It started raining pretty much the second that the last student left the shelter of the school compound and headed down the muddy path towards the football field, two kilometers away. I brought up the tail-end of the scraggly line of students and teachers—some kitted out in track pants and cleats, some in skirts and blouses, some in their school uniforms. They walked in little giggling clumps, primary with secondary, boys with girls. A group of unfortunate P6 and P7 students struggled to carry the heavy metal netball hoops down the hill. Nabutere Sarah relieved me of the plastic bag I was carrying, containing my gum boots and rain jacket, and raced on ahead. I appreciated her kind gesture until the light drizzle turned into a full-on downpour and I was left sodden and mud-bound a half a kilometer from our destination. Rachel the librarian and I slipped and sloshed our way along, and I watched my feet slowly change to a reddish-brown color and my flip-flops gain a two-inch platform of clay.

Hardy students transport the netball hoops

Many close-calls later we emerged into the vibrant green bowl of Betunia football field. We were surrounded by mist-draped mountains and banana trees which had been battered in the recent storms. Clouds hung heavily over us, obscuring any idea of the sun. The uneven field had developed crater lakes and waterfalls, and the ankle length grass was thick with rain. Rows of bedraggled students huddled under the thin ledges of the nearby houses, while others had competitions to see how many people you can actually fit under one umbrella. You’d be surprised. Apparently Ugandan umbrellas, like Ugandan vehicles, have the same magical capacity as Mary Poppins’ bag.

The occasion was the primary vs. secondary sports day, and there was no ‘weather permitting’ clause attached to it. I don’t think Uganda would survive the advent of a ‘weather permitting’ clause—the country would have to cancel approximately half of its events. This sports day tradition started last term break, when the secondary students returned for their community service hours at AAH, and were thrashed by the grade seven boys in a friendly football match. They apparently spent the last term nursing a strong sense of resentment, and were out for blood this time.

As the boys warmed up in their dripping sports-wear, doing very impressive coordinated knee-ups and squats and the like, we gave the girls a chance to get aggressive with a secondary one vs. secondary two netball game. I have vague memories of netball from my days in a British prep school in Kenya. One could compare it to basketball without the dribbling, and lots of complicated off-side type rules. I remember it as quite a genteel game, along the lines of bowls or something. Apparently, I remember wrong. It was pouring rain, and the girls were wearing an assortment of giant polyester sports shorts, traditional netball skirts, button-down shirts, t-shirts, tank tops and basically anything that would stay on. As the game got underway, so did the yelling and screaming and leaping and slipping. The girls were like Olympian athletes going for the gold, with heroic twists and turns, full frontal mud-slides, interceptions and dramatic shoot-outs. And my god, the falls! Girls crashing into huge puddles and throwing up waterfalls of water and emerging with mud running down their faces and hands still clutched tightly around the ball. I felt like I was watching a Nike commercial or something. As the rain increased, so did their sense of abandonment, and I thought somebody was going to break something, or drown, or both. I was glued to it. The game ended with a major upset: the senior ones won by a point, or a basket, or a net, or whatever it’s called.

X-treme netball

The girls then channeled their frenzied energy into becoming the secondary boys’ impromptu cheerleading squad as the football game began. The recent donation of some spiffy new football uniforms and cleats left the primary boys with the definite upper hand when it came to appearance. As the girls had just clearly proved, however, appearance matters very little in situations like this one. I’ve watched my fair share of professional football, especially in the World Cup season, and I appreciate the kind of elegant choreography of a well-played game. I’ve also watched my fair share of amateur football on various school playing-fields, and understand that the game can quickly develop into a herd of frustrated youngsters valiantly following the ball wherever it may go, and getting hopelessly tangled in each other. As the boys jogged onto the field and fanned out to take up very specific positions, and the ref called in the captains for a coin-toss, I began to understand that I was about to see something special. I swear to God I felt like I had a side-line seat at one of the British Premier League games that gets half of Uganda so riled up. It was all there; the dribbling, the tackling, the headers, the bicycle kicks, the fouls, the dives, the t-shirt-over-head celebrations. Add in the driving rain, the encroaching mist, and the several ponds that had formed on the field, and we had ourselves a game.

