Two historical facts:
1. In 2000, an outbreak of the Ebola virus killed over 200 people in Uganda.
2. University Sports in East Africa is a jungle of confusion.
A. Inter-University Games, University Games
B. Uganda, East Africa, All Africa, World
Take any one from line B and put it in front of one from line A and you have a valid competition that exists somewhere in the world in which UCU participates on some level. Each of those possible combinations warrants at least one paragraph of explanation. One reason why it’s been so long since I’ve written something out here is that everything that happens in Uganda warrants at least one paragraph of explanation before any narrative makes sense. Nothing’s easy, but it’s easier to just live it and talk about it all with Louise, than to try to explain it and tell it. But I should still say more.
Another reason why it’s been so long since I’ve written something out here, is we at UCU have been planning/preparing to host the NUSFU Games and things have been pretty hectic since September.
I’m not aware of any nationally recognized University Sports leagues for any sport, anywhere in the world, outside the US. Internationally, university students play sports, but they play for whatever club they chose in whatever league that club competes in. Then, if they wish, they play for their University in various forms of Inter-University competition.
Most of you know that we at UCU have teams in National Leagues. In addition to our basketball teams, we have men’s and women’s volleyball teams and a men’s soccer team, all competing in Uganda National Leagues. Those National Leagues are not University Leagues. They are made up of clubs sponsored by different individuals--a few Universities like us, but mostly private companies or organizations.
I explain that, to explain the importance of Inter-University Games. In East Africa, Inter-University Games happen annually, the first week of Christmas break. The odd-numbered years, each country is responsible for holding it’s own Inter-University Games--in Uganda that means NUSFU Games (National University Sports Federation of Uganda). The even-numbered years, the region comes together for East Africa Inter-University Games, hosted by a different country every year. So, for me it’s been: 2003 - 10th NUSFU Games (Kampala, no host institution), 2004 - East Africa Inter-University Games (Nairobi, Kenyatta University), 2005 - 11th NUSFU Games (Luwero, Ndejje University), 2006 - East Africa Inter-University Games (Kampala, no host institution -- Rwanda was supposed to host but pulled out three weeks before the Games because they weren’t ready), 2007 - 12th NUSFU Games (Mukono, UCU).
-1- (place finder)
There’s a story worth telling about each of these editions of each of these games in each place. The stories are worth telling--not just because I’m a mzungu who thinks almost everything that happens in Africa is a story worth telling. I’ll tell you the story worth telling about the 12th NUSFU Games that just finished a few days ago here on campus.
It was announced at the closing ceremony of the 2005 NUSFU Games that UCU would be hosting in 2007. At the time, I wasn’t yet officially Sports Director. I didn’t know we’d even put our name in the hat, but I was excited about the opportunity to right the wrongs I’d experienced in the ‘03, ‘04, and ‘05 versions, and also about the opportunity to sleep in my own bed and shower in my own shower the week before Christmas. I didn’t think so much about the hugeness of it: 2,400 students, coaches, officials, referees; 17 Universities coming to one campus to eat, compete, shower and sleep every day for one week; men’s and women’s teams competing in 14 sports; a separate tournament set up for each men’s and women’s division of each sport--all beginning on Monday and ending with a Championship in each division in each sport by noon on Friday.
We weren’t aware in 2005 that the 2007 Games in December would work out to be the perfect climax of a year full of Celebration for UCU. UCU was founded in 1997. Much of 2006 was spent planning a calendar full of 10th Anniversary Celebrations to stretch across 2007. Toward the end of 2006 I spent a lot of time with Stephen Noll, and Johann Nietzsche (German Projects Director) talking about what kind of facilities we’d need to host the Games and where we could put them and how we could pay for them.
Many details later, we knew we needed a soccer field and running track, new courts for all sports and we knew we had $250,000 to work with. As much as we wanted an indoor facility (there’s only one indoor gymnasium in all of Uganda) we agreed that it’d be more practical to spend the money on several courts that could be used simultaneously instead of two spectacular indoor courts that would need to be shared. Johann and Steve and I did a lot of measuring and drawing and erasing and internet research and finally came up with a plan for 4 basketball courts, 3 volleyball courts, 2 tennis courts, 1 netball court, a soccer field surrounded by an 8-lane running track, all cut into a slope that would allow us to make 5 - 6 levels of pavilion seating for spectators along one side of everything.
