I have never seen such smiles in my life. They were grinning from ear to ear and literally jumping up and down with joy. As the director of the ROP Center for Street Children in Kigali Rwanda, opened the suitcases of donated football (soccer) uniforms from the Excel Soccer Club in Santa Cruz California, it looked as if they had won the ten million dollar jackpot. The uniforms were all used and nothing special, but for these children who have one pair of clothes and are survivors of the 1994 genocide and the AIDS pandemic, the four suitcases full of donated jersey’s, shorts, socks, balls, and cleats were like manna from heaven. Nothing has brought me more joy than seeing them all decked out, like professionals, playing one another on their muddy makeshift field behind the orphanage in the capital of Rwanda. Well . . . almost nothing. There was another very personal quest that coincided with our work in Kigali and that was my herculean quest to obtain a Rwandan national football jersey.
There is something special about the world’s beautiful game and the way it can bring people and countries together. Over the last twelve years, I have tried to find football jersey’s from different national teams around the globe. There was little doubt that since we were in Rwanda I would buy a Rwandan jersey. No problem (nakibazu), I thought. I’ll go to the local sport shop, like everywhere else in the world and buy an official shirt. Not only did I soon discover that there were no “sports shops”, but there was nowhere and nobody that could help.
By the second week I was getting desperate. I saw guys wearing jersey’s all over Kigali and in the north of the country, but they were all from other nations. AC Milan (Italy), Manchester United, Newcastle United, Chelsea, Arsenal and other English Premier League jersey’s were the only thing in site. Local folks told me that the national team games were never broadcast, even though they have a large national stadium solely for football.
During our third week in Rwanda, I was on a lunch break from helping at a training program to reduce post traumatic stress when the APR Football Team, one of the best known in Rwanda, walked in to eat. A number of their players play on the national team. I thought I’d hit the jackpot, but after hounding them like a fanatic fan and getting their autographs, they all said there were no national jersey’s available.
On the last morning of our stay I decided to try one last time and took a taxi out to the national football stadium. There were only four hours left until our plane left. We arrived at the stadium, my hopes rising and entered. There was nobody there, except a guard at the front door. I asked about a sport shop I’d been told was at the stadium and he said there was no such thing. I slouched back to the cab and was about to return to the hotel when the driver said, “Why don’t we check over at the National Football Association? It’s right over there.” He pointed at a large modern structure just a block away. My deepening depression once again switched gears into expectant mania.
We (my interpreter Billy and I) entered the lobby and saw pictures of various national teams on the walls. I approached the woman sitting behind the desk in the large, otherwise empty room and asked if it was possible to buy a national team jersey. She looked at me as if I was a child whose puppy had just died and I wanted it to come back to life. “No,” she said, “only players on the team have those. If you’d like to come back tomorrow when they practice, you could talk to them.” I told her I was leaving the country in three hours and she said she was sorry, but there was nothing she could do. I hung my head and made my way outside. As I got in the back seat and resigned myself to the unthinkable possibility that my dream had come to an end, the woman behind the desk came walking briskly out to the car. She poked her head in the window and said, “Follow me. I made a call.”
When we returned to the lobby, she told us to sit and wait a few minutes and she’d be right back. There were now only several hours remaining until my plane, along with my wife and son, would be taxing down the runway. Fifteen minutes later this football jersey angel glided towards us, handed me a bag and nodded. “This is for you.” I opened the bag and a yellow replica jersey of the national football team of Rwanda shone brightly before my astonished eyes. The smile on my face was as ecstatic as that of the children at ROP when they received their jerseys and from the smile that adorned her beautiful features, I could see that the woman who had given me the Rwandan jersey was feeling the same happiness I’d felt when I had given and received such overwhelming joy from the children. I guess what you put out really does come back to haunt or bless you, and thank goodness it does.