Troubled Waters: Ugandans Denied Visas for World Freestyle Championships in Canada

Photo: facebook.com/ugandafreestylekayakteam
Photo from Facebook.

With the massive Nile Special wave in their backyard, the Uganda freestyle kayaking team will have no problem with the Garberator wave and other big water features of the Ottawa River at the World Freestyle Kayaking Championships Aug. 30-Sept. 5. It's negotiating the red tape instead of the rapids that's proving difficult.

Canadian immigration officials based in Nairobi, Kenya, have banned the Ugandan team from taking part in the World Freestyle Kayaking Championships on the Ottawa, twice rejecting the team's visa applications over concerns they won't return home. This, in turn, has prompted paddling officials to attempt whatever sort of bow rescue they can to help them compete.

According to a story in the Ottawa Citizen, CanoeKayak Canada has written a letter supporting the visa applications, urging the Canada Visa Application Centre to allow the Ugandans to attend the championships. "We are disappointed to hear through our friends in Uganda that their freestyle team's visa applications have been denied," the association wrote. "This is an international event and participation from all countries that wish to compete is imperative in assuring a high level of competition. Furthermore, it is an opportunity for countries to unite in celebration of sport while putting aside political and cultural differences. Your efforts will go a long way in upholding Canada's highly regarded reputation as an international sports host."

There's no doubt that the Ugandans would be capable of winning the crown, with the big water of their hometown White Nile similar to the surges on the Ottawa. "They're a very strong team," says Jessie Stone, who knows the athletes from her medical work in Uganda and is trying to rally people in Ottawa to help. "Their training on the fantastic waves of the Nile makes them real contenders on Garberator. It's hard to imagine after all the training and fundraising efforts that they have gone through that Canada would not see them as a really important part of the competition. It's a frustrating situation."

The Ugandans are one of 27 teams currently registered for the competition. Ugandan coach Sam Ward told the Citizen that they've already raised $14,000 for traveling to the event, and that accommodation is free for competitors so there shouldn't be too much need for additional funds. He added that the team has already spent $1,800 on visa applications and that re-applying would cost even more. The paddlers also all have ample reason to return home, he added, including jobs, family and land. "We've tackled the fundraising but our problem now is convincing Canadian immigration," said Ward, a former coach of the British freestyle kayaking team. "They are all self-made heroes already within Uganda and are well respected members of their communities. They've spent the last year working towards representing their nation."

Stone, for one, commends their efforts while trying to unearth other ways to help. "Sam and Emily, from Kayak the Nile, have been trying to do everything they can to get the visas pushed through," she says. "This year — especially because of the construction of the Isimba Dam and the whitewater future of the Nile totally in doubt — it seems more important than ever to have the Ugandan freestyle team at the Worlds representing their talents. They may be the last team to be able to do so."

Sanctioned by the International Canoe Federation Association, the bi-annual world championships will be held Aug. 30 to Sept. 5 near Beachburg.

Canadian Freestyle Kayaking Committee chair Robert Zwanenburg told the Citizen, "There is always going to be a concern, particularly with people from developing countries, but a lot of people have stepped up to the plate and offered to help them out."

According to the Citizen story, Citizenship and Immigration refused to comment on the case, citing privacy considerations.

Freestyle kayaking was an exhibition sport at the London Olympic Games in 2012 and is working its way toward official recognition by the International Olympic Committee.

Besides Uganda, teams slate to compete include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Djibouti, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, United States and Ukraine. Organizers are unaware of athletes from any other country being refused visas.

Info: https://www.worldfreestylekayakchampionships.com/event/venue/

–Related | Op-Ed: Will the White Nile's Legendary Whitewater be Drowned?