It’s impossible to explain the immense-ness of such a project. Construction in East Africa is as confusing to an outsider as anything else. There are dozens of buildings--big buildings--in Kampala alone that have been half-finished since I landed in 2003. It’s difficult to find an indoor or outdoor staircase in Uganda with all the stairs an equal height. Deadlines don’t exist. Johann was coordinating the construction of the Sports Complex, as well as many campus improvements needed to boost things as part of the 10th Anniversary Celebration, as well as the construction of a Uganda Studies Program house for Mark and Abby Bartels, as well as a new building for the Mukono Diocese in Mukono Town.
All this, in the middle of an incomparable fever of construction going on in and around Kampala in preparation for CHOGM (cho-gum)(The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) that was hosted in Kampala for three days at the end of November--Special Guest: The Queen of England. At least a dozen new hotels were built in Kampala, many more were re-furbished, all to prepare for 5,000 or so people and the Queen landing in Kampala for three days. Every road the Queen’s motorcade might have taken was re-done--formerly chaotic round-abouts were turned into intersections with street lights. Pre-CHOGM was wild, CHOGM for the most part was mild. But it complicated construction because so many materials were hard to come by, as was the usually easy to come by cheap labor.
Combine Johann’s pile of work, with Uganda’s tendency to never keep time, with CHOGM, and with an unusually long and wet rainy season (there was record rainfall and terrible floods in Eastern Uganda in September) and the Sports Complex was pretty far behind schedule.
In 2005, before the Games at Ndejje University, Louise and I were in Luwero for something else and we drove over to the Ndejje campus to check on facilities. It was about three weeks before the Games were to start, and they were just breaking ground on a basketball/volleyball court and putting the finishing touches on their soccer field/running track. They were no where near ready. They were willing to admit that the basketball court wouldn’t be standard even if it was finished in time, and they took Louise and me over to a high school nearby where they were planning to play basketball (one rim was a foot high, the other six inches low--I came up the next week with a few guys and we spent a couple days replacing rims and fixing backboards).
As construction was going on at a slower and slower pace, I became more and more worried about us being in an Ndejje situation. Originally, we’d planned to be finished with everything in September. Mostly to give us breathing room to work on unforeseen things that always pop up, and also to give our teams a chance to practice on the new courts and get comfortable and create some home-court advantage. But September came and went and we were no where near ready. Readiness for the Games became a regular topic of conversation in offices and classrooms and dorm rooms around campus. Besides the facilities, there are a million things that need to be in place in order for the Games to come off well. We had a Local Organizing Committee (full of subcommittees) overseeing all these details that had been meeting on campus regularly since March. Officially, I was the Chairman of the Technical Subcommittee (responsible for scheduling all games, identifying supervising and paying referees, securing all necessary equipment, and providing all necessary facilities) and a member of the Finance Committee. Unofficially, as Sports Director, I was the final person who was supposed to have answers when no one from any subcommittee had them. The Chairman of the L.O.C., Dr. John Senyonyi (Deputy Vice Chancellor of Development and External Relations) was Chairman of almost everything else regarding the 10th Anniversary and wasn’t able to give us much hands-on direction until the Games were about to begin.
Probably the biggest day of the 10th Anniversary Celebration was the Graduation Ceremony, Friday, October 5th. In the British education tradition, graduation ceremonies are not held immediately after classes and exams are finished, they’re held a month or two later. George Carey, who came and officially dedicated the first foundation stone of UCU when he was Archbishop of Canterbury in 1997, returned as the keynote speaker at the Graduation, and to dedicate another stone at the new Main Gate at the new UCU entrance. That Friday, Graduation was the only thing happening on campus. Offices were closed, classes weren’t happening. I chose to leave the suit in the closet, not attend the Graduation Ceremony, not even shower, and just hang out and relax at home with Louise and Lily. At about 2:00 I got a call from Vincent Kisenyi, a Business Department lecturer who ran the Sports Department on a voluntary basis before I stepped in as Sports Director. Vincent was telling me WBS, a major television network, was on campus covering the Graduation and the visit by George Carey, and also wanted to talk to me about the development of the Sport Complex and the preparations for University Games. I showered and shaved and hurried down to the soccer field.
