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    BLOG: Ann Elliott Brings Her Love of Lacrosse to Uganda Youth

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    Ann Elliott has been a part of multiple NCAA women's lacrosse championships as a player and a coach at Northwestern. But recently she took on a whole new challenge, traveling to Uganda with Fields of Growth International to teach the game of lacrosse to young players. Skip Myslenski sat down with Elliott to recap her amazing experience.

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    You are Ann Elliott and you are far removed from your day job as an assistant coach of the women's lacrosse team at Northwestern University. You are instead on a tour of the Bwindi Impenetrable Rain Forest in Southwest Uganda in East Africa, where you are now marveling at the dexterity of your ancient guide. His name is James and he's a Batwa pygmy and even though you have heard he is 78-years old, he is now flitting like a mythical faun through the dense foliage of this place...

    You are listening too, listening to tales of how his displaced community once built homes in this forest and lived in this forest and hunted in this forest, and then here is James laughing as he shows you and your companions the different methods they used to kill the various animals they once encountered in their daily lives. But suddenly, from nowhere, a swarm of wasps attacks your party and ringing through the air is the voice of your guide, who simply yells, "Run!"

    ******

    James takes off and then there was this kid who just graduated college and myself right behind him, and then everybody else was behind us. Obviously, my instinct was I better run fast because I don't want to be the reason a person back there gets attacked by wasps.

    So we start chasing after James up the mountain and, a little while into it, I'm like, "I'm not sure I can keep running."

    I didn't look back, so I didn't know if people were getting attacked or what was happening. But I didn't know if I could keep going.

    Finally we caught up to James, who was so far ahead of us. This 78-year old man. We got up the mountain, I said to the other kid, "I, I, I don't know if I could have gone any further." He's like, "I know. Me neither. That was really tough."

    Then we looked up and saw James standing there and he's like laughing, ha-ha. I thought, "That's incredible."

    ******

    You are Ann Elliott and you are in Uganda with a group sponsored by Fields of Growth, an organization founded by Kevin Dugan. You met him two years ago, back when he was working with the men's lacrosse team at Notre Dame, and you were intrigued when you heard him talk of developing your shared sport in that East African nation. So you stayed in touch as time passed and finally, when he asked you to go over in early August to work with the women there, you signed on. "I love lacrosse," you will explain.

    "So to do what I love and share my passion with people outside the United States was really attractive. And I really like to travel, but I'd never done anything like this before or been to any place like Uganda. So the idea of taking what I love, going to a different country and sharing that experience and getting to know a different culture was really attractive to me."

    You didn't know what to expect, had no idea what to expect, but then you received a DVD from Fields that provided an historical peek at that country. There, to your horror, you saw the carnage wreaked by its former dictator Idi Amin and after an hour you had viewed enough to turn it off. "It was," you will explain, "all about the killing. That was a lot to handle."

    But those days were past, you were assured of that, and so here you are landing at the small airport in Entebbe on Aug. 4 and walking breezily through it and out the door. Your hosts are there to greet you and they load you in a van, but here traffic is so snarled it takes you three hours to travel the 22 miles that now separate you from your quarters in Kampala. But at last you reach them and a day or two later, you're not really sure, you are out in a bordering village, where a feast has been laid out for you and your group.

    ******

    A big, extravagant party. Lots of songs, lots of dancing, pretty much from eight in the morning until 10 at night. All these people were around, you took it in, they cooked us a meal, we had rice and meat and all that stuff.

    There was chicken. But the meat? I'm not exactly sure (what it was). I didn't ask. A lot of times I didn't ask. I didn't want to know (what I was eating).

    Afterwards some of the guys leading our group who had been over there for awhile put it in perspective. We took it all in, thought "Ah, nice thing. That was really special."

    But we didn't realize that the kid we saw in the broken shoes, those were actually the best shoes he had. And that was actually the best shirt he had. Everything we saw from these kids at the party was the best of everything they had.

    They told us, with the food, "That was food they would probably have at Christmas, but they cooked it now for you guys. That's how special it is."

    The importance of taking it and eating it, I ate all the food. But the people who turned things down, I was like, "They just gave up their special Christmas meal so you could eat."

