Columbia, Kentucky, is not New York City.
It’s not Chicago. It’s not Los Angeles. It’s Not Miami.
Columbia is not what I thought America was.
When I got there for the first time in 2008, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Cornfields for miles, deer running along the roads, no tall buildings. You have to understand: I’m Micheal, from the ghetto in Kampala, Uganda. Yeah, my home wasn’t nice or anything — but I was right in the big city at least.
In Columbia … there were two restaurants, I think.
For many Ugandans, America is different. It’s not like Europe or Asia. We sort of know about those two because of how close they are. But America? It’s Hollywood, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty!
It’s a dream.
But I couldn’t have felt further from Hollywood on my first day in the middle of Kentucky.
I didn’t understand how this was where I was supposed to be — where I was supposed to continue my journey on the road to becoming a professional soccer player. I wanted to go home. I wanted to see my mom. But I knew one thing: I had to be in Columbia.
It’s where my journey had taken me. And along my path I have felt the hand of destiny many times. It’s all happening for a reason, I thought. But I do not confuse destiny with divine intervention, or anything like that. I know that I was not special as a child, or that I was that much more talented than any of the other boys I grew up playing soccer with.
The story of how I got to where I am today is about kindness, honesty and love.
And it’s an important story, I think. Because so many young soccer players in Africa are looked at like products … like numbers on a spreadsheet. Agents and representatives see them as an easy route to money. They dangle opportunities and dreams in front of them and drag them as long as they can — toward a goal that most of them will never get them to — and then leave them to pick up their lives on their own.
For me, I could have gone down that route. But I was fortunate enough to meet a man named Ken Davies.
He changed my life.
Let me tell you about Mr. Davies.
Courtesy of Micheal AziraHe’s an American who works for the United Nations World Food Program. I met him when I was 13 and his son came to try out for our local team in Kampala. Mr. Davies had been living in Uganda for a while then, and he really understood the people. He treated everyone equally and he always took the time to get to know how you were doing, how you were feeling. Not many foreigners seemed to care about us whenever we interacted with them.
Mr. Davies’s son made our team. He was quite a good little player. So Mr. Davies organised a trip for our team to go play in the Dana Cup, an international tournament held every year in Denmark.
I had never even been on a plane.
Where are you taking us, Mr. Ken Davies?
I remember the day of the flight … I woke up at six in the morning. Our flight wasn’t until 11 that night. But I was just so excited. I was ready to go, man. We flew on Brussels Airlines. When our team found out that they were giving out unlimited drinks and food … we almost lost our minds. It was so cool. The entire experience was just unbelievable.
I have five siblings, and I was the first one to get to go on a plane.
It was a big day for me.
I think Mr. Davies wanted his son to play soccer at a high level, yes, but I also think he saw the looks on all of those little boy’s faces that day and he knew how much this trip meant to us.
We were about to experience things we’d only dreamed of.
Like, for example, a Mercedes-Benz.
The taxis in Denmark were Mercedes-Benzes. I had only seen those cars when ministers were driving downtown in Kampala. The fields in Denmark were so nice I wanted to sleep on them. I really did. I had pizza for the first time. We were given Kappa tracksuits. I was in a dream.
That trip that Mr. Davies took us on, it really opened my eyes to what was out there.
Courtesy of Micheal Azira
I won defender of the tournament in the Dana Cup. Some of our players didn’t want to go back to Uganda because of how well we were treated in Denmark and because of the level of soccer there. If I could have stayed, maybe I would have. But I knew that if I wanted to be a professional one day, I’d have to do it through the football system in Uganda. Because I wasn’t going to abandon my family.
My parents are heroes. Life is very different in Uganda. It’s hard to explain for those who haven’t been, or who haven’t struggled like we have. I would sometimes go weeks without seeing my dad because he was up so early and home so late. He was a taxi driver and Mom was a tailor.
Like I said, we’re from the ghetto. There were six of us and we all lived in one bedroom. It wasn’t weird to me, it was just life. There was lots of crime in the area. Muggings and shootings all the time. As kids, we had to stay occupied, stay out of trouble. My brothers and I, we had soccer. Every day at 4 p.m. sharp, all the kids in the neighborhood would go out in the street and play. We used bricks to mark the goals and the ball would be this plastic bag that our milk used to come in. We’d put some air in it and it actually made a pretty decent ball. Nobody had boots. I think if you went down to that street today, you might find some of my old toenails still out there from some bad tackles.
When cars would come down the road, every kid would grab a brick and run to the sidewalk, let the car pass, and then put the brick back and we’d start playing again. Like a perfectly orchestrated motion.If you went down to that street today, you might find some of my old toenails still out there from some bad tackles.
When I first met Mr. Davies, I had moved on from street games to organised games, of course. But that was just the soccer part of my life. My family still lived in our tiny home. None of my siblings had ever been to high school because it wasn’t feasible. Mr. Davies saw my potential as a player, but even more so as a person, and he paid my high school tuition. So I attended Old Kampala Senior Secondary School and reported my grades to Mr. Davies so he knew I was making the most of it.
You know, we never really said it to one another, but I think Mr. Davies knew that my goal was to get out of Uganda after high school and go find opportunities to support my family. He knew that his investment in me wasn’t just about me — it was about my entire family, present and future.
Lots of kids who heard about Mr. Davies and his belief in me tried to steal from him. They’d attend free schools and come to him and ask for tuition, or they’d create some big scam for him to invest in. Sadly, there are many people like that in Uganda. It’s true. But there are also the good ones, the people who want to do right by others.
That’s who I always aimed to be. And Mr. Davies saw that.