Louise has joked that she’s the Uganda version Victoria Beckham, wife of mega-sports-celebrity-media magnet David Beckham. We’ve got a ways to go before we rival the Beckhams, but with the combination of Basketball League success and game highlights being shown on news stations and then the publicity surrounding the Games, I’ve been told I’ve been a regular on TV and radio. We wouldn’t know really, our TV is dedicated to movies and shows (Seinfeld, 24, Prison Break, and now Baby Einstein). We need to get an antennae. So the WBS cameraman/interviewer was asking me what plans we had for the Sports Complex and when I expected everything to be finished and about our basketball teams and other teams and the preparation for the games in general. I said things about UCU being a center of excellence (UCU motto: “A Centre of Excellence in the Heart of Africa”) and how our goal is for the Sports Department to achieve the same level of excellence as other Departments and I told them people should expect the 2007 Games to be the best ever. The last two questions the guy asked me, with the sparsely grassed soccer field surrounded by an uneven oval of stony dirt and mud steps cut waiting to be evened and concreted all exposed over my shoulder, were, “When do the games begin?” Etched in my internal calendar was, “December 17th.” Then he asked, “What kind of guarantee can you give us that these facilities will be ready by then?” Without flinching I smiled and said, “If we’re not ready, you can take me to Luzira.” Johann was interviewed next. We shook hands with the WBS guy and he walked away and Johann looked at me, “You have more confidence than I do.” “Then I’ll give you some of mine,” I told him. Luzira is the feared prison in Kampala--the Ugandan version of Alcatraz.
A huge boost of progress was expected when we ordered $13,000 worth of equipment from Porter Athletic in the US. I’d been working with an equipment supplier in South Africa who was really dragging his feet. Stephen Noll and I had a conversation about equipment we’d need and the possibility of having things shipped air-freight from the US. Within a few days, we’d ordered backboards and rims, volleyball nets, tennis posts and nets. That’s when I was sure we were building what was going to be the best outdoor sports facility in East Africa. Everything from Porter arrived at Entebbe before CHOGM, and was cleared soon after.
The week before, I’d spent three full days with the construction guys navigating the grueling though fascinating process of getting the two 4” steel pipes we’d fabricated to make basketball goals, into the ground so they’d be level from all angles and the right height for the backboards. Huge 5’ by 3’ holes were dug to house each pole. 2 or 3 huge flat stones were dropped into the bottom of each hole, to prevent the poles from sinking, then we had to add or subtract big or small stones to make everything the right height and the right level. Then concrete had to be mixed by hand and brought down to the courts in wheel-barrows and then poured into each hole while the rest of the goal (3” pipes fabricated to hold the backboards) was supported by eucalyptus poles. This was accomplished by about 10 Ugandans working for $2/day.
When the Porter stuff arrived and I opened the backboards and rims, it was like a hundred Christmas mornings. We couldn’t use UCU carpenters during the week because they had a schedule full of things they were already working on. So I got 4 of the carpenters out and we worked all day Saturday Dec. 1 and 8:00 am to noon Sunday Dec. 2 putting up the backboards and rims (Stephen Noll and the UCU Chaplain and a few others came down at 2:00 that Sunday and had a worship service in Luganda for all the workers who were being asked to work--about 30 guys--8 of them stood at the end to say they’d accepted Jesus as Savior--I pray it wasn’t so they could get two Cokes at the end of the service instead of one.) Thursday Dec. 6, we had a press conference. I’m told it was one of the most well-attended sports press conferences in recent years. I wore a tie. People asked lots of questions about preparations for the games, we announced that Stanbic Bank was coming on a sponsor, we announced that the $250,000 was not sponsor money, but UCU money committed to developing sports, I answered several technical questions, and facilities questions and then gave a tour of the Sports Complex.
