The school kids circled Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, waving their hands with rapid quivering gestures – the traditional Ugandan greeting for the hearing impaired. The interpreter introduced Qureshi as a professional tennis player and explained that he had arrived in Uganda to offer help.
Suddenly, smiles shined bright as the kids grunted their joy while climbing all over Qureshi. Some reached for his hands, others hugged his legs and the littlest ones asked to be picked up and held.
Qureshi would soon learn that the hard, baked dirt field full of pebbles, ruts and patches of grass he was standing on was about to become a tennis playground. There were more kids than there were racquets and balls but that did not stop the kids from playing.
During the next six days, Qureshi would share his tennis testimony to variety of disadvantaged groups: barefoot kids and amputee adults, kids with special needs and displaced refugees, orphans diagnosed with AIDS and able-bodied adults looking to rise above the poverty line by teaching tennis to upper-class expatriates. Each stop of Qureshi’s “Stop War Start Tennis” tour had a different story to tell, but they all had one thing in common – a hope that tennis would lead to a better life.
Qureshi kicked off his “Stop War Start Tennis” tour in Kigali, Rwanda. Qureshi’s mission on this tour, which also included a visit to Kampala, Uganda, was three-pronged: spotlight existing projects, assess the needs of the local partners and verify that donations are being used transparently.
“I felt like it was important to get my feet on the ground and eyes and ears on the people involved,” Qureshi says. “I aim to be more involved with ‘Stop War Start Tennis’ and not just by raising more funds, but by getting to know and develop relationships with the key people who are making things happen.”
Prior to Qureshi’s arrival in Kigali, he donated five tennis specific wheelchairs from foundation partner Motivation (https://www.motivation.org.uk/) to the newly-formed Rwanda wheelchair program run by the Rwanda Tennis Federation with Kenya’s Lawrence Karanja as expert coach.
— Aisam ul Haq Qureshi (@aisamhqureshi) November 29, 2017
Qureshi was hosted by Rwanda Tennis Federation president, Mr. Kassim Ntageruka. During his visit to the capital city, Qureshi met the juniors, national team coaches, players as well as the National Olympic Committee Director of Sports.
“Having grown up and learned sports in a developing country (Pakistan) I am aware of the many challenges that Rwanda is facing,” Qureshi says. “There seems to be an excellent organization in place from top to bottom. And transparency among the national associations is taken extremely seriously.”
Qureshi’s Rwanda visit concluded with a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. The memorial documents Rwanda’s horrific genocide in 1994 when nearly one million people were killed during ethnic violence against the Tutsi’s in 100 days of mass slaughter. The memorial also has an educational center that shares stories of ethnic genocide throughout history. Atrocities from Cambodia, Armenia, the Balkans, and Namibia are but a few displayed.
In an effort to use tennis to heal wounds and further unite the nation, the Rwanda Tennis Federation organized a Rwanda Genocide Memorial tennis tournament that attracted players from Kenya, Uganda and Congo.
“A slogan I heard repeated frequently during my short stay in Kigali,” Qureshi says, “is ‘Rise Up Rwanda’. Having seen the efforts of the federation, listened to the players and coaches, I can definitely testify that Rwanda tennis is on the rise.”
Qureshi’s next stop was Kampala, Uganda. There he met with Tennis For All (TFA) founders Julius Kobe and Vincent Muwereza. TFA is a non-profit non-governmental organization that is dedicated to introducing tennis to underprivileged school children.
Uganda has had its share of struggles as well: a violent monster of a dictator in Idi Amin, a brutal civil war and ongoing border wars with Tanzania have all contributed to a severe lack of development. A high rate of HIV/AIDS, illiteracy, poor health, inadequate sanitation and an economy that sees many parents earn an average of $1 per day are the common challenges Ugandans face each day.
Tennis For All brings hope and joy to kids who otherwise would have little to look forward to. At the East Kololo School in Kampala there are no tennis courts. Still, tennis is thriving through the efforts of TFA. Despite a severe lack of equipment, tennis is played every day at recess at East Kololo Primary School, Shimoni Demonstration School and at the nearby Uganda School for the Deaf in Ntinda.
“Congratulations to Julius (Kobe) and Vincent (Muwereza),” Qureshi says. “They have created a special tennis program for kids who need special attention. I can see that they have put in a lot of time teaching the kids technique, footwork exercises and sportsmanship principles. And patron Daniel Kyazze is an excellent example of how tennis can serve to establish contacts that lead to higher education and business opportunities.”
“When you see little kids serving as net posts while holding plastic nets so their classmates can play tennis, it stirs up some emotions,” Qureshi continues. “They are so happy to play tennis where many of us would not even park our cars.”
At the Uganda School for the Deaf in Ntinda, Qureshi listened to the rector explain that in Uganda there is a stigma that deaf people are stupid and it is a spreadable sickness. The rector also shared that approximately 43 children in the school could hear if they had hearing-aid devices, which cost as little as $40 USD.
“I am grateful that through the ATP World Tour I have a platform to see the struggles that so many people are challenged with each day,” Qureshi says. “Tennis is a sport that can take their mind of their misery, if even for a little while, and provide a vehicle to a better way of life.”
“My purpose is to let the Rwandans and Ugandans know that their projects are important and that through my network of colleagues in the tennis industry, we can work together to facilitate needs such as tennis equipment, hearing aids, and books. By visiting them here I hope these children and their local coaches know that the ATP World Tour cares about their lives.”