The secondary girls chanted and sung and performed vague dance moves. Teacher Phoebe nearly gave herself an aneurysm screaming and dancing, and Teacher Godfrey sprinted up and down the length of the pitch, flicking more and more mud onto his pristine white t-shirt, and belting out instructions. The spectators kept getting over-excited and inching forward. There were no lines to indicate where the pitch began, so we had to rely on a determined student who patrolled up and down with a stick, swatting us all back. Occasionally the ball got chipped into the crowd, and we all scattered as the players came thundering through after it. As with all teams, these had their MVPs. The secondary boys had Nabuyaka, who had earlier informed me that he was going to become a professional footballer. At the time I had suppressed my smug little teacher smile that always accompanies such declarations from students, but as I watched the game I wondered. He somehow managed to be everywhere the ball was. He seemed at ease with all the positions on the field and inordinately skilled for a kid in the equivalent of 9th grade. He had a worthy adversary in George, a grade seven boy who stands about 6’3” and performs vicious tackles with the most good-natured face I’ve ever come across.

Teacher Phoebe = cheerleader extraordinaire

It was an extremely close game. Secondary boys scored first, and the girls shrieked like banshees and raced onto the field and there was much cart-wheeling and fist shaking and jumping onto each others’ backs. It was pretty clear that the boys had studied more than the playing tactics of their favorite Premier League stars—they had the whole show down. But, the primary boys soon retaliated, and their goal induced general mayhem on the field for a good five minutes. Adults and kids joined together in running around the pitch and I thought Teacher Phoebe was going to pass out for real. Although I had spent the last two weeks supervising the secondary kids in their community service program, my heart belongs to primary. Grade seven might also be the greatest collection of human beings on the planet, and as they made up the majority of the primary team, I was smitten. I seem to have inherited my mother’s tendency to scream obscenities during any sporting event to which I feel a slight attachment, so I had to watch my mouth. I got into it though, and followed closely from the safety of Teacher Michael’s umbrella (I believe I was the ninth person to take shelter under it).

The climax came in the second half, at one-all, when it appeared as if the secondary boys had scored again. The girls repeated their demented cheerleader act and we got another dose of the theatrical celebrations. The primary students slumped against each other under their umbrellas and shook their heads. But wait, what was this? There was some sort of commotion around the goal and Teacher Phoebe came charging up the field from her position in the thick of the action: “They kicked him! They kicked the goalie!” she cried. She was backed-up by the referee. In a callus act of sabotage, a secondary boy had apparently given the goalie a good wallop on the shins, and then taken advantage of his crumpled state to tap the ball across the line. Shame. The goal was denied, and we were back to one-all.

They played the full ninety minutes. I’m pretty sure the un-cut grass, sheets of rain, and undefined pitch boundaries made the game significantly more demanding than usual, but you couldn’t tell from the unflagging persistence of the players. The game ended in a draw, with the poor exhausted boys limping off the field, contemplating their soaked clothing and the walk back to the school. Spirits were high though. In a marked contrast to American teenagers, high spirits seem to be the default mode of all Ugandan adolescents, actually of Ugandan children in general.

Spiffy Primary Team

Zany Secondary Team

Afterwards, Teacher Phoebe and Godfrey earnestly discussed how this really was a victory for us if you think of the fact that those boys are still in primary and don’t even have a proper field to train on. I watched as the students began to leave the field, watched as everyone gallantly strode through the mini-landslides and dragged the equipment and wrung out their clothing. I think as a teacher, contemplating a day of organized sports in the pouring rain is the equivalent of sitting down in front of five class sets of grammar tests you have to grade. It could have been a terrible day. But it wasn’t. No amount of organization or planning can take the place of good spirits and a willingness to suck it up and get on with it. These kids have that in spades. After some fussing and picture taking and retreival of clothing we were ready to head back to school, and of course, as soon as we set foot off the field, the rain stopped and the sun came out.