Then this happened…
I don’t know how to start this post. I’ve already had several false starts and deleted introductions, some were bad jokes, some were heavy handed intellectual musing, some were just jumping right in with a daily shooting log. Then there was this one, an ineffective, self-reflexive “welcome to my account of some of the strangest couple of weeks I’ve ever had.” Sorry, it’s the only way to begin.
Now the intellectual stuff… In the first cut of the film, which has only been seen by a handful of people, I made the conscious decision to not address the documentation process from last year. This is not because the process was dishonest or I was protecting anyone. Rather, the reason was the issues surrounding the lack of proper documentation brings up a level of discourse on Africa that is frequently ignored because it is rather unpopular and uncomfortable for a Western audience to understand. To say that it is a can of worms is unfair, its more like an oil drum of worms (that might count as a bad joke). But the events of the last 2 weeks have pried that can/drum open. And we should talk about it. As far as the film goes, we have a tremendous opportunity. The intellectual and moral waters that the film can wade into now have been elevated. All of this, believe me, is daunting and exciting for us.
And now, in paragraph 3, I’ve decided the only fair way to tell my story is to go back to that daily shooting log of sorts. I’ll let you experience it the way I have as best as I can. At the end, I’m sure I’ll get back on my academic high horse and tell you what I think about it all. But here we go…
As I’ve stated, I wasn’t here for much of this years team coming together. Last year, I worked very closely with Eric Omondi (who is now studying in Austria) to gather documentation. I knew all of the boys playing ball in the country and was fairly certain that the team this year would not be as good as last year. So, after I heard that they had played Saudi Arabia to a 3-2 loss in extra innings in the round robin game in Poland, I was a bit taken aback. And when they won in the finals… overjoyed. I hopped on the first plane I could find and began to roll right away. And who else to start with but Coach George.
This interview went pretty much as you would expect. He was on cloud nine. He told me about every game they played, how he felt like he was dreaming, how he had no idea what to expect in America. For 2 years now, I’ve known that no one here in Uganda has any idea how big this tournament is in America. In a lot of ways, that very fact helped them win and play with confidence in Poland… they have no idea how crazy it is that they are winning. But during this interview with George I was beginning to think that he was starting to get it. He knew they wouldn’t win in America but he was excited to see the level that they should be shooting for. He kept telling me that they were going to ‘learn’.
There are a lot of complicated politics here within the baseball community, but none of that existed in this interview. He was simply happy. He told me that when he reached home after returning from Poland his house was full of baseball players. They all stayed up celebrating late into the night.
I went over to find Augustus. He was one of the players who was too young to play last year, so I was especially excited for him for how it was working out. Augustus has always been confident with an endearing tongue-in-cheek cockiness, but even he wasn’t expecting to win many games in America.
His Dad, who I have always pegged as the most supportive father of any of the ballplayers, was eager to talk about how proud he was of Augustus. He has 4 sons who all excel in sports and have even travelled around East Africa for some of them, but none had gone to America. That is still the big prize.
The next day we went over to Railways school near Sharing to grab Abooki (white shirt second from right). I have tons of footage of Abooki as he is very close friends with Asharaf who is a featured character in the current cut. Asharaf, Augustus, and 4 other players (the one in the middle is really good and should be on next years team) walked back to Abooki’s place where I was going to sit him down to get the same excited reaction that I got from Augustus.
Abooki sat down in front of his house in the Nsambya Ghetto and we talked about how he is known now in the whole school because of baseball. He also told me (more than a few times) that he scored the first run against Saudi Arabia in the championship game. Abooki leads a pretty typical ghetto kid life in Nsambya. He lives with his Grandmother, though his Mother is around and sees him sometimes. His father is not in the picture. Six people live in the small room separated by a curtain. In the Sunday New York Times article featuring Abooki (real name is Felix, but no one calls him that), they wrote that he has only one set of clothes. Obviously, not true, I think we all know where that kind of thinking comes from though. He has other pieces of clothes and they are pretty awesome. Like an awesome rocking Star Wars pajama/sweatshirt you’ll see later in this post. I’ll talk about that whole thing later. On with the semi-daily account.
On the weekend there was an open baseball tournament being held at Jinja S.S. Surprisingly, this was my first time there. It’s the largest secondary school in the country and they have really great flat grounds for games. There is a large Indian influence there and plenty of cricket. There were even two “batting cages” for cricket practice (sorry i don’t know the real term for it, don’t be offended all you crazy cricket players). It wouldn’t be very hard to adapt them into baseball batting cages, definitely an interesting future project, I got the name of the local manufacturer anyway.
