Photograph courtesy ©Golden Boots Uganda

Muhammed "Mo" Kisirisa is a former amateur footballer and the founder of Golden Boots Uganda, an organization that aims to improve the lives, health, and mental wellbeing of young people in Uganda through, as Mo says, the power of sport. “When I started Golden Boots Uganda, I was building on personal experience, passion, and a story about how sport gave me a second chance to live.”

In 2020, Mo was a recipient of IYF’s Global Youth Resiliency Fund which—with funding from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and Burberry, and the support of a number of committed individuals—put resources in the hands of 28 youth-led ventures delivering vital work in response to the pandemic. Below, Mo shares his personal experience with mental health, explains why he started Golden Boots Uganda, and reports on the success of the organization’s recent Sports for Youth Mental Wellbeing and Covid Recovery Project, an initiative designed to reduce the impacts of Covid-19 on the mental health of young people in Uganda.

How did sport give you a ‘second chance to live’?

In 2017, I was having my own mental health issues. I remember shutting down all my social media handles and switching off my phone for weeks—I wanted to be alone. Like many young people with mental health challenges, I didn’t know what I was dealing with until a friend told me he thought I had a problem dealing with anger. To cut a long story short, I started reading about anger management and mental health online. I learned different ways people deal with issues to stay healthy. For me, sport was the thing. I began running, boxing, and playing soccer again. I started sleeping and eating better, drinking more water. Getting to connect with and talk to people—some of the guys I played amateur soccer with and new people—helped too. I started feeling like life was back again.

Why is mental health such a big part of what Golden Boots Uganda does in general?

I started Golden Boots in 2019 when I realized that many young people—some of whom I was playing soccer with—had mental health issues, too. Many of them don’t understand what they’re dealing with—they don’t know the signs and symptoms, or how to get help. We use sport as a tool to mobilize young people and to pass on information and communication materials about mental health. We bring together mental health experts and people living with mental health challenges. We create safe spaces for young people to listen and learn from testimonies, understand their own mental health issues, and build resiliency.

You mentioned creating ‘safe spaces’—what does that look like?

For example—before or after one of our soccer practices or matches, both teams of young people gather in a circle to share their ideas, experiences, and stories. Mental health experts facilitate the conversation. We talk about seeking counseling, peer-to-peer learning programs, referral services, and treatments. No one judges. It’s a safe space where anyone is free to talk. In Uganda, there’s a stigma around mental health. Some people believe that a person with a mental health challenge is bewitched by evil spirits. So, we try also to raise awareness and educate communities in Uganda about mental illness and mental health. 

Describe what the pandemic has been like for young people in Uganda?

Uganda has around nine million young people who are dealing with mental illness. During the pandemic, it was even worse. All around Uganda, schools and sports programs closed during the lockdown. People were dealing with unemployment—especially young people. Families lost their livelihoods. All that frustration led to an escalation of mental health issues, especially among young people. Some people dealt with their frustration in unhealthy ways—drugs, alcohol. There was an increase in child abuse, in domestic abuse. There was also a huge increase in unplanned youth pregnancies. I know a young woman named Harriet who got pregnant and gave birth during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, she was the captain of a youth soccer team in a suburb of Kampala, but then sports clubs shut down. We have limited government programs and very few psychiatric doctors, maybe six to ten in the whole of Uganda, and to make matters worse, during lockdown there was no access to such services because transportation was limited and movement was restricted. For Harriet, all this—the social stigma around her pregnancy, alienation from her peers, and limited access to treatment—led to frustration, anxiety, and depression.

The Sports for Youth Mental Wellbeing and Covid Recovery Project (SMATS) just wrapped up—is there anything you’d like to share?

With support from the Global Youth Resiliency Fund, we reached over 500 youth in low-income areas of Uganda to overcome mental health issues including depression and stress-related disorders caused by Covid-19. The project mainly targeted refugees, young people with disabilities, and adolescent girls living in four low-income areas in Kampala. Harriet was one of these participants.

I'm glad to say, she's doing much better. She says the project has brought her joy and hope for the future. In her own words: “I was touched by the support. I felt loved and confident that someone out there cared. I had given up on life until the project gave me a chance to be a child again. When I play soccer, I feel alive.”

Learn more about Golden Boots Uganda and the other Global Youth Resiliency Fund awardees who are all doing critical work in their own communities and beyond.