Backyard Badminton-Refugee Style

Posted by Anna Rice on May 19, 2009 at 6:47 AM

If you are reading this blog than you've likely played backyard badminton, even if you don’t want to admit it. But how many of you can say your ‘backyard’ was a communal field in the centre of a refugee camp?


One week ago I returned from Western Uganda, where I spent twelve days visiting two refugee camps and running badminton programs there.  The project was called the Badminton Initiative in Uganda (BIU) and it was a joint mission between the Badminton Players Federation (BPF), Right To Play and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).


I was joined on this trip by my fiancé Bobby Milroy and Pedro Yang, who are the respective President and Vice President of the BPF.  The BIU was Bobby’s brainchild born back in September, when he decided he wanted to try and bring badminton to some refugee camps in Africa.  When it became clear that I would carry out my Right To Play internship in Uganda, it made sense to arrange the iniative to take place here so that Right To Play could contribute.


Nakivale and Kyangwali Refugee Camps


The first week of the badminton sessions took place at the Nakivale Refugee Camp in South-West Uganda. Ben Afflect had recently shot a documentary film at Nakivale, bringing with him about 12 people as part of his entourage.  When Bobby, Pedro and I arrived to Nakivale, our UNHCR representative innocently asked us: “So when is your entourage arriving?” We looked at each other and laughed.  “Oh, their flights got delayed so unfortunately they can’t be here this week”, I jokingly replied. 


The ‘camp grounds’-pardon the pun- at Nakivale are stunning, and it’s no surprise that it is considered by the UN to be one of the most beautiful locations of all their 700+ refugee settlements world-wide.  In an area covering just over one hundred square kilometers, the peaceful setting of rolling hills and grazing cattle could not hide the harsh reality of war and poverty facing the 45,000+ refugees currently calling Nakivale ‘home’.  The residents of this camp come from Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Ethiopia and the Sudan.


The second refugee camp we visited was called Kyangwali, which is 90 minutes by dirt road from the small West-Ugandan town of Hoima.  Our UNHCR correspondant for Kyangwali was a very nice Danish man named Gert, so I had fun speaking with him and brushing up on my Danish, which has already gotten a bit rusty after over a month away from Denmark.  Gert generously hosted us for the week at his lovely home in Hoima town.

Kyangwali is home to roughly 20,000 refugees from the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  With most of the Congolese and Rwandese refugees speaking French, I heard my mom’s voice resonating inside my head: “Someday you’ll thank me for making you stay in French Immersion”.  And yes, I was very thankful.  The young women in particular were very excited to be able to speak to me without a translator, asking question after question on topics ranging from what Canadians usually eat for breakfast, to how I get my boyfriend to do the cooking, and why I’m not a mother yet at the ‘old’ age of 28.


Culture is such a fascinating thing.


With no plumbing or electricity in either of these settlements, most refugees live in mud huts barely high enough to stand.  They share the space- sometimes no more than nine square meters- with up to six family members.  Each day, water must be brought from the nearest pumps, sometimes requiring a trip of up to 5 kilometers each way and usually done on foot by girls and women.

“What are the Olympics?”


Over the course of the two weeks we spent at the camps, roughly four hundred refugees ranging in age from ten to thirty years old took part in our badminton sessions.  Only a few had ever heard of badminton before, but their lack of previous knowledge of our game didn’t limit them one bit.  In fact, throughout the course of these two weeks, I witnessed some of the most impressive displays of natural athleticism I’ve ever seen. We couldn’t help but wonder what these kids could have accomplished in sports had their circumstance been different.  There was one girl, about 17 years old, who Bob and Pedro were convinced could become a top 50 player within one year. 


The badminton sessions took place in the middle of a flat field which Right To Play has permission to use for their sport and playa games.  On a big patch of lush green grass the perfect lines of three badminton courts had been laid and despite the occasional interruption by a herd of cows, a pack of curious goats or a brief rain pour, the six-hour per day sessions went great.


We taught participants and community coaches the game of badminton, with topics ranging from how to hold the racket and hit the shuttle to how to keep score.  Above all, the ideas of inclusion and fair play were focal points for the sessions.


When I coach youngsters or visit schools in Canada, kids are always drawn to the fact that I’ve been to the Olympics.  “Did you win gold?” “Was it the coolest ever?” “Did you meet Kobe?” they often ask.   At the Nakivale refugee camp, one kid had the courage to ask what we later figured most must have been thinking: “What are the Olympics?”