    That was one thing that stuck with me the next time we went back to the village. Just looking at these kids and being like, "Wow, what you're wearing now is your best stuff."

    We brought some stuff over to give to them. Their faces would light up at the simplest things. An arm band. Or even bubbles. People were blowing bubbles and the kids were like running around chasing them. That was one of the craziest things for me.

    A lot of times we gave out candy. It was kind of crazy. When we drove down the street, we did a lot of driving in our van, every time we drove all the kids would run out to the street. They'd never really seen white people before, so it was like a really big deal.

    So you had all these kids coming from their houses or wherever just running up, yelling and screaming pretty much. So a lot of times when we stopped we'd hand out candy. Jolly Ranchers, Life Savers, stuff like that.

    It made their day.

    And usually once you got one kid, the next thing you know, you had probably 20 kids following.

    One other experience I remember. We were on our way to the rain forest, but we stopped off at where Fields of Growth had built their first field. A guy took us around to show us what was being developed there, and it started off with a couple kids from the street following us. By the time we got through with the walk, probably every kid we passed was in a line walking behind us and waving goodbye.

    It was a crazy experience. It was really interesting to see how much they're attracted to you and also how much every small thing you gave them -- whether it's candy or a tee-shirt -- they'd get so excited about.

    ******

    You are Ann Elliott and, the night before your first coaching experience in Uganda, you are speaking to women who have been doing that for some weeks now. They tell you that about 40 players will be there to greet you and that their ages will range from 18 to 26. They tell you that most don't own sticks. They tell you that a rare few of them will have either cleats or tennis shoes, but that most will show up in sandals or high heels. "A girl showed up in high heels yesterday," one of those providing this background will say, "and I asked her if she wanted to change. She said, 'No. I move really well in these shoes.'"

    ******

    So we had a little bit of knowledge of what we were getting into. But, definitely, when we showed up there, it was different from anything I ever experienced just with the kids wearing skirts because that's all they had.

    A lot of sandals. A lot of girls were wearing nice, dress sandals and running around. As they ran, the sandals kept falling off their feet. Some of them, halfway through practice, would take off their shoes and just run around in bare feet.

    It's interesting, too, just the type of field they were playing on. I could see here, playing on Field Turf, a solid surface, running around in bare feet. But they were playing on grass, slash, mostly dirt, and there were so many ditches or holes or unevenness. It was amazing to me how these girls could play.

    Obviously, coming from Northwestern, things are pretty structured and the kids are very committed and they've played for a while and you have that understanding. There, a lot of the girls had never seen lacrosse before so you're starting from scratch.

    The coolest thing was they were all into it. They didn't really have to be there. So they all really wanted to learn and they were there to play.

    They played super hard and were very aggressive and all over the place. But they lacked the basic skills and knowledge of the game.

    There was a little bit of a language barrier, but the main thing was, there is certain terminology we use with lacrosse. So we'd say certain things and, even though they all understood English, it really had no meaning.

    Even the simplest things, say we were talking about defense, like "Step up" or "Slide." Things that are so simple, common terms, they weren't familiar with. Things like that were frustrating just trying to get a tempo going.

    Since they were so aggressive, it was hard for them to hold onto the ball as an attacker. So a lot of times they'd just chuck the ball down the field because someone was running at them. So the whole concept of possessing the ball and ball control was lacking. And it was hard to explain that to them when we were still working on the catching and throwing.

    It was a lot to try to put together in a small amount of time.

    Also, with women's lacrosse, there are a lot of rules that are kind of like goofy that even my parents probably don't understand to this day. Like three seconds, shooting space. We'd try to explain, but they'd try to shoot through five people.

    So when we actually got to the game, (former Northwestern star) Hannah Nielsen was coaching one team and I was coaching the other, I think we spent the majority of the time on the field running up and down trying to explain the rules to them at the same time we were trying to coach them.

    I think I'm just going to remember, one, how exciting it was to go to a new place and coach girls who were so excited about the game but really didn't know it. Obviously a little bit of the frustration with it. As a coach, I think that was kind of good for me to realize sometimes you have to take a step back and break things down and communicate and just have fun with it.

