The Uganda Story


Brown vs. Ugandan team

Author: Kerri Heffernan

The Ugandan coaches were not in evidence. The players met us the first two days at the clubhouse often trailed by a thin, older British guy who introduced himself as the manager of the rugby club and sometime later as a coach. But the African players just smiled and shook their heads at this description. The one practice we glimpsed a day prior to our match left little clarity, one of the Ugandan male players seemed to be running drills for the women’s team but he soon disappeared. And the team appeared player coached.
During the match the sidelines were so packed it was hard to ascertain who might be coaching and no one came to extend a hand before the match. After the match a very pale Scots man came down from the stands and offered his hand, introducing himself as the coach of the Ugandan women’s team. After the pleasantries of “well played” were exchanged, he drew me close and said, “Let me tell you what’s wrong with women’s rugby”.
It seems a universal, the unreflective male critique of women’s rugby. I wonder if there is any other sport in which one begins the conversation with such a generalized critique. Later in the week a young, white, British guy, probably 18 or 19 came by our practice and joined in with some of the players in a game of touch. He showed up at our match against Rwanda and in the midst of the match took it upon himself to give my assistant coach and I a “few pointers. MTeamy favorite moment was when he, a total stranger, ran out to join the team at halftime. The hubris was like fingernails on a chalkboard. Watching this boy from the sidelines, Jeroline the president and a wing for the Ugandan team just smiled, her smile so close to a laugh. Jeroline and I shook our heads and exchanged smiles. I liked Jeroline the moment I met her. She was kin. I found her so familiar, I found so many of the African women familiar. They were strong, politically astute, resigned to their invisibility and simultaneously determined to play on a larger stage. And so needed coaching. With few options they adopt the attitudes many American women adopted in the 1980’s - listen patiently, smile at the guys, thank them and garner all you can from the crumbs they toss your way. Listen to them list the many ways you are inferior, problematic, fraudulent or downright comical as players and then play as if your heart will burst.

I was accompanied on my trip in the rugby ‘way back’ machine by Becky Regan the assistant coach working with me. While not quite as old as me, Becky had lived through those early days of women’s rugby. Most of the players on the trip were born close to 1985 and had benefited immensely from title IX and the efforts of women like Bec and I so, we Playwere intrigued by how they would react to overt sexism. Their education began pretty quickly. Two of the Brown players, Jenn and Stephanie were interviewed on a popular Kampala radio station; like a naughty schoolboy the announcer asked: “will the ladies exchange shirts on the field? The rest of the questioning really was pretty defensive. “Are you any good and what makes you think you are?”
The newspaper had several articles on the match; in the sports section covered the match, the fashion section covered what women on the sidelines wore. There was an odd editorial that was just skree on the ineptitude of play which read more like the audacity of women to play. Evan the British websites added noise, but they tended to offer more attention to their surprise that the American were not grossly overweight or offensive to look at then recounting the actual play. I was chastised on Planet Rugby for driving my players to practice in the African heat and sapping their strength before the match. Indeed much of the website focused on our appearance, our decision making. The subtext being as women all our decisions about rugby were questionable.

My question about the player’s reaction to sexism was answered in a subtler manner. To the players on both teams the attention was just noise, granted a surprising amount of noise for teams used to obscurity, but noise nonetheless. Both teams knew that the brief hours of fame were fleeting. No one pays attention to women’s rugby and when they do it’s our families begging us not to play. It was the same for the Ugandan women and so we laughed about our mutual madness our decision to play rugby despite the objections – we would hang onto the ball no matter how hard society dug her fingernails into our wrists.

Uganda was a rush of experiences and sensations. We brought back many photos but they cannot do justice to the experience. I wish I could conjure up in text the accompanying smells: wood smoke, sun baked grass, diesel fumes, bar-b-qued goat skewers and rank body odor. In this mix of sensory experiences the Brown players were faced with preparing themselves to play a team that was bigger stronger and faster. A team that for a brief moment had the support of a nation, 3000 Ugandan fans came to the opening match.

