Sept. 9, 2011
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Noeline steps to the en garde line, a marking in the dirt that is just about completely faded from a day of competition. She lifts the foam sabre, which she has been using the last six weeks. The director gives the signal, “Ready? Fence.” Noeline rushes forward immediately off of the line, catching her opponent, Irene, a friend and classmate, by surprise. Noeline lands her attack cleanly, as Irene makes a desperate counter-attack. To make sure the director does not make a mistake in his officiating, Noeline looks back over her shoulder, her eyes fixed. He correctly calls the point her attack. In one, smooth action, Noeline pivots on her left foot and makes a fist with her left hand. And as she walks back to the start line, she lets out a barely-audible and confident, “Yes!”
Noeline went on to win the bout, her seventh bout in a pool of twelve people. Noeline won all but one of her pool bouts, made it to the top eight, and eventually became the champion of the day. She was the winner of the first-ever HOPEFUL School-Kkindu Primary Fencing Tournament, the first-ever fencing tournament in Kamungu, in Masaka District, in the country of Uganda, and, for that matter, in East Africa. Talk about a confidence boost. When she won the final point in the championship bout, Noeline’s friends from HOPEFUL School jumped up and down cheering, and stormed the strip. Noeline and her classmates, her friends, and everyone who participated in and watched the tournament had smiles on their faces the entire evening.
The fencing tournament was the culmination of six weeks of practice and preparation. I introduced the sport of fencing to the primary HOPEFUL School and Kkindu Primary School. The HOPEFUL School is a school for orphans and vulnerable children. In the few years that it has been in operation, the number of students attending has doubled. Students walk for hours every morning in order to get to school. Currently, the school is running brick-making projects and a pineapple project, in order to construct new buildings and have a stable form of income, respectively.
Until the Friday before the tournament, the students at HOPEFUL School were the only kids in the area without uniforms. It was a form of embarrassment. But when the kids got their very first uniforms, they took different routes home, longer ones, in order to show them off; they wore them to Mass, a service flooded by a sea of green, and they wore them proudly at the tournament. About twenty kids from Kkindu Primary made their way to HOPEFUL School in order to compete. Although it was an individual tournament, the kids from HOPEFUL School and from Kkindu Primary wanted to make it a team match. Every time that a HOPEFUL student fenced a Kkindu Student, the cheering got louder (just about as loud as Ariel DeSmet’s scream after winning NCAAs). Even though it was a pool bout, the kids would storm the strip to celebrate the victory.
After very large pools of 10, 10, 10, and 12, in the interest of time, we took the top two fencers from each pool to make a top eight bracket. It contained three fencers from Kkindu Primary and five from HOPEFUL. Teopista was the youngest competitor, in P.3, and she made it to the final four, beating many boys along the way. Her dad was there to watch because he is a community leader, and was so proud of her that after one bout he ran onto the strip and picked her up and spun her around in celebration. Throughout the tournament, classmates would coach their friends who were fencing. I would hear the occasional, “maso” (“forward”) or “mabega” (“back”), Luganda words which I used to teach the sport.
Teaching fencing in rural Uganda and being welcomed into the community was such a wonderful experience. For the kids, the simplest of things – uniforms and sports – gave them the utmost confidence. The kids did to fencing what I witnessed at Notre Dame my freshman year – they made it a team sport, and, like fencing across the world, after the tournament they “took off their masks,” and those who had been competitors in fencing were friends. We ended the celebration with traditional dances, and the students from Kkindu Primary joined in the dance and the song, and any disappointment from the tournament was gone. Only the competitive spirit remained: one boy told me, “Ok, Alex, in one week we will have a tournament, and it is held at Kkindu Primary.”