Uganda to Australia: Peace Proscovia's inspiring netball journey

Albert Perez/Getty Images

In celebration of International Women's Day, espnW presents "In Her Shoes," a series of essays and features highlighting women, their journeys and perspectives on sports.

It was an act of defiance, but one that would prove the best decision Peace Proscovia could ever make. Defying her father's wishes -- breaking all social and cultural norms -- Proscovia left her small Ugandan village at 18 years old and traveled to the capital city Kampala to follow her netball dreams.

Born into poverty, Proscovia never had much hope for life. With little money for food or education, Proscovia expected she would live a complicated, lonely life. A life that would lead to a forced marriage in her early teens and to becoming a young mother. Instead, almost 11 years after leaving her village, she's playing netball on the other side of the world in Australia's Super Netball competition for the Sunshine Coast Lightning.

"I call myself very lucky because there are so many people out there that wish to have the opportunities that I have but they can't have it. So the fact that I have it, I feel so grateful and I feel so lucky."

A farm girl, Proscovia grew up in the Arua District in Uganda approximately 500 kilometres from Kampala. The village was practically a "slum", with the villagers forced to walk over an hour to fetch drinking water from wells, while they washed their clothes in the river and lived in grass-thatched houses. But it's a tropical area where the ground is fertile, and Proscovia's family and fellow villagers grew what crops they could to feed their families, while any excess was sold to help pay for other amenities or the barest of education.

The second of eight children, Proscovia grew up in a large family with uneducated parents who struggled to acquire the basics; food, shelter, clothing and education. However, Proscovia was determined. Although schooling is meant to be free, a supplement of a few dollars is expected -- a supplement Proscovia's family couldn't afford -- but she persevered, continued to attend and eventually someone began to pay. It was her time at school where her love for sports truly took hold.

She was a natural athlete, becoming an accomplished high jumper and played volleyball and basketball. When her sports teacher spotted her ability and trained her in netball, her life took on a new direction. After three years of training she began to represent her school and, by 2005, her district at large. It gave her hope that she could have a bigger life outside her village.

"At the age of 12 my sports master at my secondary school told me 'the talent you have will take you miles and will make you achieve in life. If you stay disciplined and if you stay determined'," Proscovia said. "I had belief from that stage where I thought one day I will make it, but the time was not coming, it was not soon.

"What kept me going was the faith and the passion for the sport. I genuinely loved sport and I loved playing, because the times that I was playing with my friends were always my happiest times in life. Outside of sport I never had any happy time, so that's what made me love sports. I feel loved and out of sport I never felt loved, so that alone kept me in the sport until that opportunity came along."

Women in her village weren't meant to play sport, they weren't meant to get educated. They were a source of wealth for their families, they were meant to be mothers.

"In this community everyone grows up to be mothers," Proscovia said. "The few opportunities to get educated are given to boys instead of girls, and girls are used as a source of wealth whereby they would be married out for a dowry -- they give cows or goats for marriage -- and most families will keep their children out [of school] in order to get that wealth."

It was meant to be the same for Proscovia, after six years of secondary schooling she returned home to her family to work on their farm, while her father expected her to marry. She was 17 years old -- nowhere near as young as some girls she'd seen forced into marriage -- but she refused. It was her first act of defiance against her father. Her second would come soon after.

At 18, she received the call she'd been dreaming of, the National Insurance Corporation (NIC) netball club in Kampala needed her on their team. Her father refused to let her go, saying she would disgrace her family and would "turn into a bad person".

"Initially he thought, when I took the step to go and pursue my career, Dad believed that this talent would make me a bad person and that I would bring shame to the family, so that alone was one of the challenges that made my family, my Dad in particular, to not to permit me to go."

However, Proscovia was ambitious, and she was determined; she went against her father's will, packed up her belongings and left. With her mother beside her she took the eight-hour bus journey to Kampala. But this bus trip would prove to be one of the biggest challenges she'd ever face.