Games were to begin Monday Dec. 17th--11 days from the press conference. We had Porter backboards and rims up on three basketball courts (we’d decided to leave our old court as the 4th court and re-surface it and put the Porter stuff up after the Games) and the entire basketball area surfaced with a nice, fine asphalt and that was impressive. But we had no lines painted on any of the basketball courts. The volleyball courts had only the first layer of surface finished. There were no volleyball poles up. Of the two tennis courts that were to be clay, one was just leveled, the other was a mound of mud that had been excavated to cut more seats into the hill. The five levels of seating that were to line the courts had been cut into the hill, but only the bottom two or three were finished, the rest still needed stones and concrete to be laid and leveled and dried and finished. The grass on the soccer field was growing enough to look good from a short distance, but there were obvious gaps when you stood on top of it. The track was leveled, but still full of small rocks that would make it impossible to run on in spikes. The seating along the hill side of the track, like the one at the courts, was cut, but nowhere near finished. Reporters stood with cameras filming me and the unfinished Sports Complex behind me. One guy said something about “half-baked facilities.” I had very uneasy feelings about being compared to Ndejje in 2005. I told the guy without smiling, “UCU doesn’t do anything half-baked.” I didn’t say anything about Luzira.
Saturday and Sunday the 8th and 9th were all about painting. Stanbic Bank, a big South Africa-based bank with an established presence in Uganda had given us 10 million Uganda shillings (about $6,000). In turn, they wanted to “brand” basketball and volleyball courts. We decided the best thing would be to paint their blue and white logo on all the courts. I had lots of talks with a paint guy in Kampala and we decided we’d paint the entire court surface to seal it against rain and sun, and also to make things look good. Our plan was to paint the courts black, the lanes and center court blue, and boundary lines white, and to paint the center section of one volleyball court blue, to give Stanbic a place for their logo. In between all the courts, the asphalt would be painted maroon, like you often see at hard-court tennis courts.
The guys came out to paint. Things were moving quickly, the rain stayed away long enough for the paint to dry. I went into Kampala to check on an order of shade cloth we’d planned to use to fence in the volleyball courts and the tennis courts. The shade cloth was supposed to have arrived a week before. I got in and they told me it wouldn’t be available until Tuesday or Wednesday. I got back to the courts and found out that they’d already gone through all the maroon that we’d ordered and it only covered about 1/3 of the space in between courts. But more importantly, it wasn’t maroon--it was pink. Bright pink, like Barbie’s Camero. Sunday’s sun went down with one court fully-finished. The rest of the courts still needed lines, lanes and half-court circles painted and the volleyball courts needed everything.
When Sunday’s sun went down, 40 guys came to our house. Earlier, when I checked on the shade cloth in Kampala, I also bought about 100 hamburger patty’s at Shoprite. I’d bought about 60 the day before. I’ve promised all UCU teams that if they win a major championship, I’ll do 2 things: 1) get them championship t-shirts, 2) throw them a burger party. Men’s basketball and Men’s volleyball both won the Championship of East Africa Inter-University Games in December 2006. I’d taken care of the t-shirts when I was home in February. But Louise and I had never found a right time to have everyone over for burgers. I knew we had to do it before the 2007 Games. So we did it the weekend before. I promised all the guys at the beginning that there was enough meat for 4 burgers each. Two American students here for the semester with the Uganda Studies Program who’d been involved with both teams throughout the season, came over to help me cook. They couldn’t believe the amount of meat. Throughout the night, they couldn’t believe how fast the meat was going. The UCU dining hall serves better, more balanced food than any other University dining hall in Uganda. But still, there’s a lot of bony chicken and bony goat and bony beef and bony fish, and even more of rice and matooke and posho and beans and cabbage. These guys don’t get straight red meat unless they pay for it, and most of them don’t have money to pay for meat. After the meat was long gone and the charcoal was all grey, we were talking about who ate the most burgers. Biggy, 6’ 8”, Kenyan big man who rebounds like crazy and plays monster defense, had 9 burgers. Daudi, 5’ 4”, Muslim, Tanzanian point guard who practices hard but rarely plays, who had a career game in the 3rd place playoff game (20 minutes, 13 points, 10 assists), had 10. Someone else said he’d had 10. I looked at Daudi--smallest guy in the crowd, bigger only than Lily, smaller than Louise. Daudi shrugged, “6 with the bun, 4 without.”
After that, guys started waddling back to their hostel. A few guys hung around and we talked about the upcoming Games a few days away. One guy from Nairobi, Adams, said his mother was concerned about Ebola--wanted him to come home as soon as exams were over, before the Games. Ebola had been in the East African news for a week or so. People were saying that it had probably been around before CHOGM, but that it was kept quiet. Now that the Queen was gone, stories were breaking about people dying--a few individuals infected in Bundibugyo District in Western Uganda, and then a few medical workers who’d treated them, one who had come back to Kampala and died in a central Government Hospital. Just that day, Sunday, there’d been information in the paper encouraging people to take precautions against Ebola (not shaking hands with anyone, avoiding public transportation if possible, staying away from big public gatherings). Ebola is spread by exchange of bodily fluids, so it’s not as contagious as cold or flu, but for a few days, there was at least one death/day in Bundibugyo and there were rumors of suspected cases all over Uganda, including Kampala.
