By Sam Wilkinson
I recently returned from a 2 week excursion to Uganda. The trip was organised through Premier Skills and ORA New Zealand, a non-profit organisation that stands for Orphans, Refugees and Aid (their key activities). ORA New Zealand is currently partnering with ORA Uganda on a child-focused community development and sponsorship programme in Uganda – the Luku Yesuni Project.
The main purpose of the trip was to help raise global awareness of the project but with the help of Premier Skills I was able to take over with me a suitcase full of footballs and training apparel. I also managed to arrange a couple of informal coaching sessions during the trip. The following article is my account of the trip and some of my observations about the power of football in Uganda:
Having survived two days travel from the UK and a one hour internal flight in a 16 seat plane I arrived at the Luku Yesuni Project base – a 4.7 acre site in the Arua district of Uganda, the north-west corner of the country that borders Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The base is a popular “hangout” for the local children due to the freshly built on-site playground. No sooner than had I arrived a small gathering of local children had congregated. I pumped up 3 of the footballs and made my way out to the playground area.
The mere sight of real footballs immediately caused a stir amongst the children. I was informed that a football usually came in the form of a group of shopping bags rolled up into a ball. The kids spoke no virtually no English but as I dropped the 3 balls no explanation was needed – broken bricks were placed down on the ground to make 2 goals and a game quickly broke out. It was interesting to note that the kids did not form a circle and start kicking/passing the balls to each other as is often the case when western children are given a ball to play with.
Despite the absence of space and organised teams a ferocious and competitive game immediately formed. The players morphed into 2 teams without the use of bibs or uniforms – when new players arrived they were quickly added to a team, the game never stopped. The children soon learned that aimlessly kicking the ball away when they had possession of it equated to less time on the ball. On an uneven, hard and bumpy surface the children attempted to dribble, twist and turn with the ball. When they lost possession of the ball they fought and scrapped to regain it. Some of the children displayed natural balance and showed glimpses of real skill despite the lack of space and tricky surface. I joined in the game myself and some of the children began to replicate the step over’s and drag backs I was performing, without any verbal instruction they were able reproduce tricks they had only just seen.
As an hour passed by I began to fade in the afternoon heat and retired to the shade but the kids showed no sign fading and the game continued as competitively as it had began. Living in extreme poverty the kids have very little in the way of entertainment and very little waiting for them when they get home to their mud huts – no computers or play stations, no ipods or TV’s and for many of them no dinner waiting on the table. The three footballs provided immense joy for these kids and they happily played until it was too dark to see. It was amazing to watch these children getting so much joy from something so simple and reminded how great our game is and the power it can have.
Each day for the next two weeks this routine was repeated. Some of the local children that could not afford to go to school would turn up at the base in the morning ready to start playing while the rest would filter in during the day. I saw many parallels between the play and games of the local Ugandan children and the English street football era of the 50’s and 60’s that John Cartwright has often referred to on this blog. During the two weeks the children spent hours and hours practising the game in a realistic format – there were no lines where children would wait for a turn, there was no one enforcing a ‘two touch’ condition upon them and there was no one telling them to ‘get rid’ of the ball. The kids learnt valuable lessons and developed skill and awareness from this rough form of the game.
On the Saturday a coaching day had been organised. Despite the arranged start time of 10am (African time is very unpredictable) we finally got things underway at around midday. A group of around 40 children (made up of ORA sponsored orphans and local kids) and I headed down to a small football field down the road from the base. I was accompanied by a translator, which made running a structured session possible.
The pitch we worked on would have been considered a health and safety risk back in the UK but it was of no consequence to the players. The player’s ages ranged from around 6-10 so I decided to put them through a ‘Staying With the Ball’ session that would focus on developing individualism. Many of these boys do not go to school and have never been in an organised learning environment. Initially some of them did not understand the concept of stopping play to listen to the coaching points! But during the session I saw them apply many of the coaching points which indicated a capacity and willingness to listen and learn. The players had a natural balance and athleticism and were easily able to cope with the demands of session. They appeared to enjoy every minute of the session and were incredibly grateful that someone was taking time to help them. At no stage did they seem to tire and there were no requests for breaks or drink stops. At the conclusion of the session I was able to present the players with training shirts and footballs.
Overall, my time in Uganda was an incredible experience. I was able to see firsthand informal ‘street’ type football and the benefits it has on skill development. I was also able to see the power of football and how it was able to bring so much joy to a group of young people that lived hard lives in extreme poverty. Football truly is the beautiful game and is important that we make the most of our privileged position and opportunities.