For the Arabian-American Little League Team of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, a late summer trip to Williamsport, Pennsylvania has become an annual ritual.
The team, whose roster consists largely of the children of American expatriates working for the Saudi Aramco company, made its first Little League World Series appearance in 1983. The team advanced to the LLWS ten more times from 1985 to 1998 and has been in Williamsport every year since 2000.
Until this year.
This year, for the first time since Little League Baseball created the Middle East-Africa region in 2008, the region’s representative doesn’t hail from Saudi Arabia. It comes from Lugazi, Uganda.
The Lugazi squad is the first from its continent to compete in youth baseball’s biggest event. The Ugandans have only eleven players—Ronald Olaa, Justine Makisimu, Stephen Lematia, Job Echon, Felix Enzama, Tonny Okello, Andrew Namwanjja, Daniel Alio, Tom Agaku, Rolence Okonzi, and Fred Ojerku—and are used to practicing barefoot, but the Lugazi team is hardly a novelty act. It is part of a growing baseball movement in a country often associated with poverty and unrest.
Baseball doesn’t have a long history in Uganda.
34-year-old Henry Odong, Lugazi’s manager, is considered one of the pioneers of Ugandan baseball. He learned the game from American Christian missionaries as a child.
The Little League program in Uganda isn’t even ten years old. It is the product of a 2002 conversation between Ugandan Ministry of Justice Official Christopher Gashirabake and American volunteer worker Richard Stanley.
Stanley was in the country on behalf of Agricultural Cooperative Development International and Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance (ACDI/VOCA), a group whose mission is to spur sustainable economic development around the world. Gashirabake learned that Stanley, a chemical engineer who worked for Proctor & Gamble for more than two decades, was part owner of a minor league baseball team, the AA Trenton Thunder. Their conversation ended with Stanley promising to help start a Little League in Uganda.
Stanley, who is an assistant coach with the Lugazi team, solicited help from Little League and Major League Baseball. Both entities donated equipment to the upstart league. In 2006 Major League Baseball donated $15,000 toward the building of baseball diamonds in Uganda. Play began in 2003 and today 15,000 Ugandan boys and girls, in 25 leagues throughout the country, play Little League baseball or softball.
The 69-year-old Stanley has made 18 trips to Uganda, all on his own dime, and has invested thousands of dollars in the program. His next goal is to establish sports programs in every Ugandan school district.
Though Lugazi is the first Ugandan team to appear in the Little League World Series, it is not the first to qualify.
Last year’s Ugandan champ from the Rev. John Little League in Kampala, the nation’s capital, won the Middle East-Africa region but was unable to produce the documentation and secure the visas necessary to travel to the United States. In 2010 the Kampala team tied for first place in the Middle East-Africa region, but a tiebreaker sent the Saudi team (once again) to Williamsport.
This year Uganda finished in a three-way tie with the Saudis and the team from Kuwait. A tiebreaker sent Uganda and Kuwait to a one-game playoff, which Uganda won 5-2.
Lugazi is a city of about 35,000 about 30 miles east of Kampala in southern Uganda. It is home to the Mehta Group Lugazi Sugar Company, who sponsors the local Little League Team.
Lugazi opens LLWS play today at 4:00 p.m. Central/5:00 p.m. Eastern against Panama. You can catch the game on ESPN2. Keep an eye on Enzama, who goes by “Fefe,” a pitcher/catcher/shortstop/switch hitter and Lugazi’s best player.
Teams from New Castle, Indiana and Kearney, Nebraska will represent the Midwest in this year’s tournament.
- “Uganda team finally arrives at LLWS”—Steve Wulf, ESPN Outside the Lines
- “Ugandan squad a symbol for hope in LLWS”—Paul Post, MLB.com
- “A Volunteer Who Swings for the Fences”—ACDI/VOCA