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Coaching female empowerment to the field in the aftermath of Joseph Kony


By Kevin O'Donovan


The Montréal Review, May 2012



It would be disingenuous to imply I wasn't prepared for the level of penury greeting me in Pader Town, Uganda-former slaughter zone for Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army. I fully expected the half naked, filthy little children; the intermittent availability of power and water; the constant saturation of sweat, 30% DEET, and red dirt. I knew to expect the choice of three items, the same three items, at all three meals, for days on end. I'd been to Africa before. What I'd not expected was an upfield drive from the most violated demographic.

In early 2007, well before the tragedies of Northern Uganda so captured the interest of the social media generation, my buddy Nick sat sipping his fruit juice in my apartment. Without a trace of his usual dry British wit, he asked, "Can you think of any games-any soccer games-that could convey positive messages in Africa?"

Nick's then involvement in Play Soccer, a US-based organization, had always been vague to me. As vague as my background in the arts was to him. After all, we had other common interests. My wife and I met Nick on the Inca Trail in 2003 and ever since, nearly all companionship has involved swapping travel stories.

In the summer of 2011 our travel narratives would cross paths again.

Nick recruited me to shoot a promotional video of his sport-for-development NGO, Coaches Across Continents (CAC). Now in its fourth year and established in thirteen countries, CAC was recently partnered with a local organization that reintegrated the former child soldiers and child "brides" of the Lord's Resistance Army into the larger community.

For those who do not recall-or have thus far missed the unprecedented YouTube video Kony 2012 -the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), was a marauding rebel force in the north of Uganda that raided villages and abducted children for more than two decades. Joseph Kony and the LRA were pushed from Uganda in 2005/2006 but continue to wreak devastation in neighboring countries. Abducted youth were coerced to commit a variety of atrocities. Children were ordered to kill their own families. Parents tearfully pled with their children to comply, lest the children themselves be killed. Boys became the militia. Abducted girls were forced to service the sexual appetites of the militia.

While essential efforts such as Kony 2012 must be aimed at meting justice, still others must take on the task of developing futures.

The CAC modus operandi, whether in equatorial Africa or elsewhere, is loosely the same: to partner with an up-and-running organization helping children and young adults grapple with issues like health and hygiene, HIV/AIDS, female empowerment, social inclusion, conflict resolution or what ever else is needed. CAC then develops soccer games designed to mirror problems and resolution strategies. CAC's instructor coaches teach the games to local student coaches who in turn become Soccer for Life Skills coaches and teach the games to local children.

In Pader and other parts of the world-hold a soccer ball and you have the undivided attention of the local youth.


My first morning in Pader, I begin to set up my gear. The CAC instructor-coaches-Brian, Sophie, and Ellen-discuss how to teach the morning's game to the group. The waiting student-coaches rush across the open ground in a pick-up game of soccer. A continent away in Germany, the anticipation mounts for the quarterfinals of the FIFA Women's World Cup 2011.

Roving through the physical activity afoot, I capture my initial footage. One young lady turns away and smoothes her dress before turning back for a better take. In another direction, a boy who eagerly gives his name as Jonathan makes a spectacular kick to a waiting receiver in front of the goal. I return his gesture of triumph, and he laughs.

Raised voices and clapping from the instructor-coaches gather the group. The games begin.

The object of today's first drill: in the time allotted, run to as many crushed water bottles preset on the field as possible, planting oneself on two feet before jumping forwards and then backwards over them.

I take a wide shot of the boisterous activity. Dressed in an ill-fitting silver velour top and a well-worn black skirt, Tuesday, one of four female student-coaches, jumps back and forth over a flattened plastic water bottle. Breathily laughing, running, rushing, and dodging her way around the crush of eager young men, Tuesday finds her way to the next available bottle and jumps back and forth over it, barely finding the air to count out loud: "Eleven!"

Brian- back home, the coach of the University of Hawaii-Hilo's women's soccer team-leaves the fray at my signal. He confidently approaches the camera. "This game is called Marta Agility. A big part of what we do involves female empowerment. We force the boys and . well we don't force . fuck." He rolls his eyes. "Lemme try that again."

I hit record again and give him a nod.

He flashes a charming smile. "When girls and boys participate together, it not only fosters mutual respect, improving relationships, but it involves women in sport and promotes women's health."

