Portrait of Lugazi
A tiny, sugar-producing town may be the cradle of baseball in Uganda
"BE ALERT. This is foul ball territory." That warning comes standard with an order of rolled egg and flat bread called rolex at Kato Swaibu's food cart in Lugazi, Uganda. An unassuming sugar town along the well-traveled road between the capital of Kampala and the tourist magnet of the Nile River, Lugazi is about to become known for a more unlikely export -- baseball.
"It used to be worse," Swaibu adds while gesturing to a long cinder block wall topped with barbed wire. "There was no wall before." The Mehta Corporation erected it to enclose a humble housing community called New Colony. The town of Lugazi survives on the success of Mehta, which was started by an Indian immigrant in 1913 and became the first multinational company to spring from Uganda. Its sugar production surrounds Lugazi on all sides and employs many of its 35,000 citizens. A customer enjoying some tea at Swaibu's stand explains, "Without Mehta, there is no Lugazi. They can put the wall up if they want."
On the other side of the enclosure, there is a patchy field of grass, and a little bit of magic. That yard produced the second African team ever to qualify for the Little League World Series in the 60-year history of international teams competing in Williamsport, Pa. The first was also from Uganda, just one year ago, but that team from Kampala never made it to America due to incomplete and sloppy documentation. The effort to get better documents was much better with assistance from the U.S. Embassy and more involvement from Little League International. The Lugazi players will play their first-round game against Panama on Aug. 17.
Tracing the beginnings of the game in Uganda is tricky, but Lugazi may have been the first real cradle. A missionary group called Unlimited Potential International and started by former minor leaguer Tom Roy brought baseball to Lugazi in the late 1980s, and a young boy named Henry Odong was among the early curious participants. He developed a strong love for the game as his body grew, and it didn't stop growing until he was an imposing 6-foot-5 man with broad shoulders. That size earned him the nickname "Bouncer."
Bouncer, more than anyone, is responsible for keeping baseball alive in Lugazi for the past few decades while pockets of interest in the game fizzled and sometimes thrived in other parts of the country. "Most of the boys here lead difficult lives," he explains. "Many are orphans. But baseball gives them a family." Bouncer, a father of three boys and an engineer for Mehta, doesn't just coach baseball -- he still plays. "I'm the oldest ballplayer in Uganda," he proudly boasts, "I never want to stop."
He leads practices just about every day for the boys who gather as the schools let out. This year's team is comprised almost entirely of students from the nearby Mehta Primary/Secondary school, making the process of gathering the U.S. State Department documentation easier.
Baseball in a place like Uganda doesn't seem to make much sense. It is a country with profound failures in infrastructure and society. But through the combined efforts of Japanese Peace Corps workers, a few dedicated Americans like Richard Stanley, who has built a baseball complex south of Kampala, and most importantly, local leaders like Bouncer, the game is thriving and the talent is apparent. The players go through defensive drills and batting practices that look and sound familiar to any baseball fan. Their collection of used equipment, mostly from Japanese and American sources, is scarce and every piece is precious.
So, when a foul ball bombards the patrons at Kato's food stand, the chef tells them, "You have to throw it back. The kids on the other side of the wall know how to use it better than you."
And now the world will get to see just how well they use it.
Jay Shapiro is a filmmaker who has been following Uganda baseball for three years for his upcoming documentary, "Opposite Field."