Uganda team debuts in US baseball tournament

Teenage baseball players win the hearts of US fans as they make their debut in Little League Baseball World Series.


    Lewisburg in Pennsylvania is Middletown, USA personified. And a world away from Lugazi, Uganda.

    For 11 young baseball players, the two countries have just collided in spectacular fashion. 

    Uganda is representing the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region at the Little League Baseball World Series this year - the first time an African team has competed in the tournament. And it's the first time these athletes have ever been in the United States.

    I met the Ugandan team and their minders just before they climbed on the back of a flatbed truck, which was part of a city parade welcoming all the baseball teams. The Ugandans were expecting perhaps 100 people to show up for a few minutes. What they got was thousands of residents lining the town's main street for hours. And the crowd was very aware of the significance of the Ugandan team.

    I heard dozens of shouts of "Welcome to America!" and "Good luck, Uganda!" as their float went by.

    Cheers and support

    Team manager Henry Odongo was stunned. "I didn't expect to find fans here," he said. "I thought we would maybe get some sympathizers and I thought nobody is going to root for us. But I knew it was history and one thing I know about Americans, they want to see how Africans play ball."

    At the opening ceremony for the World Series, there was even more cheering and support for the team. One player and official from each team gave their mission statement in their native language.  We heard them read out in Japanese, Spanish and, for the first time, Swahili. Odongo bowed down onto one knee after his statement, in a sign of respect for the crowd. At least one American said to me, "What was that?  I've never seen that before. I guess it's their culture."

    Some might argue this is just kids playing ball but close up, I realise it's a serious business. The sports network ESPN has sent a huge crew to cover and broadcast every match live on TV. Their cameras and staff are everywhere. Major sponsors have plastered their banners across the stadiums and are spruiking their products. Talent scouts are here, looking for The Next Big Thing. A standout tournament for one player or one team could easily springboard them into a whole new level of the game.

    Henry Odongo takes it very seriously. "I tell the boys, don't play for yourself. Play for the fans. Can't you make these people a little happy?  Some of these people came a great distance to come and watch you. And you're swinging three times and you're throwing badly?  It's really bad.  We play for the fans and we play for the world and we play for the Middle East and Africa. They gave us the banner as the champion, so we have to say go and represent us. We are here not only as Uganda, we are here for the Middle East and Africa."

    Constant comparisons

    The players from Uganda are very sweet, very polite and very shy. At least, they are with me. They're quick to give me a big, beautiful smile but it's a little harder to get them to open up about their American experience. Maybe it's my interviewing technique or maybe it's because I'm a female foreigner. But their wide-eyed wonder at just about everything around them is infectious.

    The boys make constant comparisons between the US and Uganda. They can't believe how big the baseball stadiums are, how tasty the food is and how flat the televisions are. But most of the talk is about how welcoming the people have been.

    Eleven-year-old Fred Ojerku told me, "It is so exciting to come here. This place is better than ours in Uganda. Here the climate is good, the compound is clean, people are friendly. In Uganda, people are not so much friendly."

    For Fred and his team mates, this is a life changing experience. But it's been fascinating to see the American response to them.  I watched each of the Little League teams come over and introduce themselves to the Ugandans.  It starts off with polite smiles and a few handshakes as the boys absorb each others' differences. But within minutes, there's laughter and playful shoving. They're joking with one another and talking about baseball. They connect.

    It was beautiful to watch.



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