Sport to fight juvenile delinquency in Uganda

Julius Kazungu est un Ougandais de 31 ans. Depuis l’adolescence, il cultive l’espoir de voir son pays se transformer, où les plus jeunes entrevoient un avenir viable pour leur futur. © / Oreste Di Cristino [Baden]

‘Play for Life initiatives Uganda’ is a humanitarian and educational project created by Julius Kazungu, a young entrepreneur from Kampala – the capital of Uganda. Its primary mission is to set up various sports programmes (football, rugby, tennis, boxing, field lacrosse, etc.) intended to convince Ugandan youths to put their abundant energy to good use and reveal the hidden talents within them. Seeking to draw them away from delinquency and crime, these programmes have enjoyed promising success. But it’s still not enough. For some years, Julius has been travelling the world to present his vision of a more modern and responsive Uganda: a land of opportunity. This is not currently the case, according to Julius.

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Julius Kazungu is 31, but still a child of the city of Kampala, Uganda. More precisely, he lives in Nakawa, one of the capital’s five administrative divisions. The surroundings are famous, like everywhere in East Africa, for their vast green expanses, populated by wildlife renowned for its exoticism. It is therefore impossible to visit the country without setting foot in the capital, a city bubbling with culture and history that leaves almost nothing to be desired, as it lives in harmony with its past and opens itself up to a curious modernity. Kampala has even been declared one of the best cities to live in within this region on the edge of the Horn of Africa.

But this superficial depiction is far from the reality. The emancipation of Uganda in the 1960s certainly took the form of a peaceful relay of the British executive power to the westernised African elites. But this non-violent decolonisation also caused systemic dysfunctions within the country: underdeveloped structures, food insecurity, unsafe drinking water and endemic poverty, the reasons behind an unemployment rate among young people which is peaking at worrying rates. Born into a family of 15 children, with a father who died very early and barely enough money to meet the needs of the entire family, Julius chose to get involved in helping his neighbourhood and people who – poor, like him – found it hard to flourish other than through delinquency and an early descent into crime. Julius himself experienced the torments of this general instability. Beaten at the age of 13 by a group of displaced youths, Julius would go on to fight against this survival-of-the-fittest culture and retaliation.

I need the world to come to the aid of the children. Our situation is neither immutable nor irreversible


By dedicating himself to his project ‘Play for Life initiatives Uganda’, he makes effective use of his time to engage the children and teenagers of Nakawa in sport: « the healthiest and most effective way of putting young people back on the right path », he asserts during our virtual interview shortly before the new year. With a love of team and field sports, he has turned his passion into a humanitarian mission for his own nation. « I started this programme very early, because I experienced these situations of great despair and I always wanted to lend my support to those who’ve never had it. I’ve never been rich, but I know how to be rich in compassion and dedicate myself to improving conditions for families who are continually sinking into poverty, » he explained, before specifying: « I need the world to come to the aid of the children in our neighbourhoods. I certainly can’t do it alone, but I know our situation is neither immutable nor irreversible. »

« My approach is not political »

« I don’t want to be a politician, and moreover, my approach is not political. » This is what Julius Kazungu explained to me during our very first meeting on the forecourt of Baden station at the beginning of April 2019. But a few months later, in the first quarter of 2020, he stood – supported by a poster and slogan – in the elections for the presidency of the Nakawa administrative division. This clearly shows how this young man aims to assert his ideas and projects to the elites – or at least in the spheres that matter: those that can initiate a paradigm shift in Uganda, and in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. But the backlash was violent: riddled with corruption, the system in place won’t tolerate any outsiders.

When we made contact again on 29 December via Zoom, Julius said: « I had to give up the electoral race: if not, my life would have been in danger. I’ve never wanted to be a leader, but my willingness to listen to people, to help them and speak the truth, angers some. I’ve been subjected to attempts to intimidate me, including death threats. I gave up because I love my country too much to risk becoming a refugee, and I love my family too much to make them organise my funeral.«  These obstacles prove the extent to which it is sometimes – even often – difficult to change the established order in this part of Balkanised Africa. Julius is therefore trying to act directly with people who are more inclined, in Europe as elsewhere, to fly to Kampala and come and teach the basics of a modernity and comfort as yet unknown in Uganda. And for many, this development also – and above all – involves sport.

Beyond simple financial support, it is the opportunity to share experiences that motivates this young man’s approach. Because although one franc can feed an entire family for several days, sharing real know-how helps young people and their loved ones for a lifetime. Better skills for better lives is the basis of the ‘Play for Life initiatives Uganda’ project. « Teach these children to become good electricians, good civil servants or good fashion designers, and they will be passionate about their work. Teach them to improve in a sport, and they will realise that violence and crime are not valuable physical activities for the common well-being. » Julius wants to relay these words as far north as possible. Help, on the other hand, is something he seeks as close as possible to his home. If the West wishes to support Africa, it will be more effective by directly instilling professional and sporting expertise in the continent. And to do that, he wants to convince experts and coaches of all stripes to run training courses directly with the young people of Kampala, this ‘village’ of a little over 1.5 million inhabitants.