    But the biggest thing I'm going to remember is the actual national championship game. That was one of the most exciting things.

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    Not to be mean at all, but it was probably the worst game of lacrosse I've ever seen in my life. But it was also one of the most fun games of lacrosse I've ever been part of just because of the excitement the girls had. Even though they didn't know all the skills and stuff, they were super excited.

    People were eager to go in and play and they were like a team too. I don't think all the girls knew each other before. But they all united around the sport of lacrosse and were into it and so competitive and really wanted to win.

    It was funny. The first practice we had there, we scrimmaged just to see what we actually had. It was craziness on the field, but no one could score a goal in 20 minutes. So we had to do what we call a Braveheart. We did two-on-two battles.

    It went on for a little bit. They still had trouble scoring.

    Finally a girl on my team picked up the ball, ran all the way down the field and scored a goal. The celebration was crazy. All the boys had come over to watch too and so all the people who were on the white team were yelling and screaming and rushing the field.

    Then you looked over to the other team and you'd have thought they'd just lost the NCAA Championship game they were so sad. Hannah had to pump them back up.

    It was so competitive even in that little thing and they'd all bonded over this sport even though they're not as familiar with it as other things.

    It was definitely a very pleasant experience. And a little overwhelming.

    Another thing I'll remember too is we tried to bring over as much stuff as possible. I was going through stuff I have that is old and my roommate's old stuff and even things we have in the locker room that's probably been there, it has to be eight years now. Wanting to bring all the stuff over, but not realizing that if we didn't bring it over, they wouldn't have stuff.

    So when we were doing practices, we had some balls. But the fields didn't have any lines until we put them on the last day.

    In terms of stuff like balls and cones, we have so much here at Northwestern. We have so many balls, we emphasize that at practice. But there, for a full day of practice, we probably had eight balls for the girls. So to do drills and walk through things was more of a process than normal, than I'm used to.

    Even with the shoes, it was interesting to realize they just can't go down the street to buy some. Or we just couldn't go buy more balls for these guys to play with.

    ******

    You are Ann Elliott and you land in Uganda with no preconceptions, with no expectations. But you have been there now for over a week and so, when they say you will be visiting the Hopeful School that Fields of Growth is rebuilding, you feel you have some sense of what you will see. "It was breathtaking," you will remember, but not in a good way.

    For then you will say, "It wasn't a school at all."

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    It was instead just sticks and wood somehow held together, six rooms of sticks and wood no bigger than a head coach's office, six rooms of sticks and wood but only one of them with a tin roof. So during the rainy season, you learned, little schooling got done, and you learned also that many of the students who came here walked two hours to class and then two hours back home. "Things like that were crazy, especially when I thought about my school and my life," you will remember.

    "A 15-minute walk to school seemed long to me and when I was younger, I definitely wasn't making that walk. My parents had to drive me because they didn't want me crossing the busy streets. Obviously, there's not busy streets in the village. But to think they walked two hours there, two hours back, and on top of it probably had to help out with chores too. It's incredible."

    You felt that too when you viewed the villagers' homes, those one-room mud huts that included a kitchen and often sheltered a family of six. An $800 donation, a $1,000 donation, a donation less than a month's rent on an apartment in downtown Evanston--that is all it costs to build one of those structures. "Just putting the two in that kind of perspective was kind of crazy," you will remember, and so was that day you yourself helped build one of those homes for a family from the Batwa pygmy community.

    ******

    It was mud. We had to make the mud.

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    We had to go down what seemed like a pretty long walk to me to get the water to make the mud and then come back up the hill. We were carrying jugs of water that were probably 40 pounds.

    It was crazy. Just that alone, well, I would consider myself and Hannah and the other people there, especially the college athletes, in pretty good shape and strong people. But we all went down and came up and it was one of the hardest things I've done in my life.

    Then you see women and children carrying them up. Obviously, there was a technique we were missing. But it was crazy to think they could do that, and how many times we had to go down there to get the water to make the mud to make the side of the house.

    I only actually went down once. But some of the people in our group went down three times. There were probably five or six trips all together, each time with seven or eight people, seven or eight jugs of water.

    We did not mix the mud. One of the (Batwa) guys did that. It seemed like it was an art.

