Soda was always a special treat for Ugandan former Winthrop soccer player
As a child in Uganda, soda was so precious to Henry Kalungi that he would make the Coca-Cola he received every Christmas from his parents last for weeks.
“You drink it half way, and because you don’t want to finish it you add some water,” he explained recently over breakfast in Rock Hill.
By the end of the bottle, the watered-down soda was Coca-Cola in name only. But Kalungi and his siblings’ enjoyment wasn’t lessened at all.
That vivid memory played in Kalungi’s brain as the former Winthrop soccer standout served Christmas dinner to over 400 Ugandan children in December, part of the charity work he does with his Kalungi Foundation. Kalungi, who lives in Rock Hill with his wife, former Winthrop volleyball player, Jacqueline, has made an annual trek to his home village in the central African country for almost a decade.
Christmas soda is as special to the 400 children as it was to Kalungi. Providing them a rare treat was a nod to his past in more than just one way.
“The way we grew up, we didn’t have much. But our dad always did his best to provide,” he said. “So it kind of made us want to give back, when we get in the position.”
The first time Kalungi came to Rock Hill, Winthrop men’s soccer coach Rich Posipanko took him and fellow Ugandan Steven Nsereko to Ryan’s all-you-can-eat buffet.
“We get a plate and we go up to get food. Me and Steven start packing this food and the plate is up here,” Kalungi motions about a foot high with his hand. “I had never been to a buffet.”
Posipanko told Kalungi and Nsereko they could go back to the buffet as many times as they wanted.
“What?” Kalungi and Nsereko asked incredulously. “Man, this is amazing.”
It wasn’t Christmas, but there was soda gushing out of a machine, as much as Kalungi could possibly stomach.
Posipanko discovered Kalungi and Nsereko, who grew up in the same area of Kampala, Uganda, in the same way he found many of his foreign players, through a tangled web of connections. Posipanko read their broken English in emails and wasn’t sure they would be able to survive academically at Winthrop. But both, Kalungi especially, excelled.
“The very first meeting, I laid it all out,” Posipanko said. “I expect to win championships. I expect you to get a degree. And the third was to give back to some other Ugandan kid.
“If those were my three expectations of him, he’s far passed every expectation.”
A dominant 6-foot-2 defender, Kalungi was named All-Conference three times and led Winthrop to Big South titles twice, graduated from Winthrop, then embarked on a pro career that took off in Richmond. He played several years for the Kickers, in the second-highest division of American pro soccer, and debuted for the Ugandan national team in 2011 against Morocco.
Kalungi went on to captain the national team several times. A knee injury in 2014 derailed his career, but ultimately led him to Charlotte. He signed with the Independence in 2015 and has been a staple in the Rock Hill and Charlotte soccer communities since, coaching with Discoveries Soccer Club in the offseason and training at Winthrop. Kalungi leveraged connections he made throughout the two communities to build a support network for his Uganda charity work, and also tries to make his young players better people.
“When I’m coaching my kids, I tell them every week, ‘you have to tell me you did something good for someone, other than your family,’” said Kalungi. “People can start having that mindset. As long as I’m playing, or I’m done playing, I’m gonna stay who I am and continue reaching out and making a difference.”
Henry and Jacqueline arrived in Uganda with a to-do list.
First, the Christmas party.
Hundreds of children from the village lined up around a soccer field to receive chicken, rice and, of course, a bottle of soda. Some of the children came from Teresa House, which takes in unwanted babies disposed of by their parents for various reasons, often because the parents are too young to raise them. Police find the children and turn them over to Teresa House, where they live.
Educating local women was another focus of the trip. Uganda’s fertility rate is among the highest in the world, at 5.8 children per woman. Social, cultural and economic factors combine to make the country’s quickening birth rate a real problem. According to the CIA Factbook, nearly 50 percent of the country’s population is younger than 14 years old.
Jacqueline, a California native, was shocked at how women are treated in Uganda, how deferentially they act toward men. Traditionally, if Jacqueline’s father-in law was present in the room, she would be expected to sit on a floor mat by the doorway. But Kalungi’s family didn’t impose their Ugandan cultural norms on her, which she appreciated.
“I’m not defined by their culture standards,” she said. “I even said, ‘thanks for not making me sit on that mat because this would not work out.’”
Female reproductive health is a major issue in Uganda. The Kalungis and several other families back in the Carolinas made nearly 200 reusable, washable feminine pads to give to women in Henry’s village. They held a conference with hundreds of women, led by Henry’s sister, Lydia, that discussed sexual assault, rape, feminine hygiene and a host of other subjects that are considered taboo in Uganda. Henry held a soccer clinic at the same time to occupy the men, so that women felt free to speak openly during the conference.
“It’s just such a shameful topic,” Jacqueline said. “So, I’m very much about cutting that shame and creating a culture of women that support each other and help each other in all these subjects.”
The soccer field that Kalungi grew up playing on is really not a field. It’s a dusty, partly concrete, partly red sand patch, with termite-riddled wooden goals and encroaching jungle bush. It was on that field that Kalungi was invited to play with older players from the village, who noticed his precocious ability even as a small boy.
