The school that Marcy is volunteering at, St. Francis Secondary School for the Blind, was gearing up for a unique sport competition the entire month that I was in Uganda. With a week left to my stay, I had the pleasure to go to the National Open Sports Competition for the Visually Impaired.
Marcy had been telling me about all the preparation and work that she and the whole staff and student body were doing in the months leading up to the competition. The students where training for multiple track and field events. The staff was working on getting all the logistics worked out, like event supplies and money for transport, food, and all the other bits needed for the annual event.
When I arrived many things had been taken care of, but many things where still left unresolved. I witnessed the head teacher, Sister Winifred’s passion as my month in Soroti went on as she tried to navigate local politics and prejudice to raise money and coordinate the country-wide event, hosted in Soroti (each year a different district hosts the competition).
The competition spanned for 3 days, and included 3 categories for both men and women. These categories catered to those who are blind, seeing impaired and those with low vision.
The opening ceremony focused on sensitizing spectators and participants on disabilities and visual impairments. A major part of this annual event is to educate communities on persons with disabilities and to spread the word “that a disability is not inability” (country motto) and that disabilities do not make people second class citizens. In Uganda disability is often seen as a curse and many families abandon children with disabilities. Marcy and her co-workers know that education and sensitization are key to eliminating such ideas and stigmas.
The competition was very interesting. It is amazing to see those with visual impairments participate fully in each event. To run around a track, the competitors would have a guide running, hand in hand, aside them. For most field events, a series of audio cues, such as clapping allowed the competitors to orient themselves to the field.
One of the coolest games, unique to the visually impaired, is called goal ball. There are two long goals set up about twenty yards apart. The goalies, three of them on each team defending the goal, are blind folded (to establish fair game and even ground of ability between partially and totally blind participants). There is rope tacked to the ground with knots to help each player orient themselves to the sidelines and playing field. The ball looks like a classic dodge ball, but is made of a sturdier rubber and has a bell inside. The crowd is requested to remain very quite, and each team bowls the ball and tries to roll it past the opposing goalies.
The competitors make the game look quite easy and natural. At one point, the officials (all fully sighted) put on blindfolds and tried to play…they were terrible, which proved just how difficult depending on other senses can be.
Another unique sport game incorporated into this competition is called showdown. It’s like air hockey and table tennis combined. Again the competitors are blindfolded, and the ball is a hard plastic that has grain inside that makes a rattle sound. Paddles are used to try and slap the ball into the opponent’s goal.
For 3 days, we were out on the field. I ended up being the unofficial photographer, and truly enjoyed the task.
Each day goal ball attracted a solid crowed of about 200 people. It was amazing to see how the town would support, or at least be curious enough to come over and look on. Marcy also organized student dance and drama performances during intervals in the sports program. Again the performances were, not only for enjoyment, but to display that “disability is not inability”, many of her students are very talented musicians.
On the final day of the competition, and after the closing ceremonies and trophy presentation, the local Lions Club held a dinner in honor of all the competitors, organizers, referees and anyone else involved. It was a great feast, turned into a speech competition (Ugandans really know how to public speak and have no problem making extremely witty, and usually drawn out long speeches), and then into a dance party.