Monday morning: I called Stephen Noll and asked him what he thought about the threat of Ebola in regard to the Games. He asked me to come to his office. He and John Senyonyi had just been talking about Ebola and Steve had written a letter to the Uganda Ministry of Health asking for advice about hosting the Games. John was going to take the letter to the Ministry and hopefully come back with an official response. Until we had a negative response, we needed to proceed as planned (meaning continue going wild with construction and painting and praying away all the rain).
Monday afternoon: I got a call from John saying, “I’ve just been with the Minister of Health. Things don’t look good. We’ll talk when I get back.” An hour or so later I left the on-going paint job at the courts to meet with Steve and Johann at the soccer field. Johann was leaving the next night to fly to Germany for Christmas. He’d originally planned to leave on the 5th with his family, but Steve convinced him to stick around another week. We were talking about what needed to be done to prepare the track surface for the Games. We already had a 100-meter stretch covered in stone dust (a bi-product of breaking and grinding masonry stones--stone version of saw dust), but it was too thick and needed to be thinned-out and spread over the entire track at that thinned-out level. But all 8 lanes of 400 meters needed to be graded one more time before this could be done right. Johann said everything was ready for the work to be done but we needed at least one full day with no rain--we hadn’t had that for a month at least. With that, we moved into talking about the communication from the Ministry of Health. There was still no official word, but Steve said that the Ministry had told John that hosting the Games with the current Ebola situation didn’t sound like a good idea. We were supposed to get an official response to our letter the next day. I’d been sweating the whole project and was now really sweating the track situation. I felt a heavy burden lighten a little with the possibility that the Government might tell us that we can’t go ahead with the Games in December. We’d postpone to a later time, maybe April 2008, and everything would be ready and we’d be able to relax into Christmas without so much stress. Clearly I wanted to host the Games, but I wanted to do it “right” and “right,” by my definition, was beginning to seem impossible.
Tuesday morning: I met with Steve and John and Johann at the track to discuss the hand-over of the oversight of the construction from Johann to John, and to talk to contractors about what still needed to be done and when. Walking away from our plastic chairs on the patchy soccer grass, I asked John what he thought about the whole Ebola thing. He again said that things sounded negative the day before and he expected to get negative news when he went in to the Ministry of Health in the afternoon. We made a plan to meet in Kampala after his meeting with the Ministry, and we’d go and meet the President of NUSFU at Makerere University, and talk about the possibility of postponing the Games until April. All that, IF, we heard what we expected to hear from the Ministry of Health. I left that meeting and went to the basketball courts and volleyball courts, and didn’t say much and didn’t call the painter who hadn’t shown up yet. I was really thinking things weren’t going to happen. I went home, talked to Louise, filled her in about the latest and how Steve and John felt about everything. She knew how much pressure I’d been feeling about construction and all the other things I was working on and she knew I’d be relieved if things were postponed. She was excited, and I was excited about the possibility of getting some relief. But we were also both aware that we couldn’t look at such a big thing from such a narrow personal perspective--this thing was 2,400 people, not just us.
Tuesday afternoon: I prayed and checked my motivation as thoroughly as I could. I truly wanted the right, and safe and healthy thing to happen, and to happen for the right reasons--not so I could enjoy more of Christmas with my little family. But in my mind, I’d already started coming to terms with the fact that postponing the Games was the “right” thing. I got a call from John as I was driving into Kampala--conference call connected also to Steve. I put the phone on speaker and John read the letter from the Ministry of Health. In short, it was a green light. At the end, they threw in the caution that we should be prepared to deal properly with any case of bloody diarrhea or internal bleeding. They also threw in the statement that “Ebola is only spread by someone who is showing symptoms,” suggesting that as long as we eliminate anyone who might be showing symptoms from getting on a field or court and sharing sweat with healthy people, we should be o.k. John and I had already set up the meeting with the NUSFU President at Makerere, so we said we’d meet there and discuss the letter and continue on with things as scheduled.
