Young men from four formerly war-torn African countries put years of conflict and hardship behind them last weekend as they played each other in the finals of the Great Lakes Peace Cup.
I did not expect Burundi to win, but they did! And what a beautiful victory it was. The team came from Bubanza, a small town about an hour north of Burundi’s capital Bujumbura. The players had journeyed more than 18 hours by bus, including about three hours to cross the border into Uganda.
Despite this, they won. They came back from a 0 to 1 lead by the Ugandans early in the first period and were tied 1 to 1 before halftime. During the second half, they scored again and the Ugandan team, despite home field advantage and repeated efforts, was not able to put the ball inside the net again.
When the referee whistled the end of the game, the Burundian team, wearing yellow, erupted in a joyous celebration, cheering, singing, falling into each other’s arms and then running around the field. You’d have thought they hadn’t already been running for 90 minutes in full sun and heat. Their joy was contagious. Even the 1,000-odd spectators, mostly Ugandans, could not help but be happy with them.
I am not a football fanatic and I mostly support good games instead of specific teams, so I always feel a pinch in my heart for the losing team. After all, they put out just as much effort but are not as successful. So I felt a pang for the Ugandan players, just as deserving as Burundi, and the other two contenders, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But the Peace Cup was much more than just football. The final was a true celebration of the long journey most of these players have traveled and the high hopes they have for a brighter future. I am sure none of them would have guessed, a few years ago, that they would be meeting with football players from other countries in a tournament called “the Peace Cup”. In fact, a few years ago, about half of the young men competing in Kampala last weekend were on a very different field: the battle field.
When the Burundi and Uganda players greeted each other before the final game, it was no longer about their past. It was about the Peace Cup motto: “Youth, Reconciliation, Development”. I was thrilled to be a witness.