The Aftershow: Fair Ball documentary

By Paul Sidhu


When I was asked to write about my personal experiences and feelings about my trip to Uganda I didn’t know where to begin.

I was sent there to produce a documentary on a baseball game between little leaguers from Canada and Uganda, but for me, the trip carried so much more weight. I had been to Africa before, but never to Uganda.

It is my motherland. Literally.

My mother was born in Uganda. She lived there through her teen years until Idi Amin, the brutally fierce military dictator who ruled the country from 1971 to 1979, forced all South Asians to leave the country.

Amin expropriated my family’s business and properties and handed them over to his supporters.

My mother has never returned.

When our plane landed in the city of Entebbe, I was anxious. It felt a little strange entering a country which had kicked out my people 40 years ago. Times have changed however, so I entered with an open mind, but still a little weary. Stepping off the plane I could "smell" the Africa I remembered from my travels there as a child. I can’t pinpoint the exact scent, but it’s distinct to this part of the world; or at least it is to me.

Truth be told, I was afraid of what the Langley little leaguers’ first impression would be. Twelve and 13-year-old boys from Canada don’t normally have a very enlightened view of Africa. Hopefully they wouldn’t feel the "western world burden" complex that so many people feel when visiting. We live in different worlds, but we weren’t here to impose our beliefs and values on them.

In hindsight, perhaps I over-thought the scenario; after all, these were kids who came together to play baseball and develop new friendships.

We first met the Ugandan little league team at a beautiful baseball complex built by an American philanthropist named Richard Stanley.

Richard came to Uganda years ago as a volunteer and has since become the coordinator for the country’s little league program. From a distance we could see the Ugandan team returning from an early morning jog to greet the Canadian squad.

My cameraman Alvin and I were so consumed with filming the "perfect shot" that we almost forgot to take a step back to soak in the experience. I looked around and could see some of the Canadian parents wiping tears from their faces as their children shook hands with the Ugandan kids.

Finally, they had met.

I stood along the basepath of the field as the two teams began practising. In my naivety I expected the Ugandans to have very basic baseball skills. I am now embarrassed to have even thought that. They were good. More than good.

It’s one thing to look coordinated playing a sport; it’s another to have vision and baseball smarts. These kids had it all. They knew when to take a pitch and when not to. They knew when to steal a base, when to hold up and when to take chances. They had a baseball IQ.

What they didn’t have was enough equipment, proper coaching and the spoils of sport in Canada. With the help of Right to Play, an international humanitarian organization using sport and play as tools for development in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the world, that is beginning to change.

The organization has raised money to help build a baseball field, provide transportation for local tournaments and develop scholarships for continuing education for the Ugandan players.

If you’d like to donate to Right to Play Canada, you can visit their web site here.

A day before the big game was to be played we took a tour through the Nsambya slum where many of the Ugandan players live. Through my travels over the years I’ve seen the shanty towns of India, the ghettos of Egypt, poverty in Ethiopia and the slums of Rwanda.

I was sure I was prepared for what I would see in Uganda. It looked very familiar, but the difference this time was I now knew the boys who lived there. These weren’t just random faces in another ghetto. They were boys I was getting to know.

There was Felix, a second baseman who lives with 10 family members in a tiny, one-room shack and Augustus, a pitcher whose father is unable to work and therefore basic necessities are scarce.

Neither of the boys ever feel sorry for themselves. Prior to the trip I told myself not to feel guilty when seeing their living conditions, but as I entered our five-star hotel that evening I couldn’t help but feel awful knowing that I had a beautiful room with unnecessary amenities while they were sleeping in the Nsambya slum.

Five months removed from the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania where the two teams were supposed to meet, it was finally time to play ball – in Uganda.

The game was amazing. Jimmy Rollins, the all-star shortstop for the Philadelphia Phillies, had rented buses to bring children from Nsambya to watch the game. They brought vuvuzela horns, chanted songs and cheered the entire time. Uganda held a 1-0 lead heading into the final inning.

One out away from ending the game, the Canadians rallied to tie the score at 1-1. It felt odd. I found myself cheering for Canada, but quickly stopped in mid-clap when I realized the Ugandans might lose. This wasn’t just any game for Uganda; it was everything. It was their Little League World Series.

With the score tied at 1-1, Felix reached base, stole second and then advanced to third. Augustus came to the plate and slapped a base hit scoring Felix to win it. You couldn’t have scripted a better ending.

We followed the two teams as they travelled together through Uganda, both discovering the country for the very first time. Most of the Ugandan kids had never been on a safari before. We didn’t see any lions or gorillas but it was still very exciting.

The friendships the Canadians and Ugandans built were genuine and real. That’s when I realized that as great as the game was, this experience really wasn’t about baseball. Yes, baseball brought us together, but the bigger picture was what transpired off the field; the bonds that had developed.

When it was time to say goodbye I had one thought on my mind – get the perfect shot to conclude the documentary. That was the producer in me. Alvin held one camera, I had another. We were scrambling to make sure we captured the most emotional farewells we could.

As I stared into the view finder the image I was shooting became blurry. I thought it was a focus issue, but then realized it wasn’t. I had a tear in my eye. Soon my jaws were sore from clenching as I tried to fight off any obvious tears.

That’s when it hit me – I’ll likely never see any of these people again. I asked Alvin if he got the shots we needed. I knew I had what I needed.

We put the cameras away and chose to spend our final few minutes with the Ugandan children. No more crying though. We exchanged e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and friended each other on Facebook.

As our bus drove away to the airport I started to wonder how these kids, who have minimal material items, have access to computers? Food is scarce but computers aren’t? They were so proud to share e-mail and social media information, but how, why?

We came to the conclusion – whether right or wrong – that they are so proud of their e-mail and Facebook accounts because it is an item they own. No one can take it away from them. It is theirs. No one else’s.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I’ve never aligned myself with meaningful charity work before. Sure, I’ve donated a bit here and there, but I’ve never chosen a cause and devoted myself to it.

Between work, family, mortgage payments and trying to maintain a social life, who has the time, energy and resources? I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.

After seeing what I saw in Uganda I’ve decided to make a conscious change. My decision doesn’t come from any feeling of guilt for what I have in comparison to what they don’t. It comes from the personal friendships I made on this journey to Uganda. I talked to these kids, ate lunch with them, toured their homes, shared stories, talked baseball. These weren’t children on my TV during a late-night Sally Struthers advertisement; they were kids I now know, kids I call my friends…Facebook friends.

How could I not help a friend?

When I arrived back in Canada my mother was eager to hear about my trip. She had so many questions about where she used to live and what it looks like now. I told her it’s not anything like she remembers.

I’ll leave it at that.

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