The World’s Real Heroes


Of the refugees we met, a few had recently arrived to the settlements but most had been living there over a year and some had even been there more than a decade. Inside the camps time is spent tending cattle or goats, keeping crops, preparing food, fetching water, going to school, going to Church or Mosque, and generally trying to create a sense of normalcy in conditions that most would find very far from ‘normal’.


A refugee, by definition, is someone who is forced to leave their home due to life-threatening conditions.  Of the refugees we got to know, their courage and inner strength was beyond anything I’ve seen before.  Some were orphans, most had witnessed brutal violence, all had their own unique story of resilience.


It was tough to see such poverty, but I felt guilty and ashamed for even thinking how hard it was for me to see.  Hard to look at, Anna? Try living it.


After a few days under the 30+ degree sun, I was so hot at times I wanted to lock myself inside our UN Range rover, crank the AC and down as much bottled water as I could. But I resisted.


Maybe it was the Somali women- dressed in full Muslim robes and playing badminton for hours without a word of complaint about the heat.  Or maybe it was the little boys- bellies swelled and skin covered in dirt- laughing and playing endlessly with the plastic badminton shuttles and our discarded water bottles.  


Whatever it was, I found inspiration from these people, in a way that I’d never experienced before.


Yes, Lance Armstrong’s story is incredible.  True, Kyle Shewfelt broke both his legs.


But somehow being around these refugees and seeing their determination to persevere despite having lost almost everything: their loved ones, their homes, their freedom, their country, has inspired me more than any motivational stories or speakers ever have and likely ever will.


When it was time to leave, some of the older kids gave us gifts.  Imagine that.  They have nothing, still they offer to us some of what little they have.  One gift was even wrapped in  pink paper and had a bow on top.  It was a book, a love story that this Rwandan teenager wanted to give to Bob and I, since he found out that we were getting married soon.  Later that night I opened the book and inside was a note: “Thank you for teaching us badminton and for listening to my story.  You are my heroes”, the Rwandan teenager wrote.


I hope someday he and the others will know the truth: that it’s not us- but them who are the world’s real heroes.

Click HERE to watch a slideshow that I made using a compilation of pictures and videos from our trip.  The pictures displayed were photographed by myself, Miriamm Lczoch and Gert Holtz. 

Here are some of my favorite pictures from our trip, which I didn't include in the slideshow.

This was one of the cute boys (my favoriite : ) who would watch our sessions and take

the used pastic bottles to play with.

A group photo of Pedro, Bob and I with all the 'coaches-in-training' at Kyangwali.

The match they'd all been asking for: Bobby vs. Pedro.

The inquisitive girls from D.R.Congo



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Reply duong phan
2:17 PM on May 19, 2009 
I admire what you are doing and I would like to thank you for all you have done so far for badminton and for the people around the world.
Reply lesley swanson
4:04 PM on May 19, 2009 
Anna and Bob what an amazing story and how lucky for you both to experience these peoples courage,your blog is so informative and inspirational story, I will be forwarding this to my circle of friends Love LS
Reply Joseph.G.Matheri
9:42 AM on May 21, 2009 
those pics r just soooo cuteand i really like what you r doing about this wonderful game of Badminton.when will you come to Kenya? you know what, bring me a Badminton Racket, will be so greatful. thanks Ann.
Reply Robbyn
8:42 PM on May 21, 2009 
Gosh Anna - what a wonderful experience for you...but even more so for those wonderful, inspiring, make me realize just how good we have it here, lovely people. The smiles on their faces says it all. I commend you, Bob and Pedro for a job well done. You do Canada proud :)
Reply Andrea WA
4:40 PM on June 21, 2009 
Anna, what an amazing and life-changing experience for you and Bob... You are such a talented writer and you really bring your story to life. Looking forward to seeing you sometime back in Canada!
Reply ferrry
6:31 AM on February 9, 2010 
Reply KatefStanley
1:47 AM on December 8, 2010 
I am glad that you are posting about your experience in Nakivale Refugee Settlement, as someone who spent a month there, I know how much the children and young adults love sports and the interaction that comes with them. They can bring together strangers and develop friendships in a situation that seems to be one resting only on hope. I hope you will be able to return and continue your work there developing talent the talents you find!