The rain was pouring down, but they didn’t care. Dozens of men in brightly colored yellow, blue and green jerseys flying around the field and kicking the ball around with finesse I’ve only ever seen on television.
The futbol games were held at a local stadium in Musanze, a round robin tournament in honor of Ramadan. Our general manager at the Musanze Opportunity Center was participating in it and invited us to attend. When we found out he was a former member of the Ugandan national team, there was no way we were going to pass up the chance to witness such a legend in action.
Three students, two other staff members and I sat huddled in a row on the bleachers under a roof shielding us from the rain. The two teams played with such skill, such poise, such joy! I could barely sit still. Growing up, I’d only played one year of recreational soccer when I was 13-years-old, but in that moment all I wanted to do was run out onto the field and show everyone in the stadium that a little mzungu girl could compete too. If only they played baseball in Rwanda…
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were going to jump out on the field with them,” a staff member beside me chuckled.
I smiled. I absolutely wished it were true.
As I sat there on those bleachers– 10,000 miles away from home in the middle of Rwanda– I thought about the assortment of Kinyarwanda and English and French and Swahili all around me. For the past two months, I’ve found that Rwanda is a melting pot of dialects but for that afternoon, soccer was the language that we all spoke.
Isn’t that the beauty of sports? That regardless of culture or country or continent, they bring out the fight and the passion within each us? They’re a uniting force blind to skin color and race, choosing instead to simply see the skill and determination of the athletes involved. Here, no one knows what the “NCAA” is. Most don’t even know what “softball” is either. But in truth, those are simply a formality and all that matters is how you compete.
I fell in love with sports as a little girl. I live for come-from-behind wins. I love being a part of team camaraderie. And I love proving people wrong. Northwestern’s softball program has always taken pride in the fact that we play for something much bigger than ourselves, and my stay in Rwanda has only expanded that belief by 10,000 miles.
It expands every time I see a group of kids kicking around a t-shirt tied into a ball with string. It expands when I go jogging through our village and race the local children as they giggle and run alongside me. It expands at the preschool down the road when the four-year-olds wrestle in the dirt during our games of duck-duck-goose. It expands each afternoon I watch Rwandan futbol. And it expands every time I hear about the Olympics because in spite of not being able to watch them, I feel like I experienced something better; a taste of international competition first-hand.
In Rwanda, I’m simply an athlete. “The softball player from America.” I compete in all of those ways in my day-to-day only to win, nothing else. As I head into my senior year, it’s something I want to keep in perspective as I put on that purple jersey for the last time.
I want to step out onto that field and play for the love of the game, for the beauty of the sport, for wins… and nothing else. I want to compete simply to compete, and on a stage that I have been so incredibly blessed to play on and that is oceans larger than myself.
In the meantime, I have two weeks left in Rwanda and I’ve stumbled upon a softball and two baseball gloves outside the recreational room on our campus. I think it might be time to show some of our students and staff a thing or two…