Denied visas to US, Ugandan Little League team finally gets a game

Uganda's dream of becoming the first African team to play in the Little League World Series was shattered last year over visa problems. But now a little bit of the World Series has come to them.

Max Delany
Players from Uganda's Little League team throw Felix Barugahare in the air after he scored the winning run against a visiting team from Canada on Tuesday. Last year US officials denied the Ugandan squad a chance to become the first African team to compete in the Little League World Series.

As he warms up with a few practice swings ahead of the day's big game, Felix Barugahare kicks anxiously at the blood red earth of Uganda's only ball field.

For 11-year-old Felix, a second baseman on Uganda's little league team, this is a bittersweet moment.

After becoming the first African team to qualify for the Little League World Series held in Williamsport, Pa., last August, Felix and his teammates were left devastated when US officials denied them visas to travel to the competition.

Now though – after their story sparked sympathy and a fundraising drive across the Atlantic – the Canadian team that Uganda was meant to face in the first round of the tournament flew across the world to East Africa to finally give the Ugandans a game on Tuesday.

“I am sad because we were supposed to play this game in America but happy because at least we are getting to play it today,” Felix says.

The US Embassy in Uganda still refuses to comment on the details of exactly why the Ugandan team were denied visas, but in a press briefing at the time the State Department said it had to do with ages on some of the players' birth certificates being altered to make them eligible for the competition's age limit of 12. 

With many children born at home or in village clinics, birth certificates are still a rarity in Uganda and getting them issued can often involve battling bureaucracy or paying bribes.

“There is only one place in Uganda that issues birth certificates and a number of the certificates the players had were not from there – they were phoney,” says Richard Stanley, a Brooklyn native who has sunk some $1.5 million of his own money to bring baseball to Uganda over the past decade. “The embassy was doing the job it was supposed to do."

But even so, the decision was hard to accept for the young Ugandan players.

“At the time it felt like we were being victimized and the kids were coming to us and asking if they were white and from good schools would they have been refused visas,” George Mukhobe, the team's head coach, says.

And they were not the only ones feeling a sense of injustice.

In Canada, Ruth Hoffman, a mother of baseball-loving twin boys, read about the Ugandan team's plight and decided to help.

Partnering with international sports charity Right to Play, Ms. Hoffman launched a drive for $155,000 that would cover the cost of the trip for the Canadian team and help build more facilities for budding Ugandan baseball players.

“It was hard to imagine that it was actually going to happen because you spend so much time planning and worrying that its not going to happen,” Hoffman says.

By the time the game came round on Tuesday the young players had put the disappointment behind them.

In front of 100 some cheering spectators, Uganda won a tight game 2-1 – and it was second baseman Felix who scored the winning run.

“If we can beat Canada, we can beat anyone,” he said. “Next time in America I think we will beat all the teams.”

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