In late October, I traveled to Uganda and Malawi for two weeks to train and live with two soccer academies there, Football for Good (FFG) and Ascent Academy. I got connected with FFG through Ray United FC, which my dad has been involved with. When visiting RUFC camp earlier this year, he made a video project called “I am Ray United” that aimed to capture the lives, professions, and backgrounds of people affiliated with the camp. My dad filmed and interviewed their stories while he was in Uganda. My job afterwards was to edit the videos along with my him and and my brother. I didn't know that much about Ray United, or soccer in Africa in general, so I figured this would be a good way to learn more about it. Through the editing, I developed an appreciation for how the camp is able to use soccer to teach many things, including healthcare and nutrition. Seeing how enthusiastic the community was to learning from and helping each other was one of the reasons I wanted to go there and experience it for myself. While planning the trip to FFG, it was suggested to me that I also spend a week at its sister academy in Malawi, Ascent soccer. This is what I experienced there.
On my first day I woke up at around 7:30 am to the sound of kids laughing and people working in the kitchen. But when I got up about 15 minutes later there was nobody around except the coaches. Apparently they kids have school on Saturdays. For most of the morning I settled down and explored the campus. The compound consists of several buildings, including a dorm for the academy students.
At around 1pm the younger kids came back from school and lunch was served. The lunch was simple: rice topped with baked beans and some lettuce. It was really good, and a meal I’d be seeing a lot more of during my stay. Later in the afternoon it was time for my first training. The drive there was my first time seeing Kampala in daylight. It was different to anything I had ever experienced before, everywhere I looked something caught my eye. People carrying giant baskets on their heads, taxi drivers sitting on their motorcycles at every corner trying to find their next customer, the endless amounts of street food. The senior players all seemed curious and excited to meet me and welcomed me to the academy. It was certainly an interesting first training, similar to the training at home, but with a higher intensity and focus.
On my second day I joined the senior team for an away game. It was a two-hour drive, and we drove on crowded dirt roads that were damaged from the intense rain the night before. Thousands of motorcycles were on the road weaving dangerously between the traffic, while the cars barely inched forward. After two hours we arrived at the Islamic University of Kampala where the game was to be played. The first thing that really struck me was the quality of the pitch. Large puddles, dirt patches, uneven grass, non-symmetrical goals — far from what I'm used to playing on. But no one complained. The game started and the intensity and teamwork was an obvious result of great team spirit, preparation, and coaching. The game ended 2-2, which seemed like an unfair result for FFG.
A daily routine that quickly became a favorite was joining Suku, one of the FFG staff, on his daily commute to the supermarket to get food for the players. Suku really enjoyed showing me around and sharing as much about Kampala as possible, which I really appreciated. The fish market was like nothing I’d seen before. Fish laying everywhere, some small and others massive. Sellers scaling and cutting the fish with their axes, while fending off massive birds. Everyone I met was really friendly and very social, which was a great change from the typical Swedish stranger, who can be pretty cold.
On Wednesday evening, I gave a presentation to the academy, where I showed pictures and facts about Sweden, as well as Swedish soccer and how it differs from soccer in Uganda. The academy players seemed very interested and many of the students asked questions at the end of it. The majority of questions were about school in Sweden and about my soccer team. They were surprised that all schools in Sweden are free, and impressed by the quality of food and classrooms at my school. The one fact that seemed to really take them by surprise was that beating your kids is illegal in Sweden. A lot of their questions made me think about how much I take things for granted and how many things that seem like nothing to me are a luxury for them.
On Friday I left for the airport in the morning at around 7:30. I said goodbye to the coaches and to everyone I had met throughout the week. Although I was excited to go to Malawi and meet the Ascent team, I felt as if there was more to see in Kampala and I knew that I would have to go back in the future. The drive to the airport was amazing; the rolling hills and tropical landscape was something that I hadn’t noticed enough during the week.
I arrived in Lilongwe airport on Friday afternoon. Edo, the team's driver, arrived at the airport and explained that we were going directly to the field where the team trains. The drive there was an eye-opener. Lilongwe is extremely spread out and there were no real buildings, only unfinished houses and small villages. We drove through a village that was very poor. There were no stores, only small booths that sold candy and mobile data, run-down huts where large families lived. It was slightly unnerving at first, but people waved to me as we drove by, especially the younger kids who ran after the car yelling at me and to their friends.
