Learning to say no

"Football is a beautiful thing, it truly changed my life."

Now, I look at my world like it’s a football pitch.

As a defender, I can see the whole game in front of me. I’ve got it all mapped out in my head. I recognise risky situations and I know not to pass the ball there. I know not to put my team and myself in danger.

You won’t see me making wild runs across the field to just leave a hole in the back line for our opponents to exploit.

This is the mindset I take with me now in all areas of my life.

There are certain areas, like zones on the pitch, that are just not worth going to. Areas with high levels of drug addiction and gambling, ones swallowed and struggling with alcoholism.

So I don’t go there anymore. I don’t put myself or my loved ones at risk.

But I didn’t always view the world this way.

My name is Solomon, and this is my story.

Bwaise, Uganda. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Between cramped houses and often-flooded streets is where I grew up.

Bwaise, on the outskirts of Kampala.

It’s a place that lacks resources. Unemployment is high and access to education is low.

Bad spirits were all around me growing up. It seemed like everyone’s father drank all the time. So when I took my first sip of alcohol, it almost didn’t even feel like my choice, all my peers and elders were doing it.

Like those around me, it quickly became something I did all the time. I started smuggling alcohol into plastic bottles, taking them everywhere I went. Even before matches, I would drink. I thought it would give me more energy and a peace of mind, that I would be a better player because of it.

Of course, I was the opposite. Thirty minutes in and I’d be gasping for air, totally out of energy with nothing more to give. And the anger it brought upon me is nothing I’m proud of. I didn’t have much respect for others at that time and got in fights with referees.

My education, well that wasn’t going much better either. Some days I didn’t bother to show up. I’d go clubbing instead or invest in gambling instead of my future.

It was while I was gambling though, that my life changed.

Amid the loud chatter and bad habits, someone at the table told me about Uganda Youth Development Link (UYDEL).

I don’t know what it was that made me go, but I’ll never forget that first day because that’s the day I got a whole new lease of life.

At first, I didn’t know if I would be accepted. By that time, I had let my addiction get the better of me. I was a social outcast, my interpersonal skills were razor thin. I had a long way to go.

But UYDEL does not exist to judge, it is there to help build a peaceful community and they took me in with open arms. It was something that will stay with me forever.

I’ve learned a lot in my time at UYDEL but I guess one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is something that has really helped me in all aspects of my life.

In some ways it’s simple, but in many ways it’s everything.

I learnt how to say ‘no.’

Through pamphlets, listening to each other, and giving advice to our peers, UYDEL’s ‘Line up, Live up’ programme taught me the importance and power of refusing.

It’s amazing how many life lessons I’ve learned through football. How football translates to life and how life can translate into football.

I think now I have a healthy respect for the rules and my fellow community members, especially girls.

It’s strange to say now, but I didn’t always see girls as equals.

Where I live, women are often seen as weak, their ideas as not important, and their voices often ignored.

But, after seeing and playing together with girls on the pitch, I no longer think that way.

I find myself in awe with their quality on the pitch all the time. Their passes are genius and their spirit for the game is inspiring. They are strong, smart, and capable of making decisions just like boys are.

I am grateful for UYDEL.

I am grateful for the help in opening my mind and breaking my habits.

And now I feel like I have the tools and knowledge to help others overcome their challenges like UYDEL helped me.