TAKING A SHOT ON A DREAM
FROM EXTREME POVERTY ROSE A STAR NETBALLER LOOKING TO PROVE HERSELF AS LIGHTNING’S NEWEST GOAL SHOOTER
Her joyous smile belies Peace Proscovia’s struggle to survive growing up in poverty-stricken Uganda to become a rising star of netball.
She eyes the goal, hands grip the ball.
Release. It glides through the hoop.
The winning goal. The roar of her cheering teammates in her ears.
This perfect moment is everything she’s ever wanted.
Peace Proscovia is 15 and playing her first game of netball. She’s waited so long for this.
As one of eight siblings living in rural Uganda, her family can barely afford to eat let alone buy the shoes she has had to borrow for this match.
But right now, lost in the game, none of that matters. She is finally free.
She’s too happy to notice the nicks and bruises all over her legs and feet from the hours she’s spent training bare foot on a gravel pitch.
For years, she has toiled on a small plot of land to farm enough vegetables to sell at the markets to pay the $2 a term for school because that’s where she can play sport.
As she’s throwing, catching and shooting, she’s forgotten the pain of what’s waiting for her at home – where she will sleep on a mat shared with her four sisters; in a dirt house with no windows or doors; and where they all fear their abusive alcoholic father.
Back there, life is not worth living. But here, on a dirt, makeshift court, she finds calmness, and she finds her future.
The already tall teenager holds the ball tightly and dreams to become – as she will – the champion netballer she is today.
At 193cm, Peace is a formidable presence with a direct gaze that would unsettle on-court opponents. Then, just as unsettling, she smiles with a warmth and joy that belies the story she has to tell. In a voice so quiet and gentle that I have to lean in to hear, she recounts a journey of heartbreaking twists and turns, near-death experiences, painful lows and desperate determination.
It’s clear she’s lucky to be on the court at all.
The 29-year-old’s past has been peppered with enough abuse and pain for one person to experience in a lifetime. And poverty most of us have never seen, let alone experienced.
She can hardly believe she’s here on the Sunshine Coast now, living in Sippy Downs, flatting with a teammate, about to begin her first season playing with the Lightning as one of the top five shooters in the world.
But what she can believe is what it took to get here.
Peace has barely been in the country a few months but is tipped to be one of the stand-out players of the league. A player with so much power she’s capable of reaching for balls few could get and with a style so unorthodox nobody can predict what she’ll do next – not even her coach.
Peace grew up in a small village in the Arua District of northwestern Uganda, near the borders of The Congo and South Sudan.
As one of eight siblings, she lived in a small dirt house with no windows or doors, a grass-thatched roof and a soil floor covered in a layer of cow manure which acted as clay to keep the ground soft enough to sleep on.
Only a thin mat made out of papyrus, which she shared with her three sisters, separated her from the compacted manure floor.
It was the same for her four brothers who were sharing the small room next door. Her uneducated and unemployed parents couldn’t afford the basics like food or education.
The closest water source was the well which was an hour’s walk away and the few clothes they had, they washed in the river.
The family, like many in Uganda, were trying to survive on next to nothing.
In her community, girls rarely go to school, and aren’t encouraged to aspire to anything.
They are forced into marriage and motherhood against their will, in a life where domestic violence is not uncommon.
“In our culture, you pay directly to marry someone. You exchange your daughter for goods like cows and chickens. That helped some families sustain themselves,” Peace said.
“Girls were a source of wealth to some families and that was how it was. Most girls grew up and got married early on, instead of continuing with school. They were mostly given out for marriage.”
At one point, Peace said she witnessed a pregnant 12-year-old girl being handed over to a man.
It was an impossible existence for any female, especially for Peace, whose own father saw no value in his daughters.
“Where we were born, girls were not loved a lot … I don’t know how it was in other families, but my sisters and I were not loved,” she said.
“My dad, in particular, had a selection of boys he naturally had too much love for, so to him, girls were not worthwhile having.”
Peace was never like the other girls in her village. She wasn’t willing to fall into that life. She didn’t want to become a mother to 10 and married by the time she was 15. She wanted more.
