If Victory Shumbusho appears to play soccer with more joy than others on the field, if he seems to have a bigger smile on his face as he darts around the pitch, it is because the Beautiful Game holds a special place in his heart.
Soccer sustained him through the darkest times of his life. It gave him happiness in a dark place where happiness was in perilously short supply, and for that he loves it.
Others on the pitch may be passionate about soccer, but their love can’t match his.
How could it?
His teammates and his foes could just as easily have grown up playing hockey or baseball, rugby or tennis. They could have found their passion elsewhere, but for Victory, soccer was the only choice.
Before he ever danced around the pitch for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, Victory flew barefoot up and down a hill in Africa.
He was nine years old when he came to Uganda. Fleeing civil strife in Congo, his family sought refugee status, settling in a small village called Bwerenga. Located about halfway between the cities of Kampala and Entebbe, their new home was close to Lake Victoria. Most people earned their living as fishermen but Victory’s father, Janvier, did not. He was a preacher who delivered sermons on Sundays. The family’s meager income came from Victory’s step-mom Louise, a nurse by trade who ran a small clinic and sold medicine.
The family rented two rooms in a house. His parents slept in one room. Victory, his older brother Glory (now 22) and his younger brother Benjamin (now 15) slept in the other, but in daytime hours their room was the clinic. They were expected to wake up early to wash the floor and make sure it looked nice for visitors.
Every morning Victory and his brothers walked 90 minutes to school and journeyed back in the late afternoon. Twice a day they took jerrycans and trekked 60 minutes down a hill to the lake, filled them with water and walked another hour back. They collected fire wood for the stove and washed clothes at the well, and only after all their chores were done were they free to do what they wanted.
Thankfully, the sun went down very late.
Victory ran to the field, a barren gravel pitch still burning hot from the blistering African sun. It was littered with tree stumps and tilted so that one team had to play uphill. Of the 22 players on the field only two or three wore cleats.
The entire village came together every night, sharing one ragged soccer ball.
Most villagers weren’t good enough to play and had to watch from the sidelines. Though they were among the youngest, Victory and Glory were always chosen.
When they played on their own they improvised, fashioning a ball out of garbage bags and clearing away enough bushes to create a field. The trees they couldn’t remove stood as silent defenders.
For however long they played, Victory was able to forget the hardships of Bwerenga. His exhaustion melted away. With the ball at his feet he darted around the trees, raised his arms in triumph and whooped with delight when he scored a goal . For a few minutes he lost himself in another, better world.
But he could never fully escape.
The game always ends. Bwerenga waited for him to return and its dusty roads taunted him the next day as he walked to school.
‘Where and what is Canada?’ Victory wondered, tossing the idea around in his head for five long years while his family waited for their immigration request to be approved.
He pictured a country with big buildings and nice cars, with people living lives he could only dream of.
Victory couldn’t wait to leave Uganda and go to this wonderful place.
The first time he left a country, it was a frightening experience. He remembers escaping east from Congo to Rwanda and walking four hours to cross from Rwanda into Uganda. He recalls Benjamin faking ill so his parents could plead for mercy at a border crossing and his father handing over all of the family’s money to pay off the guards who would let them through.
The rest is fragments of memories that he’d just as soon as soon forget.
Coming to Canada though, that’s something he’ll always remember.
When the time came, Victory was the first one on the airplane, determined to not spend another day in Uganda.
He didn’t know what his new life was going to be like, but he knew it would be better than what he was leaving behind.
On March 6, 2012 the Shumbushos landed in Vancouver and were driven to Chilliwack. They spent their first night at the home of Henny and Greg Munroe, members of the Canadian Reformed Church of Chilliwack, which sponsored the new arrivals.
Victory’s family left their shoes outside and found them frozen the next morning, learning the first of many lessons. Don’t leave clothing outside in the Canadian winter.
One of the first places Victory visited in Chilliwack was a McDonalds drive-thru where he watched in amazement as Henny spoke to a machine and was handed a bag of food. It took a while to wrap his head around the idea of bank cards and ATMs, magical machines that spat out money.
And if you were driving on the No. 1 five years ago and had to lay on your horn as two teenagers scrambled across with their bikes, Victory apologizes. He and Glory tried it once, realized that the cars went really fast and weren’t inclined to stop for them, and never tried it again.
Within two weeks the Shumbushos moved into their own house, which was a five minute walk from Townsend Park. Soon after moving in, Glory went for a bike ride and spotted kids training on a beautiful emerald green field.
He rushed back to the house and, with breathless excitement, told Victory he had seen kids who looked like a professional team with matching jerseys, shorts and socks.
And they wore cleats!
Victory rushed back to the field with him. From the sidelines they gawked, wishing they could join in.
Within days a kind woman named Wilma Wilkinson (Victory now calls her Auntie and Rick Wilkinson uncle) arranged for a try out with a Chilliwack FC U-16 fall soccer team.
Victory was sure the Canadian kids would be much better than him. They learned the game on nice fields with the best equipment, and more than one soccer ball for Heaven’s sake! He was just some African kid who grew up playing barefoot on a field of gravel. He remembers the curious looks from players and parents as he walked out onto the field, this dark-skinned newcomer who looked and sounded so different.
But the language of soccer is universal.
The moves he used dribbling his garbage-bag ball around trees in Uganda translated to the tryout.
Watching from the sideline that day, it was clear Victory was a special talent. He made the team and his coaches weren’t the least bit surprised when, after three seasons of rep-socer dominance, the young man was invited to join the Vancouver Whitecaps residency program. Nor was there surprise when Victory, earlier this year, signed on with the UBC Thunderbirds, one of the premier university men’s teams in the country. And there was no shock at all when the 19 year old opened this season with two goals in his first four games.
Sometimes, when he feels the FieldTurf under his feet at UBC’s Ken Woods field, his old life feels like no more than a dream, details of it fading more with each passing day. But Victory doesn’t want to forget.
Harsh as Uganda was, he credits it with crafting him into the man he’s become. His work ethic. His maturity. Two things Canadian kids don’t always possess because they’ve never had to walk hours each day to fetch water, wake up early each morning to scrub a floor until it shines and fight to survive in a foreign land.
In his mind nothing is given.
Whenever he finds himself taking his new life for granted he reminds himself who he is and where he came from and his focus is renewed.
He misses his mom Beatrice, who still lives in Uganda.
He misses his friends in Bwerenga, and it makes him sad to know that most of them will never get the chance he did. It is because of them that he feels driven to make the most of this.
One day he’ll go back.
Victory will look them in the eye and tell them he didn’t waste his opportunity.
Maybe he will play once more in the village soccer game, as the sun slides low in the east African sky, kicking around a brand new soccer ball he’s brought from Canada.