Tuesday evening: John and I sat at Makerere University in the office of the NUSFU President, who holds a dozen various posts in Uganda and Kampala pertaining to Sports and Politics. We read the letter to her. John and I hadn’t talked since the conference call in the car. He was already there before I walked into the office. He was sharing his thoughts and, even though we’d agreed on the phone with Steve that we should suck it up and go back to work preparing things, he was frank with the President about how uneasy he was to be told in conversation with the Minister of Health on Monday that it wasn’t a good idea, and then to be told on paper the next day that it’s o.k. Knowing he was feeling that made me more uneasy about hosting. I kept having a flash in my head of one person on a soccer field suddenly bleeding from his/her eyes and nose, everyone panicking, no one treating the person, and the Games being shut down and everyone scattering not knowing who else might have been infected by that person. “It’s not worth the risk,” I said over and over, in my head and aloud. Vincent Kisenyi arrived a few minutes later and echoed what John and I had been saying. A few more NUSFU representatives (Sports Tutors from other Universities) had been called and they came to the office and we all shared ideas. The UCU people were in favor of caution and postponement. The other Sports Tutors were in favor of the Games happening in December. The NUSFU President said, very diplomatically, “I don’t want to go against the conscience of the host.” We agreed that we’d try to contact other Sports Tutors in the morning and then get a consensus the next day.
[I’m gonna interrupt facts for a second to hint at the crumbling core below the surface of University Sports in Uganda. Sadly, I think it might be the same crumbling or crumbled core below the surface of many things in East Africa. Like anywhere else, in East Africa, decisions regarding University Sports are made by Sports Tutors (Athletic Directors), and other University Administrators. But most of these decisions are made directly by the Sports Tutors. Unlike in the US, in Uganda, Sports Tutors (Athletic Directors) are not generally seen as big shots in their Universities, and are definitely not paid as big shots. But they usually receive allowances, per diem, for traveling to meetings, going for things like University Games, at home or abroad. It’s my perception that most decisions made regarding University Sports in Uganda, are made based on the potential financial benefit to the Sports Tutors or other Administrators involved. Not based on the potential physical/educational benefit to the participating students. Leaders serving themselves, not leaders serving the people they represent.]
Tuesday night: I got back to campus and went straight to Steve’s. He’d been thinking since the conference call that things were going to move ahead as planned. So he was jarred from his Scrabble game with Peggy and a little surprised to hear that John and I were still proposing the postponement. I again said, “It’s not worth the risk,” a few times and told him frankly that it was hard to make a decision about this without considering the impossible construction task ahead, but that I really thought it wasn’t worth the risk. I told him something I hadn’t thought to say in the meeting at Makerere. “What if one person shows up with Ebola and happens to pass it on to a Kenyan or Tanzanian and that person takes it home to Nairobi or Dar Es Salaam? International incident.” He called John and John told him what he thought. Steve said, “O.k. Both of you come here tomorrow morning at 7:30 and we’ll talk and make a decision then.”
Wednesday morning: I walked into Steve’s living room. He handed me three papers: a press release, a copy of his email to all 17 University Vice Chancellors, and a copy of his statement to the UCU student/athletes. All, in various ways, declaring that, due to the Ebola threat, we were canceling invitations to the Games and proposing postponement until April 2008. He’d made the decision and was surprisingly firm and final about it. John walked in a few minutes later and we talked about the way forward and that was that. I walked home and told Louise. We both smiled, but with an uneasiness. Life was going to get easy quickly, but it didn’t seem fully right--like we’d just cut a wire on a ticking bomb when there’s still 3 minutes left on the timer. I left and emailed and called all Sports Tutors, urging them to talk to their Vice Chancellors about the email Steve had sent earlier. John called an urgent meeting of the L.O.C., and he announced the news to all of us there. I sent text messages to coaches and players. Games were going to be postponed. I visited the construction site and talked only to the top foreman and told him the pressure had just decreased. Of course we wanted the work to continue, but I wanted to make sure things were done as right as possible, and not rushed when they didn’t need to be.
Wednesday afternoon: I met with all student/athletes and read them Steve’s communication. I told them we were planning to host the Games in April and told them to finish their exams and travel home safe and have a Merry Christmas. I didn’t know what kind of reaction to expect. Almost everyone smiled, several people clapped. Everything was over. I went down to the new courts, still not fully painted, and played 21 with a few of my guys until dark.
