Apoyo Matek! This means “thank you very much” in Luo, the language of Uganda. The locals said it so often on a recent trip 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 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 on this trip. I wanted to bear witness to the good things I had heard about how the WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene education) soccer program was bringing people back together.
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 at our destination in Ogur, a village in Uganda. 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 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, executive director of Divine Waters Uganda, 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.’”
Lifewater and Divine Waters Uganda began the program as a way to improve relationships and overall health within the community. To do this, we needed to find a way to promote the use of latrines, hand pumps and proper hygiene that communities had gained through our training. The situation was complex, however, since traditional hygiene and sanitation behaviors were set.
Another obstacle was that several of the benefactors included young men reinstating themselves back into communities as ex-child soldiers for the LRA—hate and hurt were prevalent between benefactors, resulting in segregation and unreliable access to shared resources for some.
As a way of encouraging involvement and reconciliation, requirement for participation in the soccer training and tournaments is practicing good hygiene and passing all surprise WASH-related home inspections administered by the coach.
Looking out at a WASH soccer game alongside 5,000 spectators in Lira, northern Uganda, all laughing and shouting encouragement to their team, I wondered what each of these people has experienced. A coach pulled his team together to pray before the second half of the game, and they soon resumed.
“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,” Deleo said.
Decisions like this have translated into remaining dependent 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. While listening to these stories, 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. 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.
The WASH soccer program touches the lives of these once-warring young men who continue down the path ahead—barefoot or with shoes.
Matt Lafferty is the special events coordinator for Lifewater Intl.