On the surface the Marta drill employs competitiveness to spur the participants quickly from bottle to bottle. But it's competitiveness that both boys and girls engage in on the same field. It reminds, if not informs, everyone that women do have a place in sport. The Marta Agility game is modeled after the skills of international female soccer icon-Marta Vieira da Silva. Marta is no stranger to the challenges of playing "with the boys."

I notice Jonathan and Tuesday running at a good clip. They arrive at one of the bottles and jump. They collide in mid air. Jonathan lands and carries on with no apology or acknowledgment. Tuesday lands, stumbles. Kicking up a cloud of dust, she hops on one leg until she regains her footing and can head for the next crushed plastic bottle.

Rubbing her shoulder she shakes her head and smiles through it. "Fifteen!"

Although not the single focus of CAC, female empowerment is one of the most important. If a local organization wants to partner with CAC, they must ensure women are involved-and on equal footing with men. Brian makes the goal plain: " Female empowerment has the ability to change economies and local governments, alter the utilization of resources, draw attention to human rights violations and other important issues-all from allowing girls to play sports.  I cannot overstate its importance." 


Friends of Orphans (FRO) is a two-year, co-ed trade school and the local organization partnering with CAC in Pader. FRO, founded and administrated by former child soldiers of the LRA, aims to rehabilitate, reintegrate, and empower the former abductees, child soldiers, child mothers, and orphans of the region through academic and vocational education.

While FRO has made tremendous strides, CAC still faces challenges on the field. The first is the large size of the group-93 male and female vocational students with varying levels of interest in coaching soccer. The second challenge is their wide range of ages-anywhere from 13 to 26. Third, equipment is non-existent-CAC devises makeshift pylons from water bottles for students in bare feet and tattered clothes.


In the afternoon, we visit FRO for a series of formal welcoming events.

A couple of administrators give us a complete tour of the FRO compound. A welcome dance lifts the red dust of the courtyard above the cries and calls of the traditional song. As the singing and dancing continue, I capture a quick collection of cutaway shots. A young man shaded in the woodshop across the yard feverishly planes a slab of wood. A disheveled rooster pecks at the earth below a bush near the perimeter wire fence where two shabbily clad children cling, peering in from the outside. A teenager moves dried bricks, one at a time, beneath the midday sun. Other students ready benches on the sheltered porch of the main administration building in preparation for our next stop.

Arrived and sitting in the newly arranged benches, the touching tribute takes an odd turn when the students take up positions for an old-style debate.

Today's topic, chalked on the board reads: Is it better that a woman be educated or uneducated?

The air is painfully still. Those against female education step up first. Confident voices announce that an educated woman is more likely to cheat on her husband, to neglect her children, to ignore her household duties, and to demand a higher standard of living then can be afforded.

Nearly agape, but trying to smile through it, our team listens thoughtfully. I try to send white light and positive energy in the direction of the flailing debaters for female education. I see Judith-aka Dr. Judith Gates, board member and Nick's mother-telegraphing patience, hands crisply folded in her lap. Something between sadness and outrage simmers in her eyes.

Judith describes herself as someone who has dedicated much of her life to the empowerment of women. Her doctoral thesis for the School of Education, Durham University, UK, From Chance to Choice: The Development of Teachers in a Postmodern World, inspires much of the basic philosophy that drives Coaches Across Continents: to take youth past developmental stalling-points inherent to their community. By exposing them to choice, CAC aims to get a community past the acceptance that events in life only happen by chance.

In Pader, choice faces the traditional field of defenders that block women from being able to make bolder, more informed decisions.

Baby steps. Baby kicks.


Four days and many games after the debate, I stand under the cloudless African sky, removing my gear from its bag. On the walk to the field this morning, I heard mention of the Women's World Cup quarterfinal results. Courtesy of a USB modem, we've been able to find out that teams USA, France, Japan, and Sweden have survived.

As I attach a $1,200 camera to a $150 tripod, I notice two semi-naked little boys pulling a toy truck on a string-a contraption manufactured from cans, plastic lids, and other scavenged garbage. A barefoot, expressionless little girl wears a dress stitched from an old tablecloth. I pull out my $700 Nikon. She watches the boys. Soon, she catches me staring. She laughs and waves. I snap her picture. She runs off.

