Peace Proscovia: Ugandan defies cultural norms & father's wishes to follow netball dream

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Story highlights

  • Peace Proscovia starring for Uganda at Commonwealth Games
  • Netball player defied cultural norms & father's wishes to follow dream
  • Proscovia now inspiring a new generation back home

Gold Coast, Australia (CNN)Peace Proscovia didn't want to disobey her father, but she had no choice. She had to defy him, fight against her country's cultural norms, to achieve her dream.

Born into poverty in an Ugandan village 804 miles (500 kilometers) from the capital Kampala, Proscovia stood out from a young age. She was the single-minded girl who loved sport. The child who wanted to accomplish the out of the ordinary.
Bemused villagers could not understand her blinkered determination. She would never marry, they said, never have children, never succeed if she continued to play netball. She was on the road to ruination.
    Peace Proscovia vies with Kelly Jury of New Zealand on day one of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.
    "Most of the girls believed that if they continued to play sport they wouldn't achieve what they were supposed to achieve, which was to get married and have children," the 28-year-old tells CNN Sport.
    "As girls we're seen as a source of wealth, whereby by getting married we bring wealth into the family, but I had to stand against the norms of the family. I was always self-motivated."

    The untrodden path

    A decade on, Proscovia's father -- even the entire country -- is glad the talented goal shooter ignored him. The untrodden path she followed has taken her from the countryside to the city, to national fame and netball glory.
    This softly spoken eldest child of seven, the daughter of George and Winifred, parents who struggled for employment, is the driving force of the Ugandan netball team which is competing at the Commonwealth Games for the first time in its history.
    The 6ft 3in goal shooter may have the freedom to walk around Australia's Gold Coast unnoticed, but back home everyone, she says, is talking about netball.
    The towering captain has led her country to new heights. Hers is the face on billboards around the country, she is the one her young compatriots idolize, and for the next fortnight she and her teammates will dominate the airwaves back home as Ugandans follow the women's fortunes in Queensland.
    "It's a great achievement for the country," says Proscovia, a once promising runner who has also represented her country in basketball.
    "It will increase people's knowledge of netball, which means the sport will grow.
    "I'm basically surprised. I never expected us to reach this level but it's something I've always been hoping for.
    "And my father is so happy. He actually told me that it's good that I went forward to achieve my dream and he's so glad of me.
    "I can't blame him for thinking the way he did. He never wanted any of his daughters to get out there and be messed up. That's one of the reasons he stood his ground and said: 'You're not leaving this home to go to the city.'
    "They had not seen anybody benefiting from playing netball, so they were naive about what was ahead. But what I have done has benefited them more than myself."

    Catching the eye

    At 18, having spent three years honing her netball skills at a boarding school after a PE teacher recognized she was a special talent, Proscovia left her village with nothing but the clothes she was wearing and set off to the capital to play netball for a team which was sponsored by an insurance firm.
    "The National Insurance Corporation had heard about me, got me over to the city," explains Proscovia, who initially lived with relatives.
    "They gave me all the necessary help. I was earning money working for them, had a place to stay and, from there, a university spotted me playing netball and that's how my career started."
    Uganda narrowly lost to New Zealand 64-51 on day of the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
    While studying for a diploma in development studies at Nkumba University, Proscovia's feats on the court and in the classroom earned her a scholarship to play netball and study business administration at the Uganda Christian University.
    Still a student, she caught the eye of English Superleague club Loughborough Lightning while playing for Uganda in a World Cup qualifier against Botswana three years ago, and the country girl who knew little of life beyond Africa left for England. Life has never been the same since.
    "At first there was no place I knew outside my own village and after that the next place I only knew of was the capital. I'd not moved beyond Africa," she recalls.
    "I had no idea about England. Before I left for Loughborough my manager at work told me what the country was like. But when I arrived I was confused because I was told that it was dark throughout the day and night, that there was no light, but when I got there it was not like that at all.
    "I expected to go to a place and see skyscrapers, but I found that this was a place where people live simplified lives, not luxurious ones."
    The only aspect of English life Proscovia had trouble adjusting to, she says, was the British weather, but by now at least she had a suitcase full of clothes to see her through the damp, cold winters.
    "I was a proper human being by then," she says. "I carried massive jackets that I've even failed to wear because they're too massive."
    She learned to use a microwave, trained in a gym for the first time in her life and continued to excel, combining gym sessions, shooting sessions and team training with a Masters degree at Loughborough University. She was two hours from London and at one of the best universities in the UK.
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    From rebel to idol

    Her dedication to her sport -- she practices 500 to 700 shots a day -- has brought rewards. The first African to play in England's Vitality Superleague, Proscovia swept all before her in a magical 2017 season.
    In helping Loughborough to the league title, she was named the players' player of the season and the Vitality player of the season. Unsurprisingly, the Ugandan was named in the season-ending all-star VII and her 812 goals secured her the Gilbert Netball Golden Shot Award.
    After being named her country's flagbearer and leading Uganda out at the Commonwealth opening ceremony, Proscovia believes she can make an impression on the Gold Coast. Uganda, which won the Africa Championship last season, has climbed from 15th to seventh in the world rankings over the last three years.
    The team, dubbed the "She Cranes," lost their opening match of the Games to New Zealand and are in a group which also includes England, the third best team in the world.
    But even if Uganda fail to progress beyond the group stages, Proscovia's impact has already been significant.
    "Families always tell me they're so proud of what netball has done for me and hope that their daughters will benefit from playing sport too," says Proscovia, admitting she is on a self-imposed social media lockdown during the Games as the barrage of messages are a distraction.
    "Most girls are now being encouraged to go into sports, rather than live at home and get married. It's changed all over the country. Everyone wants to be like me."