The field where the Ascent teams train was a nice, cared for, full-sized pitch, but outside of those walls were massive dirt pitches where hundreds of kids were playing barefoot with a plastic ball and no shoes. Instantly when I got to the villages in Lilongwe I could see what soccer meant to the kids. Everywhere I looked, kids playied soccer, no matter the circumstances, they found a way to play the game. I met the coaches, who explained stuff about how the academy works and I watched the younger teams train. The first two nights I stayed with George, the co-founder of Ascent, so that i could settle in and familiarize myself with the place.
The next day we got up early to watch the U-17 team play an away game. George explained on the way there that pretty much all away games were played on dirt fields with tree branches as goal posts, and this pitch was no different. The game was in a very rural area and pretty much everyone was staring at George and me. It was hot out and I made the rookie mistake of forgetting a water bottle. I couldn’t imagine playing a match in that heat.
The game started and Ascent dominated from the start. The style of play was much different to the European way of playing, with high tempo and constant attacking. The hard dirt surface made it impossible to play calm, tactical soccer, instead it was much more physical and hectic. During the game, multiple motorcycles and even a carriage pulled by donkeys casually crossed the field while the ball was in play. There were no goal nets and the field was on a hill so every time the ball went out the younger kids would all race after it trying to get to it as fast as possible. During halftime one of the younger kids came up to me and passed his small homemade soccer made of plastic bags. Everyone stood around watching as this 5-year-old kid tried his hardest to make every pass come to me. He was extremely careful with his ball, making sure nobody else got their hands on it. Ascent won the game 4-1 pretty comfortably, which apparently was common. They haven’t lost the entire season.
On Tuesday I had training with the U-20 team. The players were about my size and age, which was nice after being in Uganda where everyone was smaller than me. The training was a simple possession drill, similar to one they we often do back in Sweden. The field took some getting used. It was bumpy and hard but after some minutes I started to get a feel for it. We then played a four team tournament with the U-17’s, which was a lot of fun. For the trip back to the Ascent house, where I would be staying for the rest of the week, I went with the team bus. We drove through the packed town where the training ground was located, which was exciting but also nerve-wracking. We drove dangerously fast, weaving between the people and bicyclists, honking at everyone who got in the way. The town had no electricity so everyone walked around with flashlights and there were candles lit everywhere. Despite the chaos and lack of light, the town seemed fun. There was food being made, music being played, and even kids playing soccer in the darkness. When we arrived at the academy house, there was no power. I don’t think I’ve ever not had power, but everyone was ok with it, so I was too.
One day, Tom, the head senior coach, brought me to the bus centre where all the buses arrive and depart, which was a crazy experience. Hundreds of mini-buses all going in different directions, hardly being able to move while hundreds of civilians squeezed between the moving cars. It looked like one giant traffic jam. There were people yelling from the top of their buses while others ran around trying to sell stuff. Still, people were incredibly friendly. Tom and I went around town doing errands and giving the academy players their lunch money for the week. At every school we stopped at all the kids would stare at me from behind the bars of their classroom windows. The same day I gave my presentation on life and soccer in Sweden to the kids at the house. Because many of them weren’t very strong in English, one of the coaches had to help translate most of what I said. Despite the language barrier the kids seemed interested and at the end many of them asked questions about soccer, my school, and how a normal day looks for me.
The last day really showed me how much my presence at Ascent meant to the players. Almost everyone came up to me and wanted to personally thank me for coming. Some of the players explained that sharing my life in Sweden had inspired them to work harder and maybe one day visit Sweden. They all said I had been a huge inspiration to them, which is funny, because I thought it was the other way around.
When I came home, my dad suggested that I think of five differences between Swedish and Malawian/Ugandan soccer and sacrifices that the African players may have to make, compared to me. Here’s what I came up with:
All in all, my two weeks at FFG and Ascent were amazing. I got to see a part of the world where I had never been. (Actually that’s not true, my parents lived in Kenya when I was born, so I spent my first year in East Africa. But I haven’t been back since.) I got to meet a lot of great people and experience two entirely new cultures. The people who helped me with this adventure have been some of the kindest and caring people I’ve met, and really succeeded in educating me about their communities. Only now have I really understood the power that soccer has. I think that the trip changed my view of the world as well as my view of myself. Since coming home, I've started to notice the small and big things that I didn’t pay attention to before. For that, I’m really grateful.
Ray Wipfli, RUFC founder, shares his thoughts.