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A soccer story

Senior Handwalla Bwana’s journey from Kenya to America

Sam Heikell, Sports Editor
Originally published December 19, 2015


Talisman photo fileEntering his freshman year at Ballard, he was on the junior varsity team, but quickly made his way up to varsity within the first handful of games, and by the end of the season, he was one of the top players in the program.

Talisman photo file

Entering his freshman year at Ballard, he was on the junior varsity team, but quickly made his way up to varsity within the first handful of games, and by the end of the season, he was one of the top players in the program.

As an 11-year-old Kenyan war refugee in Atlanta, Georgia, Handwalla Bwana had to quickly adjust to American life. Growing up in Mombasa, Kenya, Bwana mainly focused on helping his family survive, and playing soccer.

“Growing up in Africa was much different, I had to work with our animals and walk five miles to bring home water everyday,” Bwana said.

But in America he had to start his schooling at square one. “I didn’t know any English and not even simple math problems -— like one plus one,” Bwana said. “I never had to go to a school before besides language classes. It was extremely hard to adjust.”

Besides getting used to all of the changes, there was a lot of fear that came along with the move. With just his mother and little brother, simply going to the store seemed to be a daunting task.

“For the first three days in America, we didn’t even leave the house. Me and my brother were scared so we would just stare out of the window and watch,” Bwana said. “We regretted ever coming to America.”

After a short few months in Atlanta, Bwana and his family moved to Seattle, where he had a chance to join his first real soccer team at Hamilton Middle School. “[In Kenya] we played soccer all the time but never for a team. It

was just friends getting together,” Bwana said.

Making the varsity team as a sixth grader, he proved to be a standout player. “I had to get used to wearing cleats — I had always played barefoot and the cleats felt so heavy and unnecessary,” Bwana said.

During his sixth grade season, Bwana was asked to play for the Seattle United select program, where he played every offseason in middle school.

Entering his freshman year at Ballard, he was on the junior varsity team, but quickly made his way up to varsity within the first handful of games, and by the end of the season, he was one of the top players in the program. Eventually, during his sophomore season he emerged as the top goal scorer in all of the 3A Kingco League.

Following Bwana’s sophomore season, he was invited to join the Seattle Sounders Academy and started playing at the U18 level. The academy includes practices and training at the Sounders practice facility, great exposure to college and pro level scouts and traveling to other cities to play other MLS affiliates.

But committing to the academy meant that Bwana couldn’t play for last spring for his junior year, missing their incredible playoff run that ended in the state quarterfinals. “I was so proud of those guys last year,” Bwana said.

Bwana also had many colleges looking at him and he eventually turned down an offer from UCLA to verbally commit to the University of Washington on a full ride scholarship.

“It was one of my goals to go there for college. I didn’t want to leave my family by themselves,” Bwana said. “I want to go get my education first and then possibly enter the draft instead of trying to go pro right away. That way I always have something to fall back on.”

Bwana had a very busy 2015 summer, where he was moved up to the Sounders’ reserves, and got the opportunity to train with the first team players, including stars like Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and Osvaldo Alonso. “Everyday I practice with the first team, I can feel myself getting better. The players are bigger and faster, and you have to think three to four steps ahead on every pass,” Bwana said.

During the Sounders’ playoff run, Bwana was playing with the reserves and was put into the FIFA 2016 video game as a player on the Sounders’ roster. “It was cool I didn’t like playing with myself because my player rating was too low.”

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A soccer story