Compared with Switzerland, Uganda looks like a ‘desert’, with no facilities

Not only is Julius Kazungu committed to instilling a sporting culture in Uganda, but he is also working – albeit with very fragile means – to enrich his country with suitable structures and facilities. All that remains is to develop practicable land and purchase suitable materials; again, he is appealing for support. « I’ve always wanted to offer several young people the opportunity to discover, for a few days, the facilities and life on offer in Switzerland, Germany or even Belgium. But I realise the sadness they’d feel when they returned to Uganda, as the gap in development is abysmal, » said Julius. « We lack educators and coaches who can turn talent into gold. We need to get young people to play, regardless of whether they have a pitch or a court to do so. Because I know there are potential Federers in Uganda. However, in our country, no one is really capable of exploiting their great potential. »

Indeed, in a world in which even nursery school is too expensive for everyone, it seems impossible to imagine sports development as a simple means of entertainment. The goal, therefore, is not to get young people to play sport, but, as much as possible, to bring sport closer to young people – and free of charge, through partnerships with sports facilities and clubs in Europe. « In Uganda, children walk more than seven miles to come to training and the same distance to get to school, because public transport is limited. That’s why it’s up to us to go and find them. » 

I know there are potential Federers in Uganda


In fact, Julius has already garnered support from Switzerland and Germany, in particular. Over here, he’s even managed to find a home in Baden, not far from Zürich, and has notably been involved with several sports associations for rugby and lacrosse, a sport of Amerindian origin for which he previously played as a defender on the Ugandan national team. It was at the age of seven that he started playing rugby, a sport that allowed him to enter one of the most famous schools in the Ugandan capital. Then it was the turn of field lacrosse, which he is ever committed to introducing to interested youngsters. As a boy, he paid for his own school fees and training himself, at the age of seven, by cleaning several restaurants in his town in the evenings and polishing windows and shoes here and there. Then he would go home or elsewhere to sleep – on the floor, in a makeshift bassinet.

This way of life nevertheless quickly found its limits; he would never have persevered with his sport if an acquaintance he met at his club hadn’t financed the rest of his studies and his training equipment. « This man was a captain for Canadian Airlines and had no obligation to help me develop personally through lacrosse. It was at that moment, still so young, that I realised that human solidarity had extraordinary power. » This opportunity enjoyed by a young Julius more than 20 years ago is something he now wishes to give back to as many young people as possible. And that’s why he takes the time to travel to raise awareness across Africa, always with a legendary composure, demonstrating calm and patience.

From Baden to Tennessee, Julius is putting Uganda on the world map

Back home in Kampala, Julius has set up a number of lacrosse programmes aimed solely at the young people of his country. As a former coach of the very first women’s national team and appointed director of field lacrosse development in Uganda, he knows all about his favourite sport, which he is fully dedicated to developing. In his country, 10 junior high schools and 12 public colleges have benefited from his expertise in helping to establish the sport in schools. And it’s this expertise that he has even gone on to bring to an international level; across South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Austria, the UK, Germany, Belgium, the US and Switzerland, he owes his fame to the two sports close to his heart.

In Switzerland he primarily visited Aargau, travelling all across the canton. He first ran a youth lacrosse camp in Wettingen, before working closely with two rugby clubs in the region. In Hausen, he joined the training sessions of the Baboons club, home to Jérémy To’a, the well-known centre three-quarter of the Swiss national team. Julius and Jérémy know each other well. « Any child would be delighted to follow in the footsteps of Jérémy, who has succeeded in becoming a respected player in Switzerland. Because in Switzerland, they give a lot to young athletes. If you have talent, your dreams are possible and Jérémy knows it. »  This was a character trait that Julius came to understand as he visited various clubs in German-speaking Switzerland. He also played for some time with the Grasshoppers of Zürich, a club in which many young enthusiasts coexist alongside several ranked players from all over the world. They all live through sharing and a competitive spirit. « This is what we want for Uganda too, » said Julius.

Later, in the US, he was able to promote his humanitarian programme in Tennessee, at the McCallie School, a powerful private school in the city of Chattanooga, located between Nashville and Atlanta. There, he gave a few talks to boys ranging from 11 to 18 years old, before speaking in an amphitheatre in front of more than 200 students from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. A few days later and a few kilometres further south, he championed his project in several public schools in Atlanta, Georgia. « Some people cried in class when they heard about the situation in my country. The reality of Uganda, of cognitive development through sport, also serves as a compass for all young people, all over the world, who are dropping out of school and out of society, » he explained. That’s why Julius travels so much; he educates people worldwide, moves them by engaging in dialogue with several project managers and then invites them to share know-how, between 10,000 and 15,000 kilometres further south, in Kampala. In this ‘village’ which would gain so much by coming to resemble a real city, where everything could become possible.