The games were impressive from all age groups and it is the largest number of players I’ve seen at one place to date. Benard brought two teams down from Soroti of softball players. From what I saw he is doing an incredible job with his efforts up there. The guys told me that he brought a baseball team last month that shocked everyone. I’m seriously impressed by that, Soroti had zero baseball to speak of as recently as January. Kudos to Benard.
Some really sad news about a player from last years team though. Kid. You may recall me gushing about him, I considered him one of the best prospects from last years team. Half of his right index finger got cut off in an accident… his throwing hand… ugh. He and a friend were cutting jack fruit and the friend missed. He is still playing, but I could tell he was embarrassed about it and pretty bummed out. He told me he has never even unwrapped it since it happened. I did throw with him a little and I was surprised at how well he has adapted already, it’s almost like everything he throws is a change-up now off of the middle and ring fingers. I’ll say again that we always think of the dangers of Africa as disease and war, whereas the enormous threats of household accidents, small fires, and traffic accidents are much more relevant to most of their lives.
A few days later (sorry I’m not dating anything here) I went with George to the site of the traffic accident that claimed the lives of 11 of his friends and fellow pioneering ballplayers. He didn’t love going there, but once he was there he told me he was glad to have a chance to visit them before going to America. The road has since been renovated from the time of the accident. In fact, it was being paved when the accident occurred. It certainly would have looked much rougher than what you see today.
I continued on to Jinja where 2 of the ballplayers live and go to school, Gingo and Kenneth. They both attend St. Noa. Gingo comes from a large stable house with both parents. He’s a well spoken kid who raves about Jimmy’s coaching. He only began playing within the last year and has progressed quickly.
Kenneth is an orphan. Both of his parents died when he was young, maybe 4 or 5 years old. The headmaster said they died of AIDS, but Kenneth didn’t know, and it’s impossible to guess. When he was 6 his Grandmother put him in a car. He didn’t know where they were going. They drove to the Mama Jane Orphanage and she dropped him off, conducted an interview with the headmaster, and left. And that was that, Kenneth was in the orphanage and never saw her again.
This orphanage seems decent. It is an official NGO and even receives aid from the UN World Food Program. There are about 60 kids staying there in the enclosed space. They help get the kids into local schools and assist where they can with clothes and other needs.
Kenneth talks about how it was hard to adjust at first to the new surroundings and the strange kids, but how it became normal after a short time. And once they got him in a school he liked, he really seemed to thrive. Most of the orphans there are young. Most were brought there before the age of 6. Kenneth has been trying to teach them about baseball. He stays mostly at school now in the boarding section, but always has a bed there at Mama Jane if he needs it.
I also like his shirt.
This is Kana. He lives in Lugazi and is one of the smarter kids I’ve met. His father died when he was 4 and he lives with his mother. He seems to really miss his Dad but tells me how Bouncer and Coach George have become like his Dad. Bouncer is the local coach in Lugazi who I’m sure I must have mentioned before. After all the usual interview stuff about how excited he was he gave me one of my favorite lines so far. “I don’t think people should feel sorry for Africa but they should just encourage us because if they feel sorry for us then we also feel sorry for ourselves. But i think they should just encourage us. Because the more you discourage a person the more they decline. But if they continue to encourage us then i think we shall pick up.” Love it. And agree completely. And even now, after all this visa madness… it’s important. Again, I’ll try to discuss at the end.
Then there is Ivan. Ivan was on the team last year and was one of the best even then. I knew he would carry the team this year, and he did. I’ve written about him before but just to refresh…
This hut is where Ivan lives. It was never supposed to be a home, it is an equipment shed meant to hold groundskeeping equipment for Kyambogo University. His story goes like this.:
When his mother was pregnant with him in a nearby village, his parents split up. That’s the last of the birth father, he died years later working as a police officer but wasn’t involved in Ivan’s life before his death anyway. His mother was seven months pregnant and her mother came to stay with her until she gave birth. Ivan was born. For that first year of his life, they had no money at all. The mother, being younger, recovered from the birth and went to look for work, leaving Ivan with his Grandmother. After one year of this, his mother had started a new life with new work. In Uganda (and many other places in the world) if you have a child from another man, it is impossible for you to find someone who will marry you. It’s unfortunately common for these women to give these children to their parents or Aunts so they can try to find a new life. So, Ivan went to live with his Grandmother in the equipment shed at Kyambogo when he was one. His Grandmother’s husband was the groundskeeper for the sports grounds at Kyambogo, it was literally the “front lawn” of the shed.
