Lee Elder died this week. The first African American to play in The Masters and the first black man to represent the United States in the Ryder Cup, Elder was called a pioneer by Jack Nicklaus. For golfers like Tiger Woods (and millions of other minority golfers who have taken up the game), he was a trailblazer. A wallbreaker. A hero. During his life as a professional golfer, Elder didn't just work to overcome barriers; he endured threats to his life and indignities from some of the ugliest corners of our society simply due to the color of his skin. He wasn't the most successful black golfer to come along before Tiger. That would be Calvin Peete. But he was perhaps the boldest. And his loss is a big one to all who love the game and what it has become -- and how much more open it is -- today.
I was thinking about Elder's impact on the game -- and Tiger's -- for the eyes they opened among white fans of the sport ... and the eyes they've opened within minority communities to the greatness of the game and all its possibilities. As it happens, I'd been thinking about those issues quite a bit of late anyway because of a recent connection I made with a man in Uganda of all places.
Growing up, I never thought I'd know anybody in Uganda. Today, because of golf and the global community made possible by social media, I have a friend there who is working hard to leverage the game to better the lives of hundreds of underprivileged young people and children with special needs in Eastern Africa.
Isaiah Mwesige is CEO of AFRIYEA Golf Academy at Toro Golf Club in Fort Portal, Uganda. In 2019, Isaiah realized a dream he'd had long before to create a golf academy where any child could come and learn the game ... where young people from across his country and the broader region of Eastern Africa could find hope, hitting golf balls and gaining exposure to the challenges, triumphs, lessons and connections that make golf such a rich -- and enriching -- game.
In just two short years, AFRIYEA has become the largest golf school in Uganda. But Isaiah and the Academy's instructors are teaching the students who come to the Academy much more than golf. They've connected the game to conservation and a deeper understanding of the environment. They've made STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) academic programs available to their students. They've built programs aimed particularly at teaching golf to girls and young women in order to expand the influence and the impact of the game. They've helped to improve the lives of more than 300 young students and believe they're working to change not just individual lives but that, through their students, they are elevating the potential of entire communities. The more Isaiah has shared with me about the Academy and the more I've learned about his personal journey, the more impressed I am with what he and his team have accomplished in such a short amount of time.
Isaiah's first exposure to the game of golf was as a caddy. Every day, he would walk 7 kilometers to get to the nearest golf course, carry bags, and walk 7 kilometers back home -- all to earn money to pay for his schooling and other basic needs. Over time, he worked his way into roles of increasing responsibility and earned the respect of both the staff and the membership. Ultimately, he was recommended for membership by a senior member at Toro Golf Club, where he still serves to this day as Captain of Outdoor Games and where he ultimately launched AFRIYEA Academy.
"We founded AFRIYEA as a nonprofit organization, putting our priority on enabling the youth and underprivileged children, and children with disabilities -- often the most vulnerable of society living in Africa -- to enrich their lives through golf," says Isaiah. "At AFRIYEA, we teach them about golf, but we exist to provide a much broader education. We want the students who come here to learn about the environment, STEM, and life skills that will enhance their social and economic opportunities. We want to change the face of golf in the region by bringing together passionate, talented youth -- boys and girls -- to learn the game and to compete, but to learn so much more in the process. It's a dream I first had when I was a caddy, and it means so much to see it actually happening and making a difference in the lives of our students."
The Academy emphasizes learning and values that go well beyond the golf course: hard work, academic excellence, inclusiveness, results and accountability, kindness, sportsmanship, and environmental conscientiousness. Isaiah and his team hope to teach students who eventually go on to represent the country and the region as highly competitive amateurs or even professionals. Two of the Academy's female coaches have actually qualified for a national team. They've had students earn academic and tournament sponsorships through the program in pursuit of higher education and more intense competition. And Isaiah's dreams for what AFRIYEA can become seem as limitless as the possibilities of the young people who are benefitting from the program.
In time, Isaiah hopes the Academy can help to create new markets and improve existing ones for golf within Uganda and beyond. He says he hopes one day to see AFRIYEA thriving at other golf clubs in other parts of Uganda and the broader region -- to see the hundreds of young people they're able to serve today become thousands, and to see the lives of those young people, their families and their communities made better through the AFRIYEA model he's created.
When I set out on this journey to play the great golf courses of North America -- when I launched this website and blog -- I was just a guy who loves golf. I'm still just a guy who loves golf. But I knew the real rewards of what I was trying to do would be in the friends I would make and the new relationships I would form as I connected to people who also love the game. I had no idea it would connect me to someone like Isaiah or that it would expose me to the kind of work that he's doing literally on the other side of the world. But I'm so glad that it did and so glad I can use this platform to introduce others to him and to the great work being done at AFRIYEA Academy, too.
If you feel moved to support the organization, there is a donate link on their website that will allow you to donate in order to sponsor the participation of more young people in the program. And Isaiah tells me they are working to identify potential opportunities to find support from companies that may be able to provide funding, as well as equipment, clothes/uniforms, and other supplies to help the young people who attend the Academy to thrive. If interested in helping, please contact the Academy through their website or Facebook page, or please feel free to reach out to Isaiah directly.