(The Hamilton Spectator, Saturday, March 2, 2019)
The charm, the absolute charm, of Captain Amon is that he’ll appear at your doorstep in East Africa at the most inopportune times.
You’ll be having a bite to eat, or a nap, or a shower, and there it is, the knock on your guesthouse door. “Mr. Thom? Hello, Mr. Thom? Mr. Thom. Are you there? Mr. Thom? Mr. Thom!” Then he’ll sit and wait. You’re visiting his country, as I recently did, and he’s visiting you.
He’ll bring others. The team. Knock-knock. “We’ve come for serious business,” you’re told. Then you’re shown a shoe, a Nike knock-off, used but in good shape. Shoes are needed. Desperately. Only 15,000 Ugandan Shillings – about five bucks Canadian – a pair. “Mr. Thom. We don’t have. We need shoes like this. We won’t use them for anything else.”
You find your wallet. Of course, Matthew. (Captain Amon’s real name is Matthew, but he prefers Captain Amon.) Yes, Captain. Your cause is my cause. Your hope is mine. Your dream, my dream. It’s true. This is how you build hockey in a place like Uganda. One shoe at a time. Captain is on it. It’s remarkable.
He’s made shirts. They’re impressive, vibrant blue and red and yellow. “Hockey Uganda” they say. I need photos. “Here,” I say. “Hold this.” I give Captain a hockey stick and “Hockey Uganda” is captured.
This is the strange charm of Canada’s game. It’s going places. It’s on the move. It’s bringing people together in unlikely places. In Arabia. In the Himalayans. Yes, in Africa. The inaugural African Ice Hockey Cup, in 2016, saw Tunisia beat Egypt 19-0 in Morocco, a country that’s now an associate member of the International Ice Hockey Federation.
And who hasn’t now heard of the Kenya Lions, the team that Tim Horton’s flew to Canada last fall to play their first game ever? Sydney Crosby joined them in a green Lions uniform. In Kenya – where they’d play on a small hotel ice-rink in Nairobi, using sofa cushions for pads and a two-foot toy penguin for a goalie – the Lions had no other team to play against. Not one.
Captain Amon, a 21-year-old Ugandan wanting to study Information Technology, has more modest aspirations. Even in the strange world of African hockey, there are haves and have-nots. Uganda has precious little. Certainly no ice. But give Captain some sticks and balls and nets and he’ll run with it.
“It’s going to be in schools,” he tells me. “I’ve visited seven schools.” He’s on his phone. He can find women’s hockey in Japan. And, of course, Canadian hockey. “I watch the team that has the leaf,” Captain tells me. His face shines. His inner child bursts. And his promotion skills. The mayor. The sports minister. He wants me to meet them all.
Captain shows me his Hockey Uganda Facebook page. Yours Truly is on it. I’m dismayed. There’s a photo with caption: “The man himself came from Canada to see what he initiated, and brought some equipment for the team.” Oh my. Captain wants me to chair his association. “Keep going,” I say.
This is hockey Ugandan style. My family, when living in-country, had built a hockey pad behind our home. Just for ball hockey. It took years. Soil was moved, at first, one wheelbarrow at a time. With sticks and gear from Canada, and two heavy, NHL-sized nets we’d brought from Yemen, we then played for more years.
We played hard and often. We taught others. Then we left it all for Captain and his players and their energy and laughter and love of the game.
We still give what we can, even as the Ugandans have found another location, an asphalt basketball court, that, for hockey, can be hemmed in with chicken mesh. They bought replacement netting for their goals from Lake Victoria fishers, first getting approval from Uganda’s Ministry of Fishing. Captain and his team have also found something else: that heartbeat to keep going.
His parting gift for me? My own Hockey Uganda shirt, my name and all with #7, funny-enough, the number my son wears for the team he’s on in Canada.
A seed here. A seed there. You never know what can come of it. Ask those Jamaican bobsledders. Ask Eddie the Eagle. Because life isn’t just beautiful. It’s beautifully strange.