Another person who was like that was my friend Henry Kalungi. He’s from Kampala and went to Winthrop University, in South Carolina. He’s played a bit on the Ugandan national team. He had been following me when I finished high school in 2007 and knew I was looking to keep my career going. He recommended me to the coach at Winthrop, Rich Posipanko, who eventually came to watch me in Uganda. He offered me a scholarship.
I wasn’t even sure how to react to the offer. These things so rarely happen to people from my neighborhood. It didn’t seem real … I had a hard time processing it.
Whenever anything good happens to people like me in Uganda, people sort of freak out. I didn’t want to tell my family because I knew they would be confused and concerned. I had to keep it a secret while I made sure all my paperwork was ready to go.
My papers didn’t clear in time at Winthrop for me to enroll properly, so the coach helped to transfer me to Lindsey Wilson College, in Columbia, Kentucky. I didn’t know what any of it meant, really, or the difference between the schools. I just knew it was a chance.
I ended up telling my family the day before I left. I know that might sound weird, but that’s just the way it had to be. My mom wanted to throw me a party, but I knew we didn’t have any money for something like that. I just told her to save it. I said she could come with me to the airport to see me off.
When I said goodbye to my family the next day, I had the same feeling of excitement as I’d had on the flight to Denmark with Mr. Davies.
And, yes, Columbia was a bit of a shock.
Courtesy of Micheal AziraIt wasn’t what I had pictured. But I was Micheal from the ghetto — used to scoring goals with a plastic bag. Columbia would do. Life was not straightforward, though. Winters were long, and when other kids would go home for holidays I was stuck in my dorm because I had no money to travel.
And everyone in America is not like Mr. Davies, I found out.
One day I was just walking on campus with a teammate, another black player, and the police came up to us. They were asking us all these questions about where we had been, where we were going and what we were doing there. I didn’t understand because this was my school, I was supposed to be there. They thought we had stolen something, because some woman had seen us walking and called the cops. I couldn’t believe it.
Lots of little things like this happened throughout my time there. Kids at school would never sit with us at food halls or outside, they would cross the street to not walk on the same side as us. It felt like nobody wanted us there. It felt like nobody wanted anything to do with any black players on our team.
I’m appreciative of my time in Columbia, but it wasn’t easy.
I played three years there and gave everything on the field for our team. I developed as a player and as a person, and felt I had done the program proud. But when I went to our coach and told him I wanted to transfer he gave me no help or support at all.
Three years I gave for this guy. I had been home once that entire time (thanks to Mr. Davies buying me a plane ticket). Other than that, I had been in Columbia trying to be the best player I could be.
I had come a long, long way. This guy wasn’t going to stop me.
I found a school, the University of Mobile, that had a Ugandan player. I messaged him asking if they had room for me. I took a bus trip down to check out the campus and meet the coach. I didn’t tell my old coach about it. When Mobile said they could take me, I just left. I packed up my stuff, told a few friends I was leaving and got out of there. I had no intentions of ever returning to Columbia.
My old coach called. I didn’t answer.
I didn’t need that in my life.
It all worked itself out. My transfer eventually went through and I played my senior year in Alabama.
I graduated in 2012 from the University of Mobile.
The first of my family to finish school.
Micheal from the University of Mobile.
Courtesy of Micheal Azira
People know me now because I’m a professional playing in America. And the few years after I finished college that eventually led to me getting a professional contract with the Seattle Sounders in 2014 are interesting and important, yes, but they are a product of everything that came before. All the hurdles that I felt I could never get over, those are things that so many who come from Uganda and all over Africa have to go through.
I am blessed because I met Mr. Ken Davies.
But, unfortunately, there aren’t enough people like him.
In Africa, we have an incredible amount of soccer talent. There are countless young players from all of the countries that have the potential to play in bigger leagues outside of our continent. I’ve seen many of them firsthand. And, sadly, I’ve also seen what happens to the majority of them.
These international agents come from Europe and offer young players large sums of money, relatively, to come play for specific clubs. The players leave and get stuck with bad contracts, with no negotiating power. They get thrown into academy teams and stuck there for the agents to scoop up fees and forget about their careers. Because so many of us come from such poverty, it’s very easy for these agents to convince a young player to leave. Think about it: $100,000 sounds like a lot to you, but imagine what it sounds like to the player who lives with five other people in a one-bedroom and uses a milk bag for shooting practice.
I made it out because of hard work, belief, honesty and the generosity of one man. He was fortunate enough to be in a situation to do that, so he passed along a little bit of his good fortune.
Now, I want to do the same.
One of the first things I did when I became a professional was to build my mother a home back in Kampala. Hearing her voice on the phone when I told her was one of the proudest moments of my life. And that feeling of giving back, it’s priceless.
So, with a few friends I went to high school with — Ronald, Mercy, Musa and Edison — I have started working toward the creation of a foundation. The goal is to make a community of people who can help young, promising soccer players from Uganda who need direction in life. We want to give them an opportunity to consult with others who have been there — and who also have the players’ interests in mind. We want to help find these kids opportunities that couldn’t otherwise be afforded to them.
We want to guide these kids down a path to where they find a passion to do something that empowers them to act in the right way.
Where I grew up, everything revolves around money.
Where I am now, it’s the same.
That’s just the world.
But the real secret, the thing I wish I could tell every young person in Uganda is that if you chase your passion, and you give everything, you will not need to just follow the money.
If you do things in life for the right reasons, you will reap the rewards of your work.
If my footballing career had never started, or if it ended tomorrow, I could look myself in the mirror and be proud of the decisions I had made — the way I carried myself and treated the people around me.
My family taught me that.
Mr. Davies taught me that.
Columbia taught me that.
And now, I hope I can continue along this journey and spread as much kindness, love and honesty as I can.
Because that’s what Micheal from the ghetto was born to do.