Uganda’s She Cranes ready for lift-off

Letter from London

Uganda’s She Cranes ready for lift-off

This month, the She Cranes, Uganda’s netball team will be touring England. Their captain, Peace Proscovia, despite a difficult early life, is considered one of the best in the sport. Will they inspire UK blacks as much as the West Indies cricketers did a couple of decades ago? By Clayton Goodwin

We are coming to compete, not just participate.” Peace Proscovia, the Ugandan netball captain, is adamant that her quickly improving team can hold its own, and more, in the forthcoming series against the heavily-favoured England Roses, the recently-crowned Commonwealth Games gold medalists.

The three-match rubber starts at the Echo Arena in Liverpool on Tuesday 27 November and moves to the Copperbox Arena on Friday 30 November and Sunday 2 December.

“We can do this,” Peace informed New African. Although she added “Let the best team win”, there can be no doubt in her mind who that will be. She has a point. The Roses may not be ready for plucking but the Uganda She Cranes are flying high.

Her opposite number, England’s captain Ama Agbeze, herself of African heritage, led the country to the Commonwealth Games triumph earlier this year. She rallied the team on the eve of the final with the call, “It’s our time. We’re ready. We’re completely together – It’s us. It’s now.” She is similarly excited by the coming challenge.

Agbeze has warned England against complacency. “The She Cranes are growing in experience and confidence. I think people may be surprised if they think the series is won already.”

She told England Netball: “Uganda is quite a different proposition to Jamaica (whom England first play in an away series), so the training period will give us time to draw our focus on Uganda’s style of play.

“Peace Proscovia,” Ama continued: “is the lynchpin of their team and is tall and can hold space, but doesn’t shy away from being mobile outside of the goal circle if necessary. The She Cranes play with athleticism yet poise, and we’ll be looking at building pressure across the course of the game to force them into error.” 

In the last four years Uganda has risen from 15th to 7th position in the international rankings, and they took the eventual champions to a competitive 49-55 result in the early stages of the Commonwealth Games tournament.

Most of the team are drawn from the powerful NIC (National Insurance Corporation) Holdings Ltd side, with others from the prison service and the police. While Peace may be the only player currently living in England, the combination of older and younger team members, experience blended with the exuberance of youth, has already shown what can be done on the world stage. Yet this is more than just a game, as Proscovia explains with passion.

Enhanced position of girls

Netball has done much already to enhance the position of girls in Africa, and throughout the Commonwealth. There is now more to African women’s sport than the long-distance Kenyan/Ethiopian runners. The sport’s World Cup in Liverpool next summer will be contested by among others – as well as Uganda – Malawi, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and Barbados.

There are several African heritage players in the other teams, especially England. Such success has brought self-confidence to girls in societies in which, otherwise, they have felt themselves to be undervalued. Peace’s own career proves the point. No wonder several surveys have found netball to be the favourite sport of African girls, even of those who do not play it.

Peace Proscovia, who was born in the Arua district of North-west Uganda, is now studying at Loughborough University. Her talent was spotted while she was playing in the netball World Cup  qualifying games in Botswana and she was invited to England.

Peace is now recognised as being the best shooter in Africa. Even so, her progress has been far from easy. That is what makes Peace an inspiration for Ugandan and African women everywhere.

She, herself, grew up in an area where girls were expected to marry early. She also had to stand up to her father, who refused to allow her to move to Kampala after school to study at university and pursue her dream of netball.

Her childhood was tough as her parents were often out of work. Yet Peace is confident that her successful drive to a professional career will encourage other girls from similar backgrounds to expand their vision of what is possible.

Peace has said: “If it wasn’t for netball I wouldn’t have left my village. Netball has turned my story and my world around.” It isn’t just about Uganda however. These are the same conditions and opportunities also faced by young ladies of the diaspora in London and the UK.

Netball has long been a passion of the UK’s Jamaican community, which has run its own teams and tournaments. From my debut with New African just over twenty years ago I have written about the contributions to the England side of African heritage players such as Sonia Mkoloma and Amanda Newton.

Nevertheless, the Jamaicans have been outside the sport’s national structure, and not until now has netball really gripped the public consciousness. That is no longer the case. In London girls, more than boys, are participating in sport in increasing numbers – athletics, boxing, football and, more than ever, netball. 

Sport is regarded as being an antidote to the youth gun/knife violence which disfigures our inner cities. Competition provides incentives for individual achievement and recognition, and keeps young people active and healthy.

Inevitably, though, in an activity driven mainly by universities, colleges and established schools, netball still has a predominantly middle-class mien. The greater integration of the Jamaican clubs and enhanced attention to Peace Proscovia’s rise to prominence from less than propitious circumstances would go some way to making this image more socially inclusive.

If the UK African population get behind the teams, both of which are fielding African representatives, it could move centre stage in this sport as it has in no other. In its own way, next summer’s World Netball Championships here could be as significant as were the London Olympic Games in 2012.

Archbishop Sentamu bows out

Co-incidentally, while the arrival of the Ugandan netballers is awaited, the country’s most prominent Ugandan, Archbishop John Sentamu of York, has announced that he will retire in June 2020 from the office he was appointed to 13 years ago.

He has a colourful personality, and his career has been sometimes contentious, especially when he has stepped away from the narrowly ecclesiastical field. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to notice him, and he, too, has shown what can be achieved with faith and confidence. We could be seeing the change from one role model to another.    

Three or four decades ago the triumphant West Indies cricket team inspired and boosted the self-esteem of the black youth in Britain, who had received a bad deal in economic, social and employment opportunities, by showing what people very similar to themselves could achieve. The generation of Anthony Joshua, Mo Farah and Lewis Hamilton have responded magnificently.

More than that, the majority of young African/Caribbean people in all walks of life enjoy a confidence and record of success that would have been unknown to even their immediate forebears. That is particularly true of the modern self-assured Caribbean heritage women.

Others, however, have come to the country more recently from societies where the opportunities, particularly for girls, are restricted. Will they see something in Peace’s experience and determination to match their own? Can the Ugandan netball team kindle the same confidence that the West Indies cricketers once inspired?

As His Grace bows out he may well wish: “Let  the spirit of Peace be among you”; if so, I could not have put it better myself.  NA  

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