Welcome to “Cloverdale In Conversation,” a monthly feature with a local newsmaker.
This month, Scott Wheatley is our guest. The executive director for the Cloverdale District Chamber of Commerce recently sat down with Malin Jordan for a coffee and a chat.
Scott talks about his recent sports “mission” to Uganda to help promote the game of women’s softball. His group spent two weeks in and around the capital Kampala playing and teaching softball to both the Kenyan and Ugandan national teams. The Canadian softball ambassadors also found time to visit a local orphanage in an attempt to grow the game further.
Malin Jordan: Tell me about your recent trip to Uganda.
Scott Wheatley: The trip was fascinating. It’s still top-of-mind. I’ve never been to a third-world country before, so it had quite the impact on me.
[Our group] didn’t go there to vacation, I mean it wasn’t a vacation. It was me and 22 women and girls, ages 14 and up, all players and coaches, who went to train the Ugandan and Kenyan national women’s softball teams and umpires.
It was an eye-opening experience for me. I’m glad I went.
MJ: What was your role on this travelling sports mission?
SW: I was there to train the umpires because they have no training, at all. I was the lone ump on the trip. I trained both Ugandan and Kenyan umpires.
MJ: Was the team you went with a rep team or a club team?
SW: It wasn’t an official team. All the girls were selected. They were all familiar to the head coach, Joni Frie. She knows them all. It was basically an invitational side. None of the girls had played together as a team before we got there.
MJ: What were your first thoughts as you arrived, as you first landed in Uganda?
It’s a different world when you get off the airplane. The first thing you notice is the smell. They don’t have garbage collection there, so everyone burns their garbage. It’s always smoky.
We were in Kampala, the capital city, and they were amazing people, but poor, very poor people. And just the sheer number of people in Kampala was overwhelming.
(Kampala has 1.68 million people in a 189 square-kilometre city, while Surrey has 518,000 people in a 316 square-kilometre city. There are also 6.7 million people in Kampala’s metro area.)
MJ: How did your first training session go?
SW: The next day, right away, we had to go play a game at Kyambogo University in Kampala. Their ball diamonds aren’t like ball diamonds here. The diamond had a net for a backstop and behind that was some traditional circular Ugandan housing. So there were kids running around, chickens running around, and we’re trying to have a ball game (laughs).
MJ: So you played games too?
SW: We played a series of exhibition games along with the training. The girls would teach the Ugandan and Kenyan players and coaches and I would teach the umpires. The goal was to get them up to an international calibre of playing ability.
MJ: How did the games and training sessions go?
SW: They were great. We spent the first two days [in Uganda] at the ballpark. We’d play a game in the evening and then have clinics the next morning. Then we went off for three days to go on a safari. Then we came back to do another week of games and clinics.
MJ: And the umpiring clinics?
SW: I spent most of my time with five umpires. There were a few more [umps] that came in and out of the clinics, but they weren’t there the whole time. There’s nothing really official in Uganda, you just go with the flow, so some umpires would show up on different days.
MJ: What sparked your interest in going in the first place?
SW: It started because I’ve known Joni Frie for a long time. She was the head coach for Softball BC. I’m a minor coordinator for Softball BC. So two years ago, I just happened to be umpiring a game and she was sitting behind me. At the end of each inning, I’d turn around and have a chat with her, and she finally said to me, “I’m going to Uganda, do you want to go?” And I said, “that sounds great. I’d love to go to Uganda.” And that was it.
MJ: Why Uganda?
SW: Joni had gone to Uganda in 2015 to work with a team that would eventually become the Ugandan national team. They then came to Surrey to play in the world championships in 2016. She served as their head coach for the tournament here.
MJ: Oh, so this trip is connected to 2016 then?
SW: That’s when the seed was planted for us to go there in 2020. We won’t go next year, but there is a plan to go again in 2022.
MJ: How was it getting around? How was the traffic?
SW: Traffic was terrifying. I asked one of our bus drivers what the secret to driving in Kampala was and he said intimidation.
But the traffic is unreal. Thousands of motorcycles weave in and out of traffic, cars jockey for position, the horn is used as a notification in a sort of, “Hey! I’m here,” type of way. If you’re going to overtake somebody you’ll honk, just to let them know you’re coming. On the main roads, which are paved, you’ll have five rows of cars going either way, where only three rows should be.
But even with the intimidation, there are rules. One time we were heading up a road toward another ball field and there had just been a monsoon. So everything was kind of washed out. And we knocked a motorcycle off the road into the ditch. So we popped out to help the guy. That’s kinda the rule. You have to help people back up.
MJ: What kind of speeds are we talking about? It can’t be too fast if you can help someone get back on their motorcycle after whacking them into the ditch.
SW: Yes (laughs). We were going pretty slow in that case.
MJ: Now that you’ve had time to reflect, what’s your biggest takeaway from the trip?
SW: Inspiration. It inspired me to start three projects — even though they say you’re not supposed to get emotionally attached.
The last place we were was just outside of Jinja, which is east of Kampala. One of the Ugandan coaches asked me to come with him. So we went for a drive. We drove to a shanty town and I met a lady who has diabetes and can’t afford medicine. And she’s got four young kids. And I’m thinking to myself, “How do I help her?”
There is this other kid, an orphan, who I met when we went to do our T-ball tournament at the orphanage. And I thought, “How can I help him?”
And then, there is a headmaster at one of the schools who needs a laptop.
So, I have my three little projects that I have started working on.
MJ: What are your plans for the three projects?
SW: For the first woman, I’m going to talk to the coach and find out how much it will cost to get the woman on insulin shots. Then I’ll set up a GoFundMe or something. For the other kid [at the orphanage], who’s 17, I’m going to see if I can set him up with a scholarship. For the laptop guy, I’ll search around and see if anyone wants to donate a laptop.
MJ: What was the orphanage like?
SW: The orphanage was really eye-opening. When you see how they cook the food for all the 50 kids — they cook with big vats over open flames.
When we were there, one mother dropped a baby in my arms. So, I was walking around for an hour with a baby in my arms. I haven’t held a baby in more than 20 years! The mother was still around — they call us mzungu — so she was happy to have a mzungu holding her baby for a while.
MJ: Did you guys leave any of your ball gear behind?
SW: Absolutely! I took four big bags of umpire gear. The girls left gear behind. We probably donated more than $10,000 worth of ball equipment.
We had tables full of gear for them. I had a lot of gear that I gave away, uniforms, hats, masks—all Softball Canada stuff, lots of catcher equipment and gloves. We gave them a lot of shoes. A lot of them don’t have shoes. The last park we were at, there were some boys playing and they were all in bare feet. They just don’t have the money.
I even gave away all my personal equipment at the end too. My mask, I couldn’t not leave it. I just didn’t feel that bringing it back here was fair when the need there is so great.
Tennis B.C. also gave us hundreds of tennis balls. Whenever we pulled over on the highway we gave kids tennis balls. The joy those kids got out of those tennis balls was amazing. Some of those kids didn’t know how to play with a ball.
We stopped at one village. It was a traditional village with round mud huts and everything. We handed out tennis balls and played with the kids, teaching them to throw and catch. They had a lot of fun. We did too.
MJ: Any other highlights from the trip?
SW: Working with the umpires and getting to know them, was certainly a big highlight. They don’t pay umpires to work over there, so all of them were doing it for free. But they have such a passion for the game. They always wanted to hang out and talk between each half inning, always wanting to talk about umpiring scenarios that occurred within the games. They were all very nice people and very into softball.