When her family could no longer afford the $2 fee to send her to school each term, she earned the money herself by farming vegetables and selling them at the local markets.
“I was a creative child from the moment I was born … I wanted things to work out and I never believed in defeat. I grew sweet potatoes, planted corn and cassava, even beans. The only complex stage was trying to dig the garden because there was no machinery, so we used to do it by hand.”
She was astute, focused and strong-willed. School was her way out and the only way she could play sport.
She threw herself into everything she could: high jump, athletics, volleyball and basketball, but her salvation came through netball.
At 12, the school sportsmaster spotted her talent and suggested she take private lessons.
It would be three years of these lessons before she was eligible to play her first competitive game of netball in secondary school, aged 15.
“Mary (the teacher) would throw a stone towards me to make me catch and get used to it … she would throw it to me sometimes because I was too weak to catch the ball,”she said.
“We were playing on gravel. It’s not smooth. It has stones in the soil and that’s why I have lots of scars on my legs because it was a very rough surface to play on.
“There were no shoes for playing. You just play in bare feet on the rocky ground. That’s how it was.”
The more she played, the more she was noticed and clubs across the district were quickly learning her name.
Netball was never just a game: it was her saviour. Out there, with a ball in her hand, she could be herself, and far from the abuse at home.
“The time I’m playing on that pitch is the happiest moment because the people I’m seeing around me are giving me smiles and giving me the reason to live,” she said as an apt smile lit up her face.
“I was a different Peace on pitch and a different Peace in the house because when I got to the house, I was always harassed, tortured and it was not good for me. It was not a friendly environment but I had to put up with it.”
But the more she dreamt about becoming an athlete, the more her father resisted.
“According to him, there was no benefit to sports. It was a waste of time … he didn’t see any value in talent,” she said.
He thought if she left the village for the city, she would be funnelled into a life of child prostitution and bring shame on to the family. Her dream to play netball fuelled her father’s anger and she lived in fear.
“That man was a scary person … when we grew up, we all had a phobia of him, and whenever he drank, you would see a monster coming through the door,” Peace said.
“Whenever we see him come home, as he is entering the house, we are also paving the way to go away. We had to hide most of the time. He would only threaten. He never harmed anybody.”
The misery became too much and, at 16, Peace was ready to end her own life.
“What made me want to kill myself was that moment when I returned home and my dad was too harsh with me and the harassment got worse and worse,” she said quietly.
“I thought it was not worth being in this world because it is pain day in, day out. Let me just kill myself. When I leave the playground and get back to my house, I see no reason to survive.”
Only her belief in God held her from committing that tragic act.
But three years later, a cruel twist of fate saw her faced with another unimaginable crisis.
In January 2008, Peace got a call from the National Insurance Corporation Holdings Netball Club offering her a place in her first club team in Kampala.
She defied her father’s orders and escaped her village to make the 500km journey to the city of Kampala.
With her mother travelling with her to help settle her in at her cousin’s house in the city, this was Peace’s chance at freedom.
But just kilometres from her destination, Peace stared death in the face.
“The woman sitting next to me gave me a sweet. I took it, then she stopped the bus and got out,” Peace said slowly. “When I got to Kampala, I started reacting.”
She believes her lolly was laced with poison. Facing excruciating stomach pain, passing blood and with no money to go to
hospital, she believed her life was going to end.
At her cousin’s house, her mother nursed her for two days before calling home to send help. But instead, her father ordered her mother to leave her there alone.
“My father told my mother, ‘She went out of my orders and if she’s to die, let her die. Leave her and come back’,” recalled Peace.
“My mum had to choose her marriage. It was a tough decision for her to make. She tried to be around but she couldn’t and painfully, she had to go back.”
Peace was given herbal medicine and, after more than a week, she recovered.
“I always say I was fortunate enough to have survived and what made me survive was unbelievable.”
Peace stayed on in Kampala to play netball and study a diploma of development studies at Nkumba University.
“You only die when it is your time. If it is not your time to go, you won’t go. How I survived it up until today, I don’t know ... I was just fortunate not to have died that day.”
As Peace relived this memory, her eyes filled with tears.
