George Mukhobe is Mr. Baseball to kids in East Africa

George Mukhobe coaches Uganda's Little League baseball, which has grown to nearly 1,500 boys and girls across this East African country. Is playing in the Little League World Series next?

By , Correspondent

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    A barefoot batter takes a swing in a Little League game in Kampala, Uganda. Baseball was introduced here about 20 years ago and some 1,500 children now participate. Visa problems kept a Ugandan team from coming to the US to participate in the Little League World Series.
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It’s a warm, gray Saturday morning in Kampala, Uganda, and the scrubby field behind St. Peter’s Secondary School sits empty.

But not for long. At just past 9 a.m., kids start trickling in – first a few, then a dozen or so more. Some wear shoes; many are barefoot. They’re mostly boys, but a couple of girls show up too. A few are lugging weathered bags of balls, bats, gloves, and helmets that they’ve just picked up from their coach’s house.

The kids have come here this morning to play baseball, an exotic imported game that was practically unknown in this East African country 20 years ago.

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You wouldn’t guess it by looking at their practice field – a rough patchwork of dirt and grass that sits next to a row of wooden shacks – but these kids are good. They’re part of the best Little League baseball team in Africa.

“Some [of the kids] are from around the rural areas, but most are from around the city, the ghettos,” says George Mukhobe, the coordinator and head coach of Uganda’s Little League. “Some are orphans, some were affected by the war. They come because they don’t have any other things to do.”

There are no sports equipment stores in Kampala, so all of the players’ equipment is donated, much of it by visiting Americans and Japanese. Mr. Mukhobe estimates that they have about one glove for every two kids, and roughly 10 active coaches around the country. Here in Kampala, they play five or six days a week. Mukhobe is there for every practice.

Mukhobe is Mr. Baseball here in Uganda. He has been playing the game since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s, when American missionaries showed him his first bat and glove. Entranced by the sport, he quit his job as a carpenter a few years ago so that he could devote all of his time to coaching and running the kids’ league, which has grown to reach nearly 1,500 boys and girls across Uganda.

“George was really one of the first guys to ever play baseball in the country,” says Jay Shapiro, an American filmmaker who is working on a documentary about baseball in Uganda. Other people have gotten involved, but George is “the thread from the beginning of the game until now,” Shapiro says. “He’s the guy who ties it all together.”

Mukhobe and his players made international headlines over the summer when they lost out on a chance to compete in the Little League World Series, which is held each August in South Williamsport, Penn. Thanks to a strong showing at a qualifying match in Poland in July, Uganda earned a spot in the championship playoff. It was the first African team ever to qualify.

But back in Kampala, the team got a rude awakening: The US Embassy here denied its visa applications. The team couldn’t enter the United States, so it couldn’t compete in the tournament. Saudi Arabia took its place.

The problem: The kids’ documentation didn’t add up. In many cases, officials at the US embassy could not confirm the players’ ages or who their parents were. Sometimes the kids and their guardians gave conflicting statements in their interviews. Mukhobe estimates that 90 percent of the kids he coaches don’t have birth certificates.

A young player named Moses is one of them. His mother told him that he doesn’t have a birth certificate because he was born outside the city, in a small village two hours’ drive from Kampala. The 12-year-old catcher has been playing baseball for four years. He likes the game, he says, “because it gives me time to focus.” When he grows up, he wants to play for his favorite Major League team: the Boston Red Sox.

Moses hopes that one day Uganda will get a chance to prove that it’s “the best team in the whole world.” This year, it didn’t get that chance, but he’s hopeful about the future.

Learning about the visas “was really a sad moment for us,” Mukhobe says. “These Americans brought this game [here], and now they have done this to our kids.”

After the visas were denied, some of his fellow coaches were so disheartened that they started talking about giving up the game altogether.

“I said, ‘Maybe you are right,’” Mukhobe admits. “But after two days, I said ‘No, you are wrong – just do it for the kids.’”

“All I want is to see kids playing and playing – and getting better.”

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