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Playing for an Education in Uganda

18- year-old Zaituni Uzamukunda runs a program to get girls into school using soccer, February 15, 2013. (Hilary Heuler / VOA News)

18- year-old Zaituni Uzamukunda runs a program to get girls into school using soccer, February 15, 2013. (Hilary Heuler / VOA News)

A teenager in Uganda's capital is running a program to get hundreds of girls into school - by training them to play football.

Their soccer field is in dangerously poor condition, edged with heaps of trash and ankle-deep in mud. Cows graze on the little grass there is. But the girls playing here under the supervision of 18-year-old Zaituni Uzamukunda do not seem to mind. They are hoping soccer will be their ticket out of poverty.

Many children in this poor Kampala neighborhood drop out of school because their families cannot afford the fees. Uzamukunda says she created her program to train them as soccer players, then find them scholarships to play for school teams.

“The children don’t go to school, no fees, high birth rates, high school drop-outs," said Uzamukunda. "So we decided we can use football as a tool to put those kids into schools.”

She and a friend started the program three years ago with a small grant from the British Council. Since then, they have trained several hundred children, and found scholarships for around 150 of them.

Uzamukunda, a student herself, specifically wanted to target girls, who are not usually given the chance in Uganda to play football.

“The Ugandans believe this game is for boys," she said. "The girls are denied more opportunities than the boys. We came up with this idea to show that there should be gender balance within the community.”

Some parents were hard to convince, says Uzamukunda. Many families in the community are Muslim, and did not want their daughters to appear in public wearing shorts.

“Some of the parents who are Muslim were worried just because the girls would be showing their thighs, they will easily attract men," said Uzamukunda. "So we said, ‘no problem, we shall provide them with leggings.’”

There were other problems as well. Nineteen-year-old Grace Kabahanuzi, who had dropped out of school when her family could not pay, explains that her mother did not want her playing a sport she thought was for boys.

“When I started playing football my mum had to quarrel. ‘All the time you are with boys.’ Then after those two terms when I joined senior three, I called her [and] told her, ‘Mum, I have got a full bursary, you are not going to pay any coin.’ So they are happy now," said Kabahanuzi.

Paul Mugabi is the headmaster of Jolly primary school, where nearly 50 children from the soccer program have found scholarships. He points proudly to a cluster of trophies beside his desk.

Soccer is important for his school, he says, even important enough to pay for.

“If we really see that talent within that child, we develop it by giving a half bursary. If we see the talent is beyond, then we can help that child by giving him or her a full bursary. Let us put these things together, football and academics, so that we can bring up a child as a whole," said Mugabi.

Uzamukunda is about to finish school herself. But she plans to continue training her girls, even expanding the program to include children as young as three.