I know it’s hard to convey but try to imagine – you are playing rugby in Kampala, its very hot and the air is acrid with wood smoke and diesel fumes – your opposite is twice your size and fast. Every time she touches the ball the crowd is on its feet screaming and pounding on the metal signs around the field and atop the bleachers. The Ugandans are so fast - you just can’t make a mistake - but it’s hard to hear the calls because the crowd is so loud. The Ugandan center just pounds the ball at you like a running back and you must tackle her over and over. When you get the ball you are hit hard – harder then you have ever been hit before. Under this pressure you work to spin the ball wide but the Ugandans are too fast. You try to take the ball inside but then must deal with the Ugandan forwards coming across. It’s unwise to kick because their fullback roams the backfield just waiting to pounce on a mistake and you dare not give her that much room to work. And so you are forced to play 80 minutes of the most physical rugby imaginable. It’s like a ride down class five rapids; you bull your neck and hang onto a raft full of your teammates.
If you are the second team you are watching this –watching the first side play unbelievable physical rugby – watching hits that look like cars colliding – watching your teammates claw for every available ball and they are losing.
The pride that swells in you for your teammates is tinged with the knowledge that in a few days you’ll be on the field facing the Ugandans and the thought is exhilarating and frightening.

When the match is over the Ugandan team explodes in joy, they leap in the air as if they have just won a world cup match. They are gracious in victory and we are gracious in defeat. Through the initiation of the game all the players form an exhausted bond. And almost immediately the social and cultural barriers melt, players walk around with their arms around each other. The Ugandan players introduce American player to family and friends. The Ugandan players – the Brown players - become “the players” and look after one another. One of my enduring images was looking down from the upper level of the clubhouse with Becky – it was after the post match dinner and it seemed all of Kampala was dancing on the rugby field. I was nervous as a pressing crowd of Ugandans was swallowing many of the Brown players up. At first we could find the Brown players (at least the muzungos or white ones) in the moonlight weaving in and out as part of a Congo line but the line begin to break and we began to lose sight of them. Jeroline was at my side: “don’t worry,” she said, “Christine is down there.” Christine Kitsu is the captain of the Kyandondo Thunderbirds; a formidable center who’s visage was tattooed upon our center, Thalia like the Shroud of Turin. Christine would not permit any of the local men to even look inappropriately at a Brown player. When she moved through the crowd it was like the parting of the sea. No man or woman dared challenge her authority. The Brown players were her charges, her responsibility, and her team.

Over the course of the next 13 days we spent a lot of time with the Ugandan players and with each other. Not surprisingly our time together became increasingly gendered –no matter how much the Ugandan and British men tried, no one was all that interested in them. As women, as rugby players, there were too many conversations, revelations, and explanations to share. Our two weeks with our African hosts was balanced by trips to local schools, rural villages, the US embassy (an invitation the embassy surely regretted extending) rafting on the Nile and lots of rugby.

In our final days we played in a large 7’s tournament with teams from Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. After the matches the Kyandando rugby club hosted a dinner under the stars. It was such a powerful moment to me – watching these beautiful, strong African and Western women gathered because of rugby. I did have a fleeting dream of returning years later to watch my daughter tackle Christine Kitsu’s giant daughter. I pictured Bec’s daughter selling Jeroline’s daughter a beautiful dummy and all the mothers in the stands arguing the merits of the long body ruck.

Our trip to Uganda was tough, tough questions, tough answers, tough hits and some days it was tough to be tough. By the rugby field was a billboard – a picture of an exhausted rugby player with a caption that read “fall down eight times, get up nine”.

I thought about decades of women players who continue to rise with resolve. Who rise with the strength of Christine Kitsu and Jeroline and the 50 plus Ugandan players. Women who are our kin, who grab opportunity and don’t let go no matter how hard the fingernails dig. Now that I am home I think about the opportunity women’s rugby present to engage in human rights work. There was something awe inspiring about African women’s rugby. The players represented a broad cross section of Ugandan society but their lives truly reflected the burdens of living in a poor developing country. As women rugby players we shared an understanding and for a brief time we shared a bond that transcended race and culture. “What’s right with women’s rugby” may be the insight we have gained from the common struggle to simply exist. That struggle across time and national borders affords us access. And that’s all we as women ruggers have ever asked for, access.

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"It's not who is going to let me, it's who is going to stop me."

-Aynn Rand