“You don’t care, you just play,” said Kalungi. “That helped me to get a chance to play big ball.”
Kalungi wanted to spruce up the field. He bought two metal soccer goals, like you would see at any high school in America, and the group dug holes in the red dirt and planted the goal posts. They will never rot or splinter.
Then Kalungi and company broke out their machetes and attacked the bushes greedily devouring the playing surface. Once the area was cleared, it was time to dole out some gear. Back in the U.S., Kalungi had rounded up donated soccer supplies from the Charlotte Independence, Discoveries Soccer Club, Winthrop’s men’s and women’s soccer teams and Northwestern High School’s soccer program. There are now tiny children running around Uganda wearing the jerseys of all those teams, chasing soccer balls from Charlotte and York County.
Jacqueline and Henry will never forget a six-year old girl they met during the trip named Catherine. Born with cerebral palsy, Catherine spent most of her time laying on the ground. She is uncommunicative, immobile and has no muscular strength. Parts of her body were infested with jiggers, parasitic microscopic fleas that reside in sand and cause serious health issues in the third world. Her impoverished family struggled to move her around as she grew bigger.
“They were in dire need of some help,” Jacqueline said.
Henry learned about Catherine during his 2017 trip to Uganda and decided to help her and her family by purchasing a new wheelchair. It ended up being significantly more expensive than expected and there were serious issues transporting the chair from Kenya to Kalungi’s village. But the metallic blue chair, modern and sturdy, finally arrived to a joyful reception.
“They kept on praying about and they expected they would get something, but they didn’t know what it would be,” said Henry. “They were so overwhelmed that they received something that they couldn’t even imagine.”
Catherine was scared as she was picked up and strapped into the chair. She squirmed but her sister calmed her and she relaxed when Jacqueline began to push the chair around. Jacqueline said she and Catherine locked eyes briefly, Catherine bewildered by the sudden change in viewpoint and also by the presence of a Caucasian person, a rarity in Uganda.
Later that day, when Henry and Jacqueline passed back through the area, Catherine’s family stood by the side of the road with avocados and fruit. It was as much as they could materially offer as thanks for the life-changing wheelchair.
“It’s one of the things we’ve done that makes you appreciate life,” Henry said. “We are trying to do things like that because there are so many people in need.”
Kalungi’s soccer career is at a crossroads.
He’s 31 years old and part of him would love to play for Uganda’s national team in the African continental championship (AFCON) in June, 2019. He last played for the national team in 2014. Injuries and playing in the U.S. have limited his chances since, but he met with the country’s soccer federation head during his recent trip back home. Playing at AFCON would put Kalungi in the shop window one final time and increase the possibility of a lucrative pro contract overseas.
If that doesn’t work out, Kalungi would be more than happy to remain in Charlotte where he’s played the last four seasons with the Independence, which competes in the second highest level of American pro soccer. Kalungi’s previous salaries with the Independence have been far from lucrative, so that is also a consideration, especially as the foundation gains momentum. Shipping over 1,000 pounds of goods to Uganda for the most recent trip cost around $5,000.
Staying in Charlotte would enable Kalungi to continue developing the foundation. Kalungi’s father, a teacher, wasn’t initially thrilled that he spent so much time playing soccer as a child in Uganda. But the game transformed Kalungi’s life, which has allowed him to in turn transform the lives of others. And while Kalungi would consider any professional option in the United States or internationally, staying with the Independence would make it easier to continue the work he’s started with the networks he’s developed in the area.
“We are fortunate, we have a lot of friends that care,” said Kalungi, “a lot of people in the community that reach out, ‘hey, we want to help.’”
Kalungi remembers waking up at 5 a.m. as a child to begin the five-mile hike to school with his father. It was tiring and dangerous and he could not arrive late. In Uganda, you would get caned if you were late to school.
“That’s why we are trying to get a school and get these kids off streets, and have them in a boarding school where they are able to be fed,” he said.
It will take time to raise the funds to buy land and build a school. The Kalungi Foundation is basically just Henry and Jacqueline. His family and a few other people in Uganda, including Henry’s cousin, Ida, help make sure things run okay on the ground in Kampala. One hundred percent of money donated to the Kalungi Foundation is put to use helping people in Uganda; no one involved with the foundation is paid.
In Jacqueline, Henry has a willing co-conspirator. They married in 2014 and she’s dived into helping Henry’s homeland even though she’s from California, which, socioeconomically, might be the most different place on the planet to Uganda. The first time she went to Uganda was also the first time she met her in-laws. She was culture-shocked, but also moved to make her husband’s project her own.
“The amount of need is so great and so overwhelming,” said Jacqueline. “As an American you just get angry. Why isn’t anyone helping these people?”
It was a wonderful feeling to brighten 400 kids’ lives with an unexpected soda and some chicken. But both Kalungis agree that sustainability is a top priority as they try to help the community where Henry grew up and where some of his extended family still lives.
“We don’t want to just give them stuff,” he said. “We want to make a complete difference in this life and help people get an education. Then maybe later they can be like, ‘someone did this for me, I want to be able to do it back.’ We are trying to, God willing, change lives permanently.”