    We tried to help and he was like, "No-o-o-o." We would stomp around in it when we needed to do that type of stuff. But for the most part he was making the mud and then we built the bricks and carried them over.

    I tried to make little bricks. But, really, you just stuff it into the sides you put up.

    I thought this is crazy. But I also thought, "This is so cool. I'm building a house right now and it's so simple and so exciting." I've never built a house before. So that part was really cool.

    But also this is crazy that this family's going to live in this house. And that this mud we're putting on is going to actually stay and hold this house together.

    Then actually thinking of the kind of house you were building for them. Would you call it a house? But to them, it was enough. They were so grateful.

    ******

    You are Ann Elliott and now you are back at Northwestern with memories that are boundless. You remember the bit of shock you felt when you saw your first pygmy. You remember the absence of streetlights and stop signs along the roads, and that tingle of apprehension that coursed through you when you went to cross a street. You remember the modest living quarters, a hut really, that you shared with Nielsen, and that morning your neighbor greeted you by asking, "Do you have any lizards?"

    "Uh, no," you replied.

    "Well," he told you, "I have about five. On my bed. On my walls."

    You remember how it was so similar to home when you interacted with the children, who were then as bubbly as any camper you worked with back on campus, and you remember how it was so foreign to hear how their families had suffered and lost loved ones to AIDS. You remember getting introduced to a game called net ball that Nielsen knew since they play it in her native Australia, and you remember playing a pair of soccer games and losing them both, and you remember that "I really loved the sports we engaged in. I felt like it was a way for two cultures to come together. Just the purity of the sports and the competitiveness, it doesn't matter where you're from." You remember.

    ******

    I think I spent two weeks trying to take it all in and it wasn't really until the last couple of days I was there that it all kind of hit me that, I was clearly there on a trip. But the houses we passed and the shoes these kids were wearing, that's all they have and that's where they live and that's normal life, day-to-day.

    It was kind of mind-blowing to me.

    Some parts of it I really appreciated in terms of the simplicity of things. You realize here, coming back, like how much stuff do I really need? There's something special about living a simple life if you choose to. But I'm not sure everybody over there was choosing to live a simple life. That was all they had to live with.

    It was definitely a lot to take in step-by-step even without expectations and I think I'm still kind of adjusting to and learning about and processing everything I saw. But the last couple of days (there) really hit me hard to the point where I, I don't know, I had a little sick feeling in my stomach to see all the little kids and realize these are the houses they're growing up in and probably the lifestyle they're going to have their entire life.

    Hopefully, a lot of it will stick with me. I just think so many of the things were so different. I hope from each of the different places we went something will stick with me.

    I think the lacrosse is going to stick with me forever just because it's what I do right now. And the sports in general.

    Obviously, building the house was an incredible experience.

    Then all the little kids in the village. I think just their faces, their excitement for everything.

    I'm not sure I know yet if it changed me. I think my first answer would be yes, it has to, even in the smallest way. Going over there, I did things I'd never done before, I experienced a culture I'd never been in.

    Being over there was a whole different experience that took me 10 days to process that this is real life and this is how these people live and where they live and how they go about their daily life. So, yes, it definitely changed me.

    But I'm not really sure of all the lessons I learned.

    I think the most basic thing is people go over there and you appreciate what you have here. But I hope, as I go through this, there's going to be more to what I've learned than appreciating things that hopefully I was appreciating before.

    It was definitely an experience that will help shape my future and my outlook on other things. Hopefully (I'll) be more aware of the rest of the world and what other people are going through and ways to help.

    I would definitely do it again

    -- Photos courtesy of Ann Elliott and Fields of Growth International --

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    1 Comment

    Hi Anne,
    Thanks for your efforts in getting Ugandans involved in sports & promoting Lacrosse in Uganda. Your works are very much appreciated.

    On Saturday 13 Aug 2011, Uganda hosted the first Lacrosse Tournament on Africa Soil between Uganda vs US at Makerere University Business School Ground - Nakawa Kampala. The day was filled with fun.


    Guide2Uganda team says Thank you so much & please keep it up.

    We will be delighted to join you in your social cause. Do let us know if there's anything we can do for you.

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