Ivan’s Grandparents became his parents. He loved them as such and vice versa. And this field they lived on was used for a lot of games, cricket, rugby, track, tennis, football, and baseball. His Grandmother told me how he would try to pick up the bats and balls and play when he was just a baby. It’s safe to say that Ivan was literally raised by baseball. JICA (the Japanese Peace Corps) was, and still is, quite active with this University and usually there is a JICA coach with the Kyambogo boys. In 2004, they arranged a trip to Japan for a team of Ugandan boys to go play and tour for about a week. Ivan was only 6 but was so good that they brought him. He has some great photographs still from the trip.
He goes to school for free at Reverend John because of the enthusiasm for sports by the headmaster Washington who also has been doing construction for Richard’s complex.
Last year Ivan’s Grandfather died. The house is now Ivan and his 3 siblings and his Grandmother. His Grandmother does some housework for a Ugandan family in town and gets almost no money for it. She comes home quite late. She is also incredibly loving and caring and always gives me hugs, never anything less. The 4 of them sleep on foam mattresses on the ground, sharing two of them. There is no space inside, and of course no electricity or water. There is a nearby well that seems safe enough. As soon as the sun goes down, there is nothing for light except 2 small candles. The area is also not all that safe, especially when school is out of session. Ivan’s situation is… rough. Probably the roughest of any of the ballplayers I’ve seen.
On his flight to Poland this year, the team flew on Turkish Airlines, he was given a small inflatable airplane. He has strung up the plane and it dangles from the ceiling of his home. I don’t need to complete the metaphor for you. But… that, is Ivan. He still has an incredibly shy persona off the field and turns into a natural born leader on it. But he has been opening up to me in the last year, and the more I learn about him, the more you just get the feeling that he is ‘special’. If you see him play, you’d never know any of this, you’d just be impressed at how good he is. And believe me, he is quite good. And maybe none of this extreme poverty stuff matters on the baseball field, that is a large part of my interest in this whole movie… but in Ivan’s case, you get the feeling that maybe it does matter, just a little.
Then came Wednesday. Each player met at George’s house and brought a parent or guardian. We all went to the US Embassy together. Everyone was expecting it to be easy. They were being handled as a special case. The Ambassador took a photo op with the boys. The paperwork was submitted, and the interviews began. I was inside along with a photographer from the New York Times who was assigned to follow the story. The kids interviews didn’t take long and they came out still excited. Then the parents went in for their interviews. After 3 hours of silence it was pretty clear something wasn’t going right. We ended up staying there well after the embassy was closed, no food, no water. Everyone was tired and hungry and getting concerned. Parents were filing out sporadically seemingly frustrated by the endless questioning. Finally, just as the sun was setting everyone came outside and an official gathered them and told them that they could not issue the visas based on the information submitted. The woman delivering this news was having trouble keeping it together, fighting back the tears.
I was stunned. So was everyone else.
I tried to get a little more information before she went back in but she was not at liberty to discuss visa cases. And that was that. George was still inside somewhere, we weren’t sure where. I walked back to George’s house where a few parents were gathered with their sons, everyone was still just confused. I was sending emails to Little League seeing if there was anything I could do to help, there must have been some mistake. And time was short.
Eventually, George came back. He told me that they had him in an interrogation room, accusing him of lying, and arraigning this and that, he even told me that the words ‘child trafficking’ were floated around. He was confused, and a little angry. I tried to assure him that we would find out what happened and see if we could fix it. Every time they have tried to get visas anywhere there is a challenge, so in some ways, we all thought that this would be solved.
There wasn’t much else to do that night, people were exhausted. We just said if we find out any information we would let everyone know. We told all the boys to keep preparing as if they were going. And that was Wednesday.
As I said before, I didn’t know the process of these documents this year. I looked at them on wednesday morning and they all seemed okay, but I didn’t know where they came from. On Thursday and Friday I started to find out. I talked to George about it in depth, and the local coaches who handled them, and even kids who might know some things. The process this year… was terrible. There were big mistakes with the paperwork and there were a lot of reasons for it.
As far as I can tell, the reasons were not intentional. I can’t find any instances of anybody here intentionally altering this or that for any sinister reason, it seemed to me to be the result of a country that simply wasn’t ready to send this team. There wasn’t one person in charge of the process this year, it was sort of a group effort. The kids on the team would try to bring their documents to the local coaches who would then bring them to George who would then turn them over to Washington and Paul who would arrange for the Passports to be made based on that information. If there was someone in that chain who wasn’t honest, I have no idea who it would be and I don’t think anyone will ever know. The entire process was rushed, many parents are illiterate or uncooperative, and the local coaches were often confused about what paperwork was really asking of them.
