Quidditch in Uganda: On this pitch, women and men are equal

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes a shift in thought comes from something unexpected – like from running around a field with a broomstick between your legs. The “Harry Potter” game is giving some Ugandan women a new chance to shine as equals.

Katumba Badru
Uganda's Quidditch team, founded by John Ssentamu, has been invited to three World Cups abroad but has not yet been able to attend.

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When John Ssentamu first showed his students a video of a real-life Quidditch game, it wasn’t the broomsticks that surprised them most. The children, the girls especially, were most shocked to see boys and girls playing together on the same field.

The children were stunned. “They were like, ‘Is it possible? Can girls play on the same pitch with boys?’” Mr. Ssentamu recalls with a laugh. 

As a teacher in rural Uganda, Mr. Ssentamu had seen how many parents thought sending their daughters to school was a waste of time. In some people’s eyes, women just weren’t seen as equal. But he wondered if Quidditch, the sport of “Harry Potter” fame, could change that.  

Today, Mr. Ssentamu has helped found several teams, and his players have even been invited to the International Quidditch World Cup, though visa problems prevented the trips. But most important, perhaps, is the shift in views.

“I told them that this is the right time to change people’s mindset: We are not going to look at football for girls, football for boys. We are now going to have Quidditch for all.” 

In John Ssentamu’s village in Uganda, there is no Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, no Gryffindor House, and certainly no Harry Potter. But here in Busubi, a richly green village of just over 1,000 people, there is the wizard game of Quidditch. 

It started in 2013, on a bus snaking through the narrow roads from Masaka, a city west of Lake Victoria, to Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Mr. Ssentamu, a teacher, found his seat partner holding a copy of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” and asked to read it. 

What held his interest was not the tongue-twisting spells, or the mystique of “the boy who lived.” It was the fictional game of Quidditch, played on flying broomsticks – and the fact that it was a co-ed sport.

A teacher at the time, Mr. Ssentamu had seen firsthand how many parents thought sending their daughters to school was a waste of time – they’d only end up pregnant or married, they said. He himself had been taught by women, at a time when their education wasn’t encouraged. 

In some people’s eyes, women just weren’t seen as equal. But he wondered if Quidditch could change that.

Katumba Badru
John Ssentamu, a former teacher who started Quidditch teams at his school to teach children about gender equality, poses inside his office in Busubi, Uganda.

When Mr. Ssentamu returned to his village, he gathered a few students to watch videos online. Quidditch, it turned out, had leapt from the page to become a real-life sport – but nowhere in Africa yet.

He remembers the children were stunned by the game, but mostly the girls, who had never seen men and women compete together.

“They were like, ‘Is it possible? Can girls play on the same pitch with boys?’” Mr. Ssentamu says, remembering their initial reluctance with a laugh that is almost a cackle. 

“I told them that this is the right time to change people’s mindset: We are not going to look at football for girls, football for boys. We are now going to have Quidditch for all.” 

Equal treatment

In Uganda, women and girls continue to face gender-based discrimination and violence. Only one-third of women own land, for example, and one in four report that their first sexual encounter was against their will. About four in five female secondary-school students say they have experienced sexual abuse, according to a government study supported by UNICEF.

“It is our own making that the man is bigger than the woman,” Mr. Ssentamu says, sitting at the vocational center in Busubi he now leads. “When it comes to Quidditch, we do the same training. If we are going to run five rounds, they must be five rounds whether you are a she or a he.”

In J.K. Rowling’s books, two teams of seven players face off on a field with three scoring hoops and four balls: two bludgers, a quaffle, and most importantly, the winged, golden snitch. Darting about on flying broomsticks, players try to get quaffles through the hoops, and bludgeon each other with bludgers, as the seekers madly try to catch the bird-like snitch.

Katumba Badru
The Ugandan Quidditch team follows rules set by the International Quidditch Association. There are no broomsticks; the team makes do with sticks gathered around the village.

In real life, of course, the rules are slightly different – particularly the lack of flying brooms. (Instead, the team runs with sticks between their legs.) But that hasn’t hampered interest.

Goreth Nakkazi only came to know about the sport from the buzz going around the village. After watching a few student games, Ms. Nakkazi knew she wanted to more than watch Quidditch. She wanted to play it.

“I had never seen both sexes play on the same ground, and that system of playing with a broomstick between your legs was my wonder,” she says.

But it was not just a surprise. It was a confirmation of her beliefs about equality.

As a child, she and her sisters felt sidelined, while their brothers were placed at the front line. Then, shortly after she married her husband, other men pressured him to marry again.

“They told him a man has to be with two or more women because [women] are weak and of simple reasoning and so, when you have many, you join their heads and it becomes one of a man,” she says. “It was very hurtful to me,” she adds. “I always sit and argue with the men and tell them it is not like that.”

But she didn’t stop at telling them. She liked to show them – part of why Quidditch piqued her interest.

At the time, the sport was only open to students. But as interest increased, Mr. Ssentamu announced that he wanted to create an adult team.

Ms. Nakkazi has been playing for two years now. “In Quidditch, we are treated the same, there is no taking of girls as inferior,” she says.

And her husband? “I proved to him that I am even more than some men, so now he is on my side, he backs me in whatever I do,” she says. Today, they have three children. “If he has to remain with the baby while I go for training, he does it.”

Godfrey Yiga, who started playing Quidditch while he was a young teacher, notes its importance in changing his views of gender, too. A few years ago, his teenage sister was preparing for important exams when she became pregnant. Their parents decided she should get married after giving birth, rather than going back to school. But after a grueling two years, he convinced them – and she is preparing once again for her exams.

Sitting on a bench just meters from the Quidditch field, Mr. Yiga stares intensely at the rain falling in silvery slants.

Equality means “[not] saying that ‘men have to do this and women have to do this,’” he says.

A wizard game in a non-wizard world

Under Mr. Ssentamu’s leadership, Quidditch has spread to three other locations in the country, where it is played by around 200 players, students and teachers alike.

The teams follow rules set by the International Quidditch Association. The golden snitch, for example, is not a ball but an actual person who hides before the game begins, anywhere in the community. 

Katumba Badru
The team has no official equipment. When they first began, their hoops were holes dug in the ground.

What if the snitch willingly wants to be caught by a certain side? Mr. Ssentamu laughs at the possibility. “Of course you can’t rule that out,” he says. “The neutrality has to come from the heart.”

But bigger challenges besides neutrality remain. The team has no official equipment. Their hoops when they first began were holes dug in the ground, till they started to manufacture some locally.

Twice, the team has been invited to the International Quidditch World Cup abroad, but Mr. Ssentamu says they have been denied visas. This year, they have again been invited, this time to the United States, and Mr. Ssentamu is working with an immigration lawyer.

He draws strength from the impact Quidditch has had on the community: Harry Potter books stocked across the region’s libraries; spectators who have come to see them play; and a new primary school, set up with help from Quidditch visitors. Mr. Ssentamu’s biggest win, though, might be shifting views of equality – including his own.

“Equality to me means that we are all human beings,” he says. “We must accept that we are all human beings without asking any other question.”

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