Wednesday night: I got a text message from Vincent Kisenyi: “I’ve been called to an urgent NUSFU meeting at Makerere. I’ll keep you posted.” Around 10:30 Vincent called. He told me NUSFU people wanted to meet with Steve at UCU the next morning at 8:00. “They’re going to take the Games somewhere else if we don’t change our position. No one wants to postpone.”
Thursday morning: Steve called at 7:30 and told me he knew NUSFU people were coming to see him, but he’d been called by the Minister of Education to go to an urgent meeting in Kampala. “I’m sure you and John can handle it.” John and I sat and received the NUSFU contingent in Steve’s conference room. People I’d never seen in anything other than track suits and t-shirts, were wearing full suits and ties and with sparkling shoes. They were doing all they could to convince UCU to reconsider and accept to host the Games. They had a 2 page letter with 12 reasons why the Games must happen in December. No one expressed any concern about the Ebola threat. John did almost all the talking, and stuck by the decision Steve had made. The President, apparently over her dislike of going against the conscience of the host, but still diplomatic, informed us that if we wouldn’t change our decision, they were going to have the Games at Makerere University, on the same dates as scheduled. This was Thursday, Dec. 13th. They were going to put the Games together in 4 days. Makerere is the oldest university in East Africa, has about 40,000 students, a large campus full of buildings, but the only sports facilities that would be considered standard are two soccer fields and a swimming pool. The Games would be an absolute disaster--at least by my standards. By Ugandan standards they would be below average but below average is acceptable. But the Games would go on and the few people who might complain wouldn’t be willing to risk demanding anything better.
The rest of Thursday: Some of the NUSFU people stayed around UCU for an hour or so. They needed all registration information we’d collected for the 2,400 participants--forms and photos we’d be using to make accreditation cards for the Games. And there were many other pieces of information I needed to hand over in order for NUSFU to begin setting things up at Makerere. It was strange. I still thought we were doing the right thing based on the Ebola threat, but I was becoming more and more disappointed that NUSFU wasn’t willing to at least try to postpone the Games until April--that the Games would go on, in unacceptable conditions and we wouldn’t have a chance to make a difference. I was relieved not to have to worry about the track surface and painting the courts and getting the shade cloth and having everything perfect by Monday morning, but I was unsettled. Steve called in the afternoon and asked what I thought about making a goodwill gesture to NUSFU and offering to let them use our basketball and volleyball courts for the games. I told him I didn’t think it would be a good idea--the risk would still be there. I told him our goodwill gesture could be to make the accreditation cards for all participants like we’d planned to do in the beginning. He thought that was o.k. It came out in Thursday’s paper that UCU had decided not to host the Games, and one unnamed NUSFU official conjectured that it was because the UCU Sports Complex wasn’t ready.
Friday morning: Steve called and asked me to come to his office at 9:00. He was asking again about letting NUSFU use our facilities. He didn’t like that people were saying we weren’t ready. I told him I didn’t like the risk and also had to say, “We’re not ready. We haven’t spent any money since all this Ebola talk early in the week. Painting has stopped, and things have slowed down … a lot.” Steve hadn’t been down to the courts in a couple days. “O.k., I wasn’t aware we were that far behind.” I left his office. We’d agreed that our goodwill gesture would be the production of the accreditation cards. I went to our Sports Office where our guys had been working all night the night before on the cards. They looked great--very professional. Not that it’s a huge deal, but the accreditation cards the guys were making were nicer than what we’d received at All-Africa University Games in South Africa in 2006. I sat in my office, talking to the captain of the Track-and-Field team, who helping me coordinating all the transportation needs of our International Student/Athletes (transportation costs increase right before Christmas, and since we’re asking people to stay around for the Games and miss out on going home a week early, we pay for all their transportation home). We talked for an hour or so, sorted out all the needs for all the people who needed bus tickets to Kenya or Tanzania, and I went home to get Louise. We were planning to go to town with Lily, buy the bus tickets for Sunday, and eat a relaxed lunch somewhere. When I got home, I told Louise I was heartbroken looking at the accreditation cards. I was realizing as I was saying it, “We’re more ready to host now, than anyone’s ever been.” We were ready to produce, start to finish, the best NUSFU Games ever, and it was all being taken away from us. It suddenly felt terrible. Lousie agreed that she’d never really felt right about the games not happening. She suggested I call Steve and tell him what I was thinking. I did. Steve asked me to meet him in John’s office. In the time it took me to walk down to John’s office, John had talked on the phone with the Minister of Health and with an World Health Organization official, both on the ground in Bundibugyo District. They told John that the chances of an Ebola infection at The Games was “virtually zero.” That’s all we needed. We smiled and shook heads a few times and rolled up our sleeves and agreed to go back to work. A flurry of phone calls were made from me and John to various NUSFU people, asking if we could bring The Games back to Mukono because of new health information we’d received. I knew there was no way they wanted the burden of putting everything together in 4 days, but I also knew they weren’t going to just fall into our open arms willingly. They told us to go ahead with our preparations, but that there was an emergency NUSFU meeting that night at Makerere.