In a seemingly innocuous moment, Proscovia took a lolly from an older woman sitting beside her. It instantly it made her sick. By the time the bus reached the city, Proscovia had stomach pain and she began to pass blood. With no money, she couldn't go to hospital. For three days Proscovia lay in terrible pain, passing blood. Her father told her mother over the phone she deserved it, for disobeying the family and traveling to the city. With just some herbal medication to overcome the poison, Proscovia mother returned to her village, leaving her daughter.

"For any other person it would have been hard, but I had this positive mind that now I am here I can achieve it," Proscovia said. "I tried to rub off most of the challenges, I'd already faced so many on my way to Kampala. When I got there, I overcame them through the support of my club, they made it was easier."

She quickly returned to netball, and despite having to walk one to two hours a day to reach her training sessions, she was determined. She impressed on the court, earned scholarships and quickly reached the Ugandan national netball team, the She Cranes.

"When I got to Kampala I was introduced to the real world. When I got to play, several universities spotted me and the first, Nkumba University, took me over for a diploma, and when I finished the diploma I got an opportunity to do my degree. It was all under a sports scholarship.

"I got the opportunity to go to school for free. I was earning a little money that went to help get my siblings to school. Slowly but surely I started representing Uganda and by representing Uganda around the world that's how I am here [Australia] today."

For seven years, Proscovia played netball and studied in Kampala before she received her first overseas offer to play for Loughborough in the UK. She'd impressed on the world stage in her performances for Uganda at the Netball World Cup in Sydney, Australia earlier that year and would be given the chance to play in one of the top netball leagues in the world. Three years later she signed on to play with the Lightning in Queensland, Australia.

"It's something I never imagined," Proscovia said. "When I was growing up I thought this was a complicated life and there was nothing to benefit in it. When I got to Kampala I still had that dilemma [in my mind] but when I got the opportunity to go to England to play I started getting hope for life.

"That is when I knew that, yes your parents can not always provide what you need, but you can be gifted with talent and if you believe and are determined that talent can take you miles away and make your life a better life. To cap it off getting the opportunity to go to Sunshine Coast Lightning made everything in my life simpler.

"I feel loved, everybody around me makes me feel the love that any other person will feel in this world. It's all so amazing, I have meaning for life. The life that I thought was complicated, I'm getting to enjoy it and have fun."

In the years since leaving home, Proscovia has returned several times and noted the many changes made to her small village, but the same cultural issues remain. It's something she's resolute in changing.

"On the surface look of it [the village] has changed tremendously, they are great changes there. But you only need someone to look deeper and deeper, where conditions are still not good. There are so many challenges still down there and there are so many people down there that still need help.

"Marrying at a young age is still going on. For families who are poverty stricken that is the only option for the girls, because even going to school the structure doesn't seem to be right. The only thing someone like me, or any other person, can do is to get these girls to understand there's no short cut to life, even if you are forced to get married we think there is a better way and you can find it. We're all victims of these circumstances."

Well-known within her community, Proscovia spends much of her time with young children on her return, especially the disadvantaged ones. She wants to help them get opportunities, not just in sport, but anywhere.

"If I could choose anything in my life I would choose to be with children, because I feel there is a lot I can do with them and they make me happy," Proscovia said. "With all the powers entrusted in my hand that's where I would be headed. But why I like being with children and disadvantaged people in the community, is to understand who they are and what can make them better people in the community. That is the most important thing to me.

It's a remarkable a journey, a journey that has taken her from a small Ugandan village to a new life, new opportunities and a new sense of self. Proscovia says she's lucky to have been given every opportunity on the way, but with her first season in Super Netball set to start, her journey is far from over .

"I used to think life was this complicated thing, I never thought I would enjoy life, or that anybody else would make me happy, yet here I am on the Sunshine Coast enjoying time with my teammates. Sometimes we're at the beach and we just have fun off the court and I come back to focus on netball business. It's just so interesting how it is now. I'm so thankful to be able to go to the beach the way I want to, to be able to come back and to do other things that I have to do."