Before arriving in Uganda, Judith and I had Skyped about our goals for the trip. Judith wanted local Ugandan girls to take pictures of themselves and of things they wanted to change in their world. With so much to coordinate, the curriculum of life-changing pictures never made the final cut - not in that format anyway.


Behold Scary Soccer:

The most unrestrained game in the CAC arsenal-Scary Soccer-despite its name, is not soccer. In fact, there isn't even a ball. It's a full-body, strike a pose version of Rock-Paper-Scissors. Those making the losing choice must run fast to their safe line before getting tagged. The tagged losers are conscripted by the winning team.

Before approaching the line of scrimmage, two teams of student-coaches huddle in the dust to conspire about the best choice for their mutual "attack": midfielder, striker, or goalkeeper.

Goalkeeper beats Midfielder

Midfielder beats Striker

Striker beats Goalkeeper

Amidst hushed whispers and random peeks to be sure they are not overheard, the opposing teams huddle and wipe sweat from their brows. Nick has appointed a young woman named Prudence the captain of her team. She has the responsibility of corralling the group-a group largely composed of boys-to a consensus regarding their attack.

Conflict starts up immediately. Prudence warns that the other team will overhear them. But fists clench and pulses quicken as voices rise louder. Prudence dances to the middle with a smile. In moment, two of the alpha boys simply bypass her interjections, taking over the center to argue with each other.

Calmly circling around the outside, Nick interjects, "She is the captain. You must listen to her."

Her bounce restored, Prudence speaks up once more. But she again gets jostled out of the center as her team panics.

More forcefully but with his hands clasped behind his back, Nick surprises them, stepping into their huddle. "In life, if we all talk at once, can we make a decision?"

Concerned, a boy named Badar steps forward. "We cannot!"

Nick puts a hand on his shoulder and nods toward Prudence. "Right then. She is the captain, she has the final say."

Grumblings. Then calm.

Prudence's two bare feet are planted firmly in the dirt. Her face is serious as she stares down the tight jaws of the boys and the slack endorsement of the few girls. She has determined, after much group input, that the choice is Goalkeeper.

One of the most vocal boys huffs once, looks at the ground, and mutters, "Fine, Goalkeeper."

Prudence and her team step up to the line.

Brian walks by me and whispers, "You're gonna love this."

I roll the camera as Nick steps to the head of two twitching teams. Just one meter of dirt separates them. He gives Brian a grin before slowly counting, "One. Two. Three."

A unified bellow follows:


Prudence's team gasps, realizes they've won, and dashes forward-arms outstretched and screaming with laughter.

CAC, by their own admittance, is not making professional footballers. Further, m any who get involved with the program will not even go on to be coaches. However, everyone in the program is exposed to various ways of approaching challenges that could help them be better parents, leaders off the field, laborers, teachers and non-sport community members. Nick admits, "I really believe that I learned more skills that I use in my life through playing football than in graduating from Harvard or from running successful businesses around the world."

Nick gathers the student coaches around him at the end of Scary Soccer. He recaps precisely what the game can teach an up-and-coming generation of kids. He pauses to ask questions when attentions wane:

"So how did you solve your problem when no one could agree?" or "What's the difference between a mistake and cheating?" or "Can a woman coach a team of men?"

The responses vary. Some are delivered while toeing at the dirt. Some come with a cathartic step forward. Some appear in my lens as nothing more than a knowing smirk accompanied by a little dance.


Judith along with Ellen, an eager twenty-something in her first year with CAC, steps to the front of a group of Ugandan women gathered at the FRO compound. Judith is determined this event go in quite a different direction than the distressing debate just days earlier.

Judith smiles warmly, looking around as the women settle back onto their stools. She reserves a special smile for Fayola, whom she has already come to admire in the coaching sessions. Also, it was Fayola who argued for female education in that debate. A guarded, confident and thoughtful 24-year-old, Fayola spent her childhood under the pall of Joseph Kony and his unique brand of barbarism. While she seems, hands down, the likeliest female hopeful for a breakaway, Fayola also has the most dubious of smiles, as if aware that peace can turn for the worse on any given day. She is enrolled in the welding program at FRO and intends to open her own shop.