People don’t know how old they are here. I know that sounds absurd, and really it is. But people have no idea. The president of the country doesn’t know how old he is. That’s not an exaggeration, thats the truth. I suppose if I never knew how old I was and then when I was 8 someone told me I was 7 or 9 or whatever, I wouldn’t know either. Age isn’t something that is needed here often, and birthdays aren’t celebrated. The grade levels in schools are not really based on ages and the school calendar is year round. There are no seasons to speak of. Really there is nothing to mark the passing of time except time itself, and people seem to have other things to worry about. I know its absurd. But it is what it is.
I can’t write about specific visa cases with problems as I really don’t know which ones were too problematic for the US Embassy. All I know is that in the 2 or 3 days of digging that I did, I uncovered big enough issues that I understand the embassy’s decision to not grant this team the visas. Again, if the mistakes were intentional or not, I can’t know, from my digging they were not, but it doesn’t matter, the result is the same and it was impossible to fully trust all of the paperwork, including the ever important dates of birth. And of course, the kids did nothing wrong and many still don’t know how old they are.
There are a lot of ways to address this problem. And Little League needs to do some addressing of their own. As unprepared as Uganda was to send this team, Little League was equally as unprepared to receive them. What needs to be understood though that “Uganda did the best it could and this issue will always exist” as a line… is only half true. Uganda did not do the best it could with the paperwork this year, in part because of the limited time they were given to do it because of Richard’s schedule with the team… or in some cases perhaps they did their best. But we can do better… most of the time.
So, the process works like this here. When you are born in a hospital, they give the parents a sort of receipt when you leave (not a birth certificate). This piece of paper is lost, burned, thrown away, etc… by nearly everyone. Last year only one parent of the 12 boys still had it, and that was a bit of a shock too. When you want to get an official government issued birth certificate, the process is this. You go to the hospital with the child and parent, you tell them that you’d like to find the original documents for his birth and tell them the approximate months or year that the child was born and as much information as you can. There is a fee depending on how hard the case is, but they can probably locate the original receipt depending on how good the hospital is. It may take them 1 day or it may take them 6 months and it may take a lot of phone calls to check and see if they are actually working on it, but they’ll find it… usually. Once, they find it, you take that document with a form filled out with information about the parents to the Administrator General’s office in downtown Kampala. The fee for getting an original birth certificate based on this information is 30,000shs (13 dollars). You transfer this money directly from the bank to them. You go back and you get the original document. And there you have it. This entire process is not free and no one here can afford the 30-50 dollars for the whole thing, and may take quite a while. And this process is only possible for 60-70% of kids playing here.
The other 30-40% fall into various situations. Many of them were born in a hospital that keeps no records or has suffered a fire or theft and has lost all records of the birth. Some of them are orphans (such as Kenneth) and have no knowledge of the hospital they were born in or even what village it might have been in. Some of them were born at home with no one there and no record of anything.
That 30-40% is a lot of work, but it’s a very important question. On this year’s team, there are several cases in that 30-40%. These require a near police detective level of work to find an acceptable answer to the age question. There are possibilities though, there are immunizations that happen for some babies where records are kept or may be tracked down, there are baptism records for some, there are early school records for some when the boy was 4 or 5 years old, there may be records or testimonies for local councilmen if they are born in a village, there may be photographs of the boy as a baby that give definitive clues about month and year… and sometimes there may be nothing like any of this.
But if this is the challenge, its worth doing. And to no fault of Uganda’s, nothing to that extent was done this year.
This is a monster that organizations like Little League have been hiding from for too long, it was bound to reach their doorstep one day, and here we are. But it is addressable. And they’ll fix it. They have to unless they resign themselves to excluding every poor kid out there who might have the toughest situations. I hope I can be part of the solution to the problem because the tragedy of the situation is that I know everyone wants these kids to compete, and of course I do too, but I, as a baseball fan, understand the sanctity of the age question in these tournaments. No one chooses to be born where they are, and the 12 year olds in Kuwait and New Jersey and Uganda are all working hard and deserve fair tournaments. We can all do better with this question on all sides. Here in Uganda, it will take time, money, and commitment, and lots of effort. But it’s worth it. And if Little League helps these boys get accurate documents, that’s a great service to them in their lives. They may need them when getting certain jobs, traveling other places, trying to get loans etc… if baseball can help them get those documents, well that’s a great service in itself.
