When a Little League team from Uganda was denied the visas needed to play in last year’s World Series, a Canadian team decided to go to Uganda to play them instead. The two teams faced off on Tuesday in a game they both thought should have happened a long time ago.
Uganda's Little League team
Spirits were running high as two Little League baseball teams took the field here in Mpigi. Both teams of 11-to-13 year-olds were filled with the most talented players in their countries, and they had worked hard to get the chance to play this game. This was not the Little League World Series. But it should have been.
Last year, the Little League team from Uganda became the first African team to ever qualify for the World Series - a children’s baseball tournament played every year in the United States. Qualifying meant beating all other teams both in Africa and the Middle East. But their dreams were shattered when, at the last minute, their applications for U.S. visas were denied.
So instead, one small part of the tournament came to them. This week, the Little League team from Langley, Canada, who had been scheduled to play the Ugandans in the World Series, is in Uganda giving the Ugandan team the chance to play the game that should have happened last year. They are calling it the Pearl of Africa Series.
Uganda player Adrian Lutaya, who is 12 years old, said he and his teammates were crushed last year when they heard that they would not be going to the World Series after all.
“Everybody was crying, saying, ‘what is the problem? What is the problem?’ All of us, we cried,” said Lutaya.
The Canadians' travel to Uganda was made possible by Canadian coaches, parents and other organizers who read about what had happened to the Uganda team. Together with Right to Play, an organization that promotes international development through sports, they set out to raise $155,000.
The money is being used not only to send the Canadian team to Uganda, but also to help finance the Ugandans’ education, build a new playing field in Kampala, and provide the Ugandan players with a travel fund for future games.
Canadian Head Coach Dean Cantelon says that for him and his team, it was the least they could do.
“We weren’t there, we’re not in their shoes, but we felt for them and we thought that was extremely wrong," Cantelon. "They didn’t go to the World Series, so Canada is here to hopefully make things a little better.”
Nick Atkinson, 13, one of the Canadian players, says it is important for them to be here in Uganda.
“I feel pretty great to give them the same experience that we got, to give them the chance that they deserved," he said. "Because I know if we won three tournaments and we were told that we weren’t allowed to go to the World Series, we’d be pretty devastated.”
The Ugandan players' visas were denied due to problems with their birth certificates, which can be difficult to come by in a country in which many people do not even know their birthdays. Filmmaker Jay Shapiro, who is making a documentary about Ugandan baseball, explains that this is a common problem in international sports.
“Most of these kids are orphans and weren’t born in a hospital. And if they were, it doesn’t exist anymore," said Shapiro. "There’s other good teams out there in other countries that have the same problem, the documentation problem. It’s bigger than Uganda, it’s bigger than baseball.”
But Canadian Ruth Hoffman, who helped to organize the event, says bringing the Canadian team to Uganda will teach kids on both sides just as much as playing in the World Series, if not more.
“Ugandan kids are going to know that kids half way around the world care, and that they’re just like them - same dreams, same interests, same passion," said Hoffman. "The Canadian kids, I think they’re going to feel empowered and inspired by the fact that a small group of people were able to stand up and do something. I think these kids will have a wonderful foundation to do the same when they’re older.”
Baseball is still a fringe sport in Africa, where most children grow up playing soccer. But there are several hundred regular players in Uganda, and baseball is gradually becoming more and more popular.
Back on the field, in the town of Mpigi outside Kampala, a tense game was being played. The Canadian and Ugandan teams were tied at the bottom of the sixth and last inning. Then Felix Barugahare, 11, hit the ball and scored one final run for Uganda, propelling the team to victory. He was carried off the field in triumph.
After the game, Barugahare says he now thinks that if they had made it to last year’s World Series, they might even have won.
“I’m feeling good because we have won, and that was my dream to play," said Barugahare. "This is the game we should have played in America. It means that we can beat Canada, we can beat any team.”
The Ugandans say they are working with the American Embassy to solve the problems with their documentation. When the next World Series takes place in August, they say, they are sure to be there.