At the upstage wall of the veranda-cum-lecture-hall, Ellen fumbles with a sort of static dry-erase sheet. On the sheet, statistics compare women of the West to the women of Uganda using a variety of factors: the incidence of marriage before the age of 19, the regularity of contraception use, the rate of maternal mortality during childbirth, the birth rate itself, and the occurrence of infection with HIV/AIDS.

The dry-erase sheet won't stick to the wall, so Ellen cheerfully holds it. Judith glances toward her acolyte, reviews the numbers, and then turns to the women. The students are focused, still and alert, their eyes wandering between the numbers and Judith. Regardless of any age difference, each studiously steadies a note pad in her lap with one hand and a ready pencil in the other. I zoom in on a young girl with a baby in her lap. I can't remember her name.

In her refined British dialect, Judith patiently articulates, "Today we would like to tell you about the lives of women in places such as America and England, but also we would like you to tell us about the lives of women in Pader."

A basic element of Chance to Choice is that personal reactions to events around us are our interpretations based on our worldview. What make up that worldview are previous events. A cycle builds out of everything we've experienced, been taught, or seen and heard.

Therefore, whether witness to the massacre of families or a viral video attesting to such atrocity, worldview can impel anything from apathy to global outcry.

Judith carefully reads the statistics from the sheet: "In Uganda, on average, every one of you will have seven children. Some will have ten. Some will have four. In England we have just under two. In America, every woman has on average two children."

The young student in the back row quells the mewling baby-the only young child present today. Judith looks at the child, smiles and continues on. No one near the baby, or in the rest of the group for that matter, seems to give the child a second thought. When she sat down, the young girl with the baby had seemed quite engaged. But these few minutes into it, she begins to look weary, her eyes staying shut a couple of beats longer when they blink.

Judith continues. "So in Uganda you have more than three times as many children as woman in England and America. That means more children to care for, more children to look after, more children to educate, more children to feed, more children to wash. . ."

From my angle, I am able to frame both Judith and the girl with the child. Suddenly the girl catches me quite by surprise when her gaze looks straight down the barrel. Her stung expression appears to almost object, but only for a moment-before she goes emotionally limp.

" . . . more children to find clothes for, more children to find shoes for, which is a very big job for Ugandan women."

I zoom in on Judith until the girl and her child are out of frame. As Judith moves on to her next point, I look up, over the camera. The girl is softly rocking side to side, her head tilted, staring off at nothing.

Once Judith has read the statistics, the girls are divided into smaller discussion groups. Each is assigned one of the statistics in hopes that they will return to the larger group and present their own ideas.

In time they return to the porch, Judith welcomes them back, and I hit the record button.

As the first group's presenters shyly step forward, I am still drawn to the girl with the baby. She is glazed over entirely, rubbing the baby's head, softly mumbling something, a mantra or a lullaby perhaps.

Why do Ugandan women have so many children? The group's speaker rocks slightly side to side on her feet: " . . . the children is needed for work in the garden . . . it bring food for the families. Also have there are chores . . ."

The air is instantly still. I draw in a breath. Of course-their worldview is sustenance living. Perhaps the average child can tend and harvest more food than they eat.

A day or so earlier, Judith told me something key to her approach: "When you educate a woman, you educate a family. Educated families lead to community development and country development." Admittedly, there is strong evidence that the more educated the Ugandan women are, 1) the longer they wait to get married, 2) the more likely they are to use contraception, 3) the longer they wait to have children, and 4) the fewer children they have.

However, as I glance at the baby, I wonder if the desire for formal education doesn't pale by comparison to the immediate need for more practical lessons on gardening, thatching a roof, etc.


In time, Fayola steps forward to represent for her group. Tuesday's wide eyes happily focus on Fayola as she steadies the paper for Fayola to read. Sweat drips into my eye, burning and blurring my view. I look over my shoulder, toward the yard, rubbing my face. One of the young men cranes from the midfield, as if he's some sort of deep-lying playmaker. Tuesday notices him, looks away, and her paper slips momentarily. In looking from her to him and quickly back to her again, I bump the camera. Merry, the girl next to me, reaches to steady it. Thank you. She shrugs demurely and smiles before turning her attention back to Fayola.

The girls pay a different kind of attention to Fayola. Despite her late position in the line-up, all fidgeting and sighing stop.

Fayola breathes in and exhales: "Why are so many girls that are married before age 19?"