The rest of Friday: Text messages sent to all coaches to call back players who might’ve already left. Frantic construction work that everyone was surprisingly happy to do. I figured construction people who’d been under pressure and then had the pressure relieved, wouldn’t be eager to go under it again, but I was wrong. Stone dust was being laid and leveled on the track. The sky was clear blue. The paint guy came out and I told him exactly what we needed and that it needed to be done by the end of Saturday.
Friday evening: I drove into Makerere for the NUSFU meeting. Politics. Silly. I was never on Student Council at Brunswick High, but I imagine there was more maturity in their meetings. A whole lot of petty comments about UCU “confusing” everyone and “disorganizing” everyone--again, nothing mentioned about Ebola--like it was never a factor and the new information we’d received in the morning wasn’t a factor. After two silly hours of accusations and me miraculously biting my tongue, it was agreed that the games would be at UCU as originally planned.
Saturday morning: I was at the courts at 8:00 and all the painting personnel were there. By 10:00, I was approving final measurements of the unpainted basketball courts. At 10:20 Ahmed Hussein, the Dan Patrick or Jim Rhome or other premier sports radio personality, of Uganda called and we talked on his weekly Saturday morning show about the whirlwind of The Games leaving UCU and then coming back to UCU. Hussein is the only person in Uganda who calls me “Mehl.” I like him and I think he likes me. I know he likes UCU and he was excited, I was excited too, Louise was sitting on the couch and she was excited. I hung up with Hussein, changed clothes and drove into Kampala. Had another press conference. NUSFU had demanded the evening before that UCU call a press conference announcing the changing of the venue back to UCU. It was supposed to start at 11:00. I was out the door at 10:30 to make the hour-long drive to Kampala. The press conference waited for me, started at 11:30, finished by 12:30. I took a boda-boda (scooter) through crazy Saturday city traffic, to the center of Kampala to meet two of our Sports Office guys to select the styles and sized of track suits we were buying--for all our teams, for the Games and beyond. I was there in time, and long enough to ensure that we’d get the same colors and to ensure that we were getting all Puma and Adidas and no Adi-b-as. I then took another boda-boda up to do another Saturday Sports radio show--not as good as Hussein’s, but longer--I was on for about 20 minutes talking about UCU sports and basketball in general. Pity though, they waited until our segment was over and we were off the air, and it was some guy giving predictions for all the Premier League football matches happening the next day, to ask me the good question: “How is it that UCU is able to put up such nice facilities?” “Those are the questions you should ask on the radio,” I said. “Commitment. UCU is committed to developing sports, and UCU knows you can accomplish a lot by sacrificing a little. We built our Sports Complex with UCU money and we’re a private University with no Government funding. The only reason the other larger Universities are unable to do the same, is lack of commitment.” Then I finished my coke and walked out and took a boda-boda back to where I’d parked the car. I drove out to the International School of Uganda (Private American-operated school for rich kids and diplomat’s kids) to borrow their chalk-marking machine for the track. No rain all day, track surface was ready to be marked by the time I got back with the machine. Miracles were happening.
Sunday: Adrenaline and more miracles. Shade cloth had been brought, I had to go back in to buy more because the original order wasn’t enough--but it was all there by Sunday afternoon. By 5:00 Sunday afternoon, most Universities had arrived. Everything was happening, and it was real, and it was good. We were ready. And we’d been told not to worry about Ebola.
The opening ceremony would take place Monday morning at 9:00.