Uganda: Coach Mustafa dreams of turning street children into champion gymnasts
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In a vacant lot in Katwe, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Uganda’s capital Kampala, children doing backflips, cartwheels, rolls and stretches is now the new norm. Local 20-year-old Yiga Mustafa has begun passing on his knowledge of acrobatics and gymnastics to children in his neighbourhood, hoping they can one day compete as a team at the national level.
The Kataka Gymnastics Club has dreams of making it big in Uganda. This group of more than 60 children, aged 3 to 13, meets daily to practice gymnastics, tumbling and acrobatics. The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to their coach, Yiga Mustafa, about his love of gymnastics and his mission to help children on the streets of Katwe.
A video posted on Facebook May 30 shows members of the Kataka Gymnastics Club practising backflips.
Mustafa, who just finished high school, started working full time with the neighbourhood children at the end of May:
I am a former street child, I grew up in an orphanage. In the orphanage, we used to do many activities. We had music, acrobatics, cultural dances. I joined acrobatics when I was 10 years old. In the organisation, I headed the group for acrobatics and I was the captain of the team. So when I finished my studies, I left the organisation and I set up a club for gymnastics because I love the sport.
So many kids knew that I was an acrobat. Whenever I passed by kids in the community, they would always call to me: “Teacher, teacher, Coach Mustafa.” I told them we should meet and do some practice. Now that I have finished high school, I told them we would work together as a team, and develop to the national level.
‘They are determined to learn, but we don’t have any equipment’
A lack of professional training and equipment has proved difficult for Mustafa and his team:
There is nowhere to learn from, apart from YouTube and copying some skills so that I can teach the kids. At night, I go on YouTube and download videos. I do some research to learn the floor routines and techniques. We do floor tumbling and vault, but acrobatics mostly because the kids like it so much.
They are determined to learn but we don’t have any equipment to use. We have mostly boys because the ground is so rough and the girls are afraid to get hurt: it’s very hard for them to train. We want to get funding to get some land and build a centre.
In a video taken on May 30, Yiga Mustafa’s group practices doing flips in a vacant lot. Video provided to the Observers.
Yiga Mustafa and his team have gotten creative, using things like tyres in place of proper equipment. Video provided to the Observers.
‘Most of the kids have difficult backgrounds’
The kids come from the streets, when they leave practice they just go back to the streets. We want to have a place where they can hang around, have a meal. These days, they just come around for practice and after, we give them a banana, some water. On Sundays, we cook porridge for them after practice in the evenings. We want to keep them encouraged to come back for practice the following day. We also want to develop a training schedule for the kids to remain safe since coronavirus is growing in the country. We want to provide masks for them and get a thermometer to keep them safe.
Most of the kids have difficult backgrounds. It helps them a lot to practice gymnastics because they could easily get involved in drug abuse, being on the streets, wasting time gambling. So we keep them away from bad peer groups. We tell them every morning, when they have nothing to do, to please come to practice. When they are at practice, they are away from bad things.
Katwe, as an impoverished suburb of Kampala, is considered one of the most crime-ridden districts in the region. In 2019, Katwe police registered more than 4,500 crimes in the suburb, the highest number recorded in Uganda. Katwe regularly ranks among the country’s highest in rates of thefts, assaults and shootings.
The Kataka Gymnastics Club represents an opportunity for Katwe’s street children to avoid bad influences and master a sport, Mustafa says. The team hopes to bring gymnastics to the forefront in Uganda.
In Uganda, we are trying to show people that you can do this sport, but no one supports it because they think we can’t make it to the national level. Gymnastics is not popular at all. When you say to someone that you want to do gymnastics, they say you can’t, there’s no equipment. But we can start with what we have.
Our main goal is, first, to make gymnastics famous in Uganda, so that people can know the sport is possible here also. Then, we’ll go to the world, to represent Uganda in gymnastics.
Organisations such as the Uganda Gymnastics Federation and the Kampala Gymnastics Club have been working to elevate gymnastics in Uganda, calling for the sport to be taught in schools.
Uganda has never been represented in gymnastics at the Olympic level, but the Uganda Gymnastics Federation registered with the Uganda Olympic Committee in 2021, announcing its intention to send athletes to future Olympics qualifiers.
Mustafa is working with the Kampala Gymnastics Club and Uganda Gymnastics Federation to include his team in local competitions and training opportunities.