Rugby: A young sport that conjoins South Sudanese at the hip
An oval ball, over 20 children and about five volunteer adults with different career goals, all converged at a dusty pitch with no single strand of grass standing on it. The pitch is sandwiched between a busy highway with all sorts of cars and anything automobile. From taxis plying Gudele-Juba route, to the water boozers that are always in a hurry to deliver their next order; and the motorcyclists and raksha (three-wheeled motorized vehicles) – the danger that lurks from the southern part can make the heart pause for a minute.
There are some orders on the feeder road parallel to the highway, though once in a while, you’ll spot a car or two, leaving or checking in at the nearby resort where adults retreat to moisturize their throat after a long day.
It is also here at the resort where some of these volunteers retreat to take stock of the day’s session and talk about the future of rugby in South Sudan. It provides an ambience environment that can fool one to temporarily forget the pressure that life throws on us. After a short meeting, they then disperse, one after another, to various destinations – to plan for next Saturday’s training plans – for these very kids.
The western end of the pitch is occupied by a small group of young boys, just a handful – playing football.
Commercial buildings – the video shops, dingy food kiosks and hardware selling all sorts of building materials that Juba, the capital so dearly needs in her race to catch up with modernity, provide an imaginary wall. This, plus the hawk-eyed and determined adults, gives an imperative sense of security for these joyful souls, who religiously converge here, every Saturday, for a free tag-rugby session- now on its sixth week.
Tag rugby is a non-contact team sport in which each player wears a belt that has two velcro tags or shorts with velcro patches attached to it.
Unlike traditional contact rugby, touch rugby is relatively safer. There are no hard tackles. You ‘dispossess’ the opponent of the ball by pulling the tag that is attached at the hip.
Here kids are not only taught about basic rugby but also life skills like teamwork and the need to embrace each other.
“These children come from different tribes all across South Sudan. Some come from Western Equatoria, another Unity State but once they get here, they speak the same language – ‘oneness’. We’ve had conflict before in this country, in the past, but when we come together to play, you feel as if you are one,” said Andrew Maivi, the programme’s head coach.
Though new, (touch and tag) rugby is slowly gaining traction in South Sudan. Curiously though, the sport has attracted interest from unlikely quarters – children as old as three years.
Emmanuel Juma is one of them. He has been part of the programme since 2017 before it took a break following the outbreak of Covid-19 two years later.
According to Maivi, Emmanuel is one of the ‘oldest’ players here, alongside Sandy – the oldest.
But Emmanuel just celebrated his 14th birthday, a few weeks ago.
Sandy stands out among these passionate boys and girls – some who just enjoy the thrill of chasing after an oval ball.
Though only 16, Sandy stands at about 5 feet six inches tall. She is even taller than some of these volunteers who spend part of their Saturday morning sharpening the characters of future South Sudanese.
“I would like to play professional rugby in future,” Emmanuel tells me in Arabic, through a translator.
Even though Emmanuel admits that he has never watched competitive rugby up close, the year five pupil at City Angel Primary School holds onto the shred of hope that, someday, he will make a career out of the sport.
After a practice session, Emmanuel quickly throws on a “Lois Vuitton” shirt over his sweating torso. I can’t tell whether the shirt is fake or otherwise, but from the look of things, Emmanuel adores his attire just as he does to his newfound love – rugby.
Through a translator, he claims to have spent about SSP 5000 (approximate 10 USD) of his savings to purchase this shirt. For a pupil who spends most of the day in school, saving that kind of cash takes a sacrifice. But he has sacrificed before, sparing one day of the week to play rugby can’t scare him.
Emmanuel complements his look with grey sweatpants and brown sandals. As young as he is, it is becoming extremely hard for the youngster to fake his love for good things in life. To put it succinctly, he loves fashion; and rugby.
“Rugby is a good sport,” coach Marvi noted.
“This is a new sport to them. They are interested in learning something. That’s why you will find that our sessions are full even though there are other games like football going on in the adjacent pitches,” added the coach.
Emmanuel, just like the rest of the kids here, play barefoot. This is not part of the rule but no one turns up with boots. Maybe because they don’t like it or perhaps they don’t.
But what strikes me most is the sheer determination of the children to succeed in whatever they do – just like Coach Andrew and his other colleagues – the selfless individuals working clandestinely to give hope and a future to the young generation of South Sudan.
On this day, only three girls turned up for a practice session. The youngest was less than three years old.
“We don’t have any limitation in terms of age,” Charity Naji says as she sips a glass of cold juice that sits obediently on the table in front of her.
Naji was born in Kenya but grew up in Uganda. She is barely two months old since she signed up for a touch-rugby programme. She also serves as the programme’s social media manager.
Touch rugby is a programme for adults who meet every Sunday at Dr Peter Biar Sports Complex adjacent to Juba referral Hospital for practice sessions.
Directly opposite Naji is Francois Guillaume Jeack while Mai Gameldeen and Ije Wadok occupy seats on the left and right respectively.
Francois is perhaps the most experienced touch-rugby player present here today. Though the French-Taiwanese was introduced to the game at 16, just like Sandy, he later went on and played a bit of college rugby in various universities in the United Kingdom and Thailand and Vietnam.
Every one of these volunteers has a story.
Maivi, for example, is barely four months old in Juba. He came back from Uganda, where he used to play college end club rugby.
Naji, though born and grew up in countries where rugby is such a big sport, she never played the game.
“I used to think that rugby was risky. But I’m now enjoying it,” she said with a smile.
“I used to work in Bangladesh and I played rugby there so when I realized that there is touch rugby here, I came along,” added Mai A British-Egptian national who came to Juba in January.
Nelson Mandela, while addressing the gathering at the inaugural Laureus World Sports Awards (2000) in Monaco said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”
To Mandela’s own words, rugby is now uniting the beautiful people of Juba, people – the young and the old, without one asking which religion or race that teammate comes from.
“We are targeting everyone…it is only the kids who were the majority today. The oldest (kid) we have for now is 16.
‘Rugby is a sport for everyone. They just love playing. Some of them are going to school but still find time to play. Apart from the fitness aspect of it, this programme also promotes peaceful coexistence,” added Maivi.
“We plan to have friendly matches with clubs from Uganda but we have challenges like funds. We plan to spread the programme beyond Gudele, maybe to Gumbo and other parts,”
“They wanted to form a team but it was quite impossible to do so because most of them were adults and they had other commitments and so they could not commit to rugby. So they decided to form a team,” Charity Naji said of the idea.
I ask Emmanuel his favourite meal after training.
“I eat normal food. No special diet for me,” he says as he chuckles away.