TAK­ING A SHOT ON A DREAM

FROM EX­TREME POVERTY ROSE A STAR NET­BALLER LOOK­ING TO PROVE HER­SELF AS LIGHT­NING’S NEWEST GOAL SHOOTER

Life & Style Weekend - - COVER STORY - WORDS: JANE ARMISTEAD

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

Cen­tre.

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.

PHOTOS: MARK CRAN­ITCH

QUITE A JOUR­NEY: Sun­shine Coast Light­ning shooter Peace Proscovia, 29, from Uganda.

PHOTO: JOHN MCCUTCHEON

READY TO FIRE: Peace Proscovia is ex­cited about the start of the Sun­corp Su­per Net­ball sea­son.

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