these camps are the last “lost” Ugandans still suffering from the atrocities of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which mutilated nearly 100,000 people in Uganda between 1986 and 2007 and kidnapped, raped, disfigured and enslaved thousands more.
Uganda—which still faces severe poverty and hunger crises—now appears to be rid of the LRA, but the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Sudan, despite some progress, are still suffering.
These young Ugandan men, because of what their country has had to cope with and what they are hoping to recover from, stand for much more than just a couple unfavorable scores, which will not be mentioned in this article.
“This is a message to all of Africa, We can’t be worried about results,” Uganda manager Henry Odong said. “We have to get the kids to play the game.”
And play they did. Despite their early exit from the tournament at the hands of Panama and Mexico, respectively, Uganda competed until the final out and even brought the house down in Williamsport thanks to a Daniel Alio two-run homer in the sixth inning of Game One.
The hope is that Lugazi’s youth will inspire the expansion of baseball throughout Africa and other impoverished areas around the world.
Though the world is much more complicated than a simple game, maybe baseball, which has unified millions of people over the years, could continue to build hope for this still-healing continent.