She turns to the group: "One, the children have lost their parents and they do not have proper care from their . . . stepmothers . . . that one can also lead to early marriages. Second also, lack of money for education. For example if I don't have money where will I get money for educations? I rather stay at home but if they will not let me I find myself a boy from outside there and find myself pregnant."

As with the other girls, English is not Fayola's first language but she handles her stumbling differently. In fact she does not stumble, rather she comes to the edge of tripping, pauses, takes a breath and then continues without blinking or apologetically looking away.

"With some of our parents, if they drink alcohols, there becomes a problem . . . maybe you find yourself running away . . . you find your own way . . . becoming a street children . . . and these guys . . ." Her eyes panic, wild for a moment. She looks straight into the camera. I freeze. Her voice lifts.

"These guys, they will find you and they will rape you . . . Rapes . . . this is so common."

Several of the women instantly, as if on cue, look down into their laps. I gaze over the viewfinder to scan them and realize I'm holding my breath.

Fayola nods and squeezes the marker in her hand. "Also the war in Northern Uganda, we Northerners have been experiencing this war . . . many moving from one place to another without knowing where your parents are."

Tuesday's eyes begin to dart left and right, the top of the paper crinkling slightly under her grip.

Fayola's eyes fire up, and she begins to move around the space. "Or we find that in our family, we find that sometime for example maybe they say that Jennifer you excluded . . . this one I love, this one I love . . . you find you are by yourself . . . my parents they don't love me . . ."

Several of the woman in the group blink, looking left and right as if checking to make sure each other is all right.

Judith takes a seat with the others.

"Also there is this one. Because I may see that Judith is very rich . . . maybe I want to be rich like Judith why don't I follow this type of Judith and maybe I will get this man who is so rich, that he has the vehicle, lots of money and the big shops . . ."

A delicate scowl briefly crosses her face. "Then I will also consider myself to be rich."

She looks to Judith, falters slightly, and returns to Tuesday's list.

"Oh yes, and there are love affairs." She scans the group, making eye contact. Several look away or begin to shift in their seats. Others curl their feet beneath their chairs or make a note on their pad. "You cannot take one single day of thinking about that world unless we have a proper voice. Unless we have voice you will find yourself admiring what other people have."

Next to me, Merry is thoroughly still, but her usual shy expression now displays utter incredulity. She gives me a wounded glance as if to elicit a man's opinion. I smile, nod, and look back into my camera and peripherally notice her quizzical furrow dissolve into a flirtatious grin.

Meanwhile, light years of social development away, in Germany the crowds are filing in to cheer on the women of Japan, USA, Sweden, and France as they battle the Cup down to just two opposing teams.


Two days past the female empowerment talk, on our last day before moving on to Buwate in the south, I could set up my gear with my eyes closed. As I pop the lens cap off my still camera, I feel a bump at my side.

It's the little girl in the tablecloth dress. She looks at me. Dirt is caked in the crevices of her ears, around her nose, and in the leathery corners of her eyes. I lift my Nikon and snap her picture before giving her bald head a rub. She squirms and giggles before straining to see the image on the back of the camera. I bend to show her, as I have for so many already over these past nine days. She looks at the image, pleased at first, but a moment later, she appears concerned.

As I stand to go back to my work, she takes gentle hold of my arm, pulls me, wishing to see the image again. I pause. Usually when I turn to leave, they too just walk away and we simply left click to the next story-as if the encounter never happened.

But this time, something does happen.

Looking at the camera's image, the girl puts her finger to her ear, to scrape away at the dirt. She looks towards me and then to the ground while sheepishly attending to the other ear. When finished, she smiles and indicates that she wants me to take another picture. So I do. I show her the new improved image-she laughs and runs off clapping.

This little girl reacted to a picture that I took. She changed. The world changed.

Baby steps. Baby kicks.


Kevin O'Donovan's passion is world travel. He has been to roughly 70 countries and all seven continents. While he has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, scuba dived the Great Barrier Reef and hang glided off a cliff in New Zealand - among other adventures - his global experience involves more than just pure adrenaline rush.

In his travels he has assembled school desks in Arusha, Tanzania, rebuilt homes in Khao Lak, Thailand after the Asian Tsunami of 2004 and most recently, he visited the northern Uganda to video a promotional piece for a Sport for Social Development charity currently working with the former child soldiers of the LRA.


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