Memoir: I was homeless and suicidal, and then soccer saved my life
Some of my earliest memories involve kicking a soccer ball in front of my parents’ house in Uganda. We lived in a village called Masooli, where my family owned a small farm. Soccer was a way for me to escape the violence, poverty and civil unrest that surrounded me. I was the youngest of a dozen kids, which meant I had a built-in team. We used to make our own balls, wrapping dried banana leaves in banana fibres until they were round enough to kick. None of us had shoes, so we played barefoot. I don’t have many toenails left.
When I was 17, I moved to Canada to get a better education. I attended the University of Waterloo, where I met the woman who would become my wife. After I graduated, I got a job in quality control at a car factory in Brampton. My wife and I bought a beautiful house, and within a few years, we had a daughter, whom I loved more than I’d ever thought possible.
I had always been especially close with my mom, and we stayed in touch once I’d left Uganda, chatting on the phone once a month. In 2001, after I’d been here for a decade, she died of old age. The news shattered me, unleashing memories of the traumas I’d seen back home. I grew depressed and lethargic. I felt like there was nobody for me to confide in, no one who would talk me out of my funk. It came to a point that whenever I saw someone smile, I would get mad. I cried all the time.
I also started hearing my mother’s voice. “Come home,” she’d say. I believed she meant heaven. One day, I decided to take her advice. I was driving my truck on the 410 and pulled over at an overpass. I got out of the car and stood at the rail, preparing to jump. Suddenly a car started honking at me, and I was jolted back to reality.
Over the next few months, my mental state deteriorated. My wife moved out with our daughter; she said she was tired of my moods. In the days after she left, I holed up in our house, plagued by hallucinations. I heard voices and drums. Every time I opened my eyes I would see people laughing and pointing at me. I didn’t sleep for four days. Eventually, I blacked out and woke up surrounded by bright lights. I thought, “Oh, god. I made it to heaven.” It turned out to be the psych ward at the Brampton Civic Hospital. I was told I had emailed a suicide note to my family and swallowed a handful of sleeping pills.
I was hospitalized for 30 days. When I got out, I had nowhere to go. I worked for a few months but couldn’t concentrate. I hated being in my house—I felt haunted by the happy memories. So I went back to Uganda, where I could be near my mother’s grave. I started working with Ugandan street kids. I saw myself in them, but I also realized that I’d had opportunities that they’d never have. I started to ask myself, What are you doing? Why would you try to end a life that had so much good in it?
I returned to Canada to rebuild my life. When I landed, I had nothing. I didn’t know where my daughter and ex-wife were. Our house had been sold. For a few months, I couch-surfed with friends before I used up all my favours and ended up crashing at a Salvation Army shelter in Brampton. On my second day there, I was eating lunch alone in the cafeteria, trying to figure out what to do next, when a man came up to me and introduced himself. “I’m Paul,” he said. “Want to come out and kick a soccer ball?” I didn’t have the right shoes or shorts, I argued, but Paul persisted. I eventually agreed, and joined him and six other guys in the parking lot. I couldn’t believe how out of shape I was. After a few hours, I was sore, but I was also elated.
It turned out Paul was a member of a non-profit called Street Soccer Canada, which recruits homeless and marginalized players and provides them with a social network. They told me they played on Wednesdays and Fridays, and that I should join them. Soon, I was the regular goalie. The endorphins helped my mood, but I was just as energized by the people around me. When I made a good pass, they’d praise me. When I saved a goal, they’d pat me on the back.
The Street Soccer folks changed my life. They helped me find the apartment I share with another player. They also hired me as a Salvation Army laundry worker. Within a year, the executive director, Dave Carleton, had promoted me to manager. They even helped me get my daughter back. I remember Paul holding my hand in court as I petitioned for more visitation. She’s 15 now, and we’re finally repairing our relationship. I see her as often as possible, and we text regularly.
I’m still playing soccer every week with the guys. In 2012, I was selected to participate in the Homeless World Cup in Mexico City, and to carry the flag for Canada at the opening ceremonies. I scored Canada’s first goal in our game against Wales, and throughout those two weeks, my teammates called me Mr. Motivator. I’d sweep up everyone I met into a big bear hug. Refs, organizers, opponents, spectators—no one was safe. At the end of the tournament, I was named MVP of my team.
Later this year, I will return to Uganda to attend a ceremony for the elders of my clan, the Mambas of the Ganda tribe. I can’t wait to pull out the banana-fibre ball and kick it around with my cousins and neighbours.
Ed Kiwanuka-Quinlan works with the Salvation Army in Brampton. Email submissions to email@example.com