It’s not every day you meet a Ugandan snowboarder studying neuro-oncology notes on the chair lift. But then, Brolin Mawejje is not your everyday snowboarder. A new documentary called Far From Home tells his story, from a hardscrabble youth across two continents to a real shot at competing in the Olympics.
The film details his upbringing in Kampala, Uganda, where he was raised by a single father of seven, and attended school in sub-Saharan Africa, where beatings were standard operating procedure. When his mother, who had been living in the U.S. for most of Mawejje’s life, brought him over to the States at age 12, the challenges in many ways worsened as he adapted to suburban life in Massachusetts and the American school system without speaking a word of English.
To escape the bullying and alienation, Mawejje found solace on the mountain with a snowboard in hand. Despite not understanding even the concept of snow before he moved to the States, Mawejje managed to develop quickly as an athlete and found acceptance among the community of riders. He later moved to Jackson Hole with best friend Phil Hesser and his family. The Hesslers took Mawejje under their wing once raising a teenage boy proved to be too much for his mother, and the move to snowboard paradise enabled Mawejje to train with top riders like Travis Rice and Bryan Iguchi.
Now, the 20-year-old Mawejje balances pre-med studies at Westminster College in Salt Lake City with the rigours of training for an ambitious goal: qualifying in slopestyle at the 2018 Winter Olympics for his homeland of Uganda. His chances? He has to move from 334th in the world to a top 30 finish at a World Cup. It may be a long shot, but his passion to succeed combined with support from riders like Rice and gold medalist Sage Kotsenburg mean he’s got a running start.
THE RED BULLETIN: It’s a long way from sub-Saharan Uganda to snowy Jackson Hole and Park City. How did you first learn about snowboarding?
BROLIN MAWEJJE: I didn’t know anything about snow or snowboarding when I was living in Africa. Basically when I got here, during that first winter, I saw snow and was intrigued by it and had some friends who were snowboarders and they just introduced me to it. I was hooked from day one.
Why not football or baseball, something a little more familiar?
I played a lot of team sports, but snowboarding was something I had to learn on my own and basically try to push my own fears and doubts to get down the hill. Going snowboarding was not practice; it was going to have fun. It was something easy for me to do and all my friends did it.
How did your life in Uganda compare to life in the United States?
My memory of Africa is still pretty bright. I remember the hardships and living with my father and my grandmother and moving from place to place. I came here when I was 12, so the first challenge was getting over that initial cultural shock and getting used to the language. I came here not knowing English. That was a shock because I got thrown right into the school system.
What prompted you to share your story in Far From Home?
I know there may be some people that are in the same circumstances that I was in and I just wanted to tell them that you are not alone. There are other people that go through that same experience. I wanted to share my story and show how unique snowboarding is and how it changed my life. And also to try to reach out to other people who might feel down or need a little bit of inspiration.
You learned how to read just in time for college and now you’re studying pre-med. How does that work?
My reading skills had to get kicked into gear as fast as they could if I was to go to college and succeed at college, so it’s one of those adaptive strategies. I am still pretty shitty at reading, I’m not going to lie, but I try my best every day. The pre-med aspect is a good balance to try to snowboard and also challenge myself academically and I have that opportunity in America. A lot of my siblings, and a lot of people in Africa, do not have that opportunity.
When I moved to America, the husband of the first family I lived with actually got cancer and I was forced to find a new place to live. My best friend and his family took me in, and then his father got cancer. I have always wanted to do something that helps people and fixes people; being a doctor was the best way to get after it.
How do you balance academics with training as an athlete?
Take it one step at a time. I’m not good at it yet. I’m trying my best. But I’m finishing college soon and that will give me some time to focus on snowboarding, which will be great for me. I go to the mountain in the morning and when I’m not at the mountain, I do school work. I have a lot of great mentors and a lot of great people in my life who help me overcome the anxiety of trying to accomplish sports at a high level.
How do people from your country and the government in Uganda react when you talk about going to the Olympics for snowboarding?
It’s kind of a funny reaction because you have to explain what snow is. But then people are really proud because Uganda doesn’t have too many athletes to represent the country as a whole outside of running and soccer. So it’s a great way of introducing a different sport and something different to the nation. When we went there in May, everyone was really supportive of me trying this challenge.
What is that path to the Olympics going to look like for you?
It’s going to be interesting. This season I plan on just snowboarding and trying to improve my tricks. I’m trying to find a coach that’s been at a high level to help me out. Starting from today, I’m trying to ride year round and chase snow.