Apoyo Matek! This means “thank you very much” in Luo, one of the many languages of Uganda. The locals said it so often that I wondered why they remained so thankful. I found their unshakable attitude for each day and every person they come across amazing, especially in the wake of such a difficult, war-torn past.
The 20 year war between the Ugandan government forces and the rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of the north wreaked havoc on everyone and everything. It needlessly stripped people of their land, their dignity and their livelihood, leaving deep wounds that are still under repair today. The repair is what I was interested in seeing. I wanted to bear witness to the good things I had heard about how the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene education (WASH) Soccer Program was bringing people back together.
As I looked out at 5,000 spectators in Lira, northern Uganda all laughing with each other and shouting encouragement to their team, I wondered what each of these people has experienced. A coach pulled together his team to pray before the second half of the game and they soon resumed. Had I not been told, I never would have guessed what type of transformation has taken place. My friend Deleo, executive director of our implementing partner Divine Waters Uganda, told me, “These people used to hate each other, some were so filled with shame and hurt from their past that family members would deliberately decide not to leave the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps because they knew what they had done.” Decisions like this has translated into remaining dependant upon relief organizations running the IDP camps.
As I stood on the sideline by the players, they shared how family members, thought to be dead, have been reunited during these soccer matches. I noticed a player without any shoes. Why is he barefoot and playing soccer? I asked myself…He could wear shoes if he wanted to…His friend, another player, later told me, “He chooses not to. He has never played football (soccer) with shoes.”
I recalled the saying ‘Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked in his shoes.’ I can’t begin to walk in this young man’s shoes…he has been a child soldier in the LRA and now represents his community – the very people harassed by the LRA’s atrocities – as a soccer player role modeling WASH. He didn’t hesitate when a player with cleats came in hot pursuit of the ball…he was totally fearless of the ground he was running on. I think we would all like to be this way: free from fear, free from restraint, free from apathy. He was running because reconciliation was taking place not only on the field but in the community…and this reconciliation has been transforming physical circumstances like their access to safe water, dignified and effective sanitation and improved hygiene practices. They are being reconciled physically, emotionally, and spiritually – within themselves, with each other, and with God.
In the sub-counties of Ogur and Abako in northern Uganda are the beginnings of development. Many of the people have recently left the IDP camps to resettle the land before fleeing from the LRA. However, sustainable development didn’t transpire until relationships began repair.
Driving over the grooves of an oxen plowed field was enough for me to catch some air off my seat. Sometimes I felt like we had taken a wrong turn onto a walking path, but mistaken, we continued to drive further through the narrow passageways of growth, mud puddles, stumps, fields, streams that greeted us on the road. At last we arrived to our destination in Ogur. Kids raced barefoot toward our truck, shouting and waving. One of the mud huts had a WASH soccer t-shirt drying on the grass roof. This village had all of the requirements to participate in the WASH Soccer Program: a drying rack for dishes, a tippy tap to wash their hands with soap, a pit latrine, and life-saving hygiene training to share with their neighbors.
On the drive back from the village, Deleo shared how the WASH Soccer program was started… “After visiting a man sitting next to a mango tree and not planning on moving, I saw that his son was dying. The man told me, ‘I’m not leaving. I’m staying here at my home’. There was no home there so I asked ‘What home? You need to find a safe place to stay.’ The man told about how he had lost everything twice – once from the government and a second time from the LRA. He said he didn’t want to try anymore and lose everything a third time. That’s when the idea for the soccer program came to mind. Something to motivate people to come together, to forgive, to move forward with things and forgive the past, while also transforming the present situation to shape a healthier future by having requirements to be on the soccer team.’ Years later, the Soccer WASH Program continues to be an amazing holistic ministry. It touches the lives of these once warring young men and I pray for their path ahead…walking barefoot or with shoes.