“It is frustrating ... how your own parents will abandon you and go. Sometimes it happens,” she said softly as she wiped away the tears. “Sometimes I get those memories and I get frustrated but I thank God for the fire it’s brought me.”
“THE TIME I’M PLAYING ON THAT PITCH IS THE HAPPIEST MOMENT BECAUSE THE PEOPLE I’M SEEING AROUND ME ARE GIVING ME SMILES AND GIVING ME THE REASON TO LIVE.”
That fire has long been burning for Peace – a woman who would walk up to two hours to training and who had to wash her outfit every night at university because she only had one T-shirt and skirt to wear.
But when she was on the court, life was easy.
Not long after, she caught the eye of scouts and was offered a spot in the Ugandan national team.
Her big break came in 2014 when she was playing for her country at the World Cup Qualifiers in Botswana and was scouted by the English Super League.
The following year, she became the first African woman to play in Britain’s netball league and went on to play for the Loughborough Lightning for the next four years.
Her golden ticket to Australia landed last year when, as captain of the Ugandan team, she competed in the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
Sunshine Coast Lightning coach Noeline Taurua was watching and saw a shooter with a strength and power in the air very few players could demonstrate.
“Like a lot of other people, I saw her in the Commonwealth Games. I saw her on television and then went and watched a game … I was taken aback by her at that time,” Noeline said.
“I thought she was an amazing player who caught the ball strongly and had a high percentage of shooting, and I did a bit of research on her. “She has great athleticism. “She’s very strong in the air. “She’s competitive on the ball and she has pure passion and heart and she demonstrates that on the court.
“She is a fighter and she will fight for the ball and put her body on the line.”
The towering athlete has already created a buzz on and off the court as she joins the Australian Super Netball league for the first time this year.
Expectations are high: she replaces Caitlin Bassett, the Diamonds captain and shooter, who helped the team to two consecutive championships wins.
But Noeline said she had replaced one world-class shooter with another and listed Peace among the top-five shooters in the world.
“There are about four or five other players in the competition at that level who are very tough, but Peace is definitely a world-leading shooter,” she said.
Her style has been touted as “unorthodox” and “unpredictable” by commentators, coaches and her teammates, who say they’ve never played alongside someone like her.
With Round One of the Australian Super Netball league kicking off today, Noeline is keen to see just what Peace is capable of under her coaching.
She’s also keen to see the impact Peace makes off the court with her humble demeanour.
Peace is currently taking her PHD in marketing at the University of the Sunshine Coast with a focus on finance after gaining a diploma in developmental studies, a masters in business administration, and masters of science and marketing.
Her academic and sporting achievements have made her a role model for girls in Uganda.
As a fierce advocate for women’s rights and education, Peace returns home regularly to share her stories in schools to inspire and motivate young girls to dream.
Along the way, she’s not only changed her own life but also the lives of her family back home.
With the money Peace earns here, she supports herself and also her family back home in Uganda.
She’s helped build them a new house with an iron roof and cement floors and continues to provide them with a better
life. Her now sober father is no longer her greatest fear but her biggest fan. She has found a way to forgive him and holds no anger towards him.
He watches every game he can on TV and keeps every newspaper clipping.
“Going through what I did, I learned to be independent, I learned to fight for my dreams and I learned to help other people,” she said.
”The reason I work hard is to prove to other people, prove it to the young people that it doesn’t matter your background, you still have a dream, you still have a great future ahead of you and when you work for it, you’ll always achieve it.”
The Sunshine Coast Lightning will take on the first opponent of the season The Collingwood Magpies today in Melbourne.
The team will play its first home game on May 12 at the Brisbane Entertainment
Sunshine Coast Lightning general manager Tayah Bot said the club was hoping to get as many fans to the Brisbane event as possible.
However, on May 25, once construction of the USC Stadium expansion has been completed, the team will play their first “real home game” here on the Sunshine Coast.
QUITE A JOURNEY: Sunshine Coast Lightning shooter Peace Proscovia, 29, from Uganda.
READY TO FIRE: Peace Proscovia is excited about the start of the Suncorp Super Netball season.