When a group of pre-teen Ugandan baseball players arrived in Williamsport, Pennsylvania for the Little League World Series early this month, they couldn’t believe what they saw: nice uniforms, brand new cleats, an immaculately-kept field with shiny green grass and a capacity of 40,000. The Ugandans, the second African team to qualify for the World Series and the first to actually make it to Williamsport, played their home games on a dusty field in the central part of the country — they had never played in front of a crowd and sometimes practiced or played barefoot.
That all changed last week in the team’s first game against Panama. The team from Lugazi, Uganda lost, and they would lose again two days later to Mexico, meaning the first team to arrive in Williamsport was one of the first teams eliminated. All wasn’t lost: Uganda became the first African team to win a LLWS game Tuesday, when it beat a team from Oregon in a consolation game. The team’s on-field results, however, will pale in comparison to what it achieved just by making it to Williamsport.
Baseball, long popular in the Americas and East Asia, was a late arrival in Africa. There are no specific participation numbers for the continent’s youth, but six countries have joined the African Baseball League and others have teams in the developmental stages. The game has also been used to help bring awareness to the public health fights that consume swaths of the continent. South Africa and other countries have pushed baseball as a way to fight and prevent AIDS and other health epidemics, attracting young players to the game to “Strike Out AIDS.” In Ugandan schools, baseball is fast encroaching on soccer’s popularity as students flock to the game.
Despite that growth, the challenges facing baseball in Uganda and other African countries are immense. Many children use balls made of paper and improvised bats. Gloves are rare, and games are often played barefoot on dusty fields with little or no grass. Even the Ugandan schools where baseball is popular struggle to find places to play.
Charities and other organizations, however, are working to fix that. Right To Play, a humanitarian organization, raised $100,000 to fund a game between Uganda and Canada earlier this year; some of the money will also go to building a new stadium in the country. Uganda’s appearance in Williamsport will undoubtedly raise the sport’s profile in Africa, and, hopefully, it will bring even more money in to help kids play.
The Ugandan team may not have won the Little League World Series, but just by making it to Williamsport, they made history and progress for their country and their sport. And as one of the players told Al Jazeera English, their dreams don’t stop in Williamsport. “My dream will be to play baseball,” he said. “Major League Baseball, in America.”