So… of course I had to conduct a tough interview with George reacting to the news. He was genuinely worried about ending up in prison. Not because he did anything wrong or was feeling guilty, but that there were local reports that the government was going to investigate and punish people if it finds out people lied to the US Embassy. I’m 95% sure that this investigation won’t happen and it was just someone in the government here pretending to do their job, but who knows. Obviously, George was disappointed about the entire thing. And he agrees with all that stuff I just wrote up there. He wants to change things in the future. He wasn’t pointing fingers, he just wanted to keep going.
Augustus’s Dad also talked to me and gave more insight into the problem in Uganda, how people don’t have documents. He said during the interviews that the embassy was telling them that there must have been foul play with the other boys documents but he didn’t have any proof. All he could talk about was Augustus’s paperwork which I’m nearly certain wasn’t an issue. And he, of course, didn’t let me leave without food from his garden and a soda, as usual.
I then got Asharaf, Augusts, and Abooki together at Abooki’s house to talk about all of it. It’s one of my favorite interviews I’ve done here. They point a pretty big angry finger at the parents of Uganda. The parents here don’t care. They aren’t involved in their kids lives. Not just the absent fathers, but the present mothers too. They focus on money. They ask the boys what they will get out of baseball and they mean in terms of dollars coming to them. They show them Major League Baseball on TV and tell them ‘This is the game I play’ but their parents just turn it off and say they want to watch a movie. They all lament that they go to Poland and see parents of other kids cheering for them, wearing their jerseys, making signs with their names on it, hugging them. They say that they see those parents travel around the world to watch their sons play but their parents don’t walk 100 yards to watch them. And it’s all true. Africa is often its own worst enemy.
We can all watch this interview and make excuses for their parents to act this way. And there are understandable excuses to be made. But really, it’s not okay. I go back to Kana’s quote about not feeling sorry for Africa. We can feel sorry for these parents if we want, they were dealt a tough hand. Fine. True. But what good does that do them? And what good does that do these kids? And in this particular case, it is impossible to find out your correct age without your parents cooperation… that is the can of worms all over the floor here. These kids face a tremendous amount of challenges and obstacles to try to play this game but the biggest one has always been their own country and their own parents. This story here, this film (I hope) is about kids. These kids are alone in more ways than we often see. They grow up fast and not a lot of people help them navigate it.
But when I ask them what they’ve learned, they tell me that when they have sons they’ll be involved in their lives, they’ll support them, they’ll give them what they need, they’ll tell them their ‘true years’. And that right there is why I believe in baseball in Uganda.
They also wont give up. That is certain. After that talk we went to St. Peters for practice where George and Aaron were coaching. There were 4 cameras there. Mine, 2 from Reuters, and one from the NY Times. No matter what happened in the news these last few weeks, these kids are getting a lot of attention, and that is positive. People are beginning to learn about baseball here, and I think that can only be a good thing. They aren’t giving up. This won’t stop them. And they aren’t going away. And now maybe they have a few more fans.
I showed the Sunday NY Times article that featured Abooki quite a bit to a lot of people here. They’re happy to be getting the attention, but there is one seemingly small detail in the article which is troubling to them… and me. And I know where it comes from, I mentioned it before, the small bit about Abooki having only one pair of pants, one shirt, and a hat “that he never parts with.”
I get it. It’s the way we’ve been told to think about Africa and Africans. It’s what I came to West Africa with in my brain when I was only 16 years old. But there’s one big problem with it, it isn’t true. And these boys don’t like reading it. They want to shake it. It’s Kana’s quote about feeling sorry for Africa again. I think it’s time to start getting honest with Africa. It needs to grow up, and we need to stop treating it like a kid with only one shirt or it never will. It’s that thinking that creates the moral and intellectual places for dishonest people to hide in places like Uganda. It’s a safety net to be selfish here because there will always be someone there to make an excuse for you. With all the challenges that face these kids, that one may be waiting for them as soon as they get out.
But… it was still a good article.
That’s all I have right now. I’m heading back to America alone, which is not what I thought I’d be doing. But I’m hopeful at this time. It looks like our footage and film will find a great audience and I know our film really took on a whole new level of importance with all of this, those are all great things. But I’m also hopeful for Uganda. This has been a wake-up call for them, and the world. We’re all going to have to change things so the disappointment suffered this year doesn’t happen again. And they’re going to make it to the party very soon… you watch.