Clutching the ball with both hands, Gloria Nene charges past opponents and proudly scores a try. The 11-year-old girl traded in Boro Boro, South Sudan’s equivalent of dodgeball, for rugby a few months ago and already has decided she wants to go pro.
“It’s good to play. If you’re outside doing nothing you might fight with friends and you won’t get to know each other,” she said.
Civil war-torn South Sudan this year launched its first rugby league since it won independence from Sudan in 2011, finding in the rough-and-tumble sport a way to promote peace.
More than 200 children between 5 and 13 have signed up for the South Sudan Rugby Club’s weekly practices run by volunteers, many of whom learned to play as refugees in neighboring countries. More than 50 of those who have enrolled are girls.
“Sports does not discriminate, it speaks one language,” head coach Abraham Riak told The Associated Press.
The club is an inclusive alternative to the more popular but often overcrowded soccer, where young people are sometimes turned away, he said.
The rugby league also teaches life lessons such as how to communicate without fighting.
“What we are trying to do with the rugby, besides grow participation in the sport, is provide these young people with the tools to be the change makers in their communities,” said Gemma Robson, a British expatriate who is a volunteer coach.
On a recent morning in the capital, Juba, giddy children waited to receive their training jerseys as cows grazed on the makeshift field. After the practice more than a dozen children from the neighborhood shyly approached and asked how they can join.
The league’s founders are looking for sponsors and hope that rugby will become a national sport so it can benefit from state funding. But South Sudan’s government already struggles to support existing teams including ones for soccer, basketball and handball, said Josseline Samson Apaya, acting director general for sports in the ministry of sports, culture and youth.
She said more investment would greatly contribute to the country’s transition to peace after more than five years of civil war.
“Sports is good for any nation, for reconciliation to forget about what happened,” she said.
Less than $5 million was allocated to the ministry last year, enough to cover two regional trips for national teams, the government said. Meanwhile $72 million was allocated for military spending, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an independent resource on global security.
This year parliament lobbied for the sporting budget to be increased to almost $8 million. The government still has to ask the local community and international partners for help in sending teams to compete abroad. South Korea is paying for the football team’s visit to Seoul in October and local businessmen are funding the basketball team’s trip to Tanzania in December.
“South Sudanese are tall and talented, they could be great athletes if given the opportunity,” said David Unyo Demey, a parliament member and chairman for the committee on sports, culture and youth.
Some South Sudanese have been recognized on the world stage. Four of them play in the NBA: Luol Deng and Deng Adel with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Thon Maker with the Milwaukee Bucks and Wenyen Gabriel with the Sacramento Kings. Many others compete at the university level in the United States and elsewhere.
At least one man who played in the U.S. is pushing for more investment in sports back home.
The 39-year-old Denay J. Chagor, who played basketball for the Wisconsin Badgers, is now the chairman of South Sudan’s United Movement opposition party. He attributes many of his leadership skills to his time on the court and says sports can foster peace.
“I know that if that is championed through the government and if this is encouraged it can help the young people come together and work together and live together again,” he said.
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