By Musanjufu Benjamin Kavubu
Uganda has entered its 58th year of Independence from Britain, since 9th October 1962. Those 58 years have been a mixture of fortunes.
Let me tell you the story of Ugandan rugby through the years. I am talking about a sport but in Uganda, rugby through time has become so much more. Rugby in Uganda can be traced to as far back as the 1930s and I’ll get to that shortly. But the Uganda Rugby Football Union was established in 1955. On several occasions, former president of Uganda, General Amin in a bid to establish his endurance and toughness would brag about being a rugby player, a sport he could have played during his time in the British Colonial Army.
In the early 1930s, Kenya visited Uganda for a game of rugby which was staged in Entebbe. On that day, both teams came with a set of white kits. As it is in rugby, in case of a clash in colors of the playing kit, the hosts have to change to another color. But the clubhouse was in Kampala, and the game was in Entebbe. Ugandans decided to dye their shirts in a bucket using the iodine from the medical kit. The shirts were worn wet and, according to popular testimonies, the observers and referee had enormous dilemmas telling the sides apart as the game progressed. Since Rugby is a game entrenched deeply in tradition as a result of this adventure, Ugandan representative sides wore black shirts for almost 100 years in remembrance of that event.
Today, more than 100 years since rugby was introduced to the Pearl of Africa, the game is still at an amateur level. There are no professional rugby players in the country. The oldest Rugby club, KOBs RFC (Kampala Old Boys Rugby Football Club) is older than independent Uganda, but they don’t even have a playground of their own. They host their games at Legends Sports Bar- the former Kampala Rugby Club. Across the border in the East, rugby clubs pay players and many Ugandans have had a stint there.
In Uganda, rugby is mainly played in Kampala while in Kenya we have seen teams like Nakuru Top Fly Rugby Football Club based in the Rift valley win the Kenya cup league unbeaten and Kabras Sugar RFC in Kakamega win the league too from a place closer to Kampala than Nairobi. Why the comparison you may ask? As Kenya was developing in the beautiful sport, Uganda had more than social issues to care about. The political climate in Uganda could not allow the advancement of the game that is mostly funded and developed by foreigners everywhere in the world. In the midst of the coups and economic turmoil that set off the 1966 crisis, that saw the country slide into a period of darkness where almost nothing developed. Rugby being centered in Kampala is just like Uganda’s GDP that is only reflected in Kampala and a few kilometres in the radius of the capital.
I personally started playing rugby in 2007 when I was at Greenhill Academy. The same year that Uganda was crowned African Rugby Champions. Rugby is played in a few schools in Uganda, the traditional ones like Kings College Budo, St Mary’s College Kisubi, Namilyango College, Ntare, Kyambogo College, Kololo SS, Makerere College, and those considered to be of a certain class indicating the social divide that the country is based on today.
In 2007 while in my Senior One, the Rugby cranes happened to have a very memorable year, beating Namibia, one of the few African countries to play at the Rugby world cup, and Madagascar, an African country known to have crowds of up to 60,000 people attending domestic games. It was because of that hype for the National team that I started playing at school but I never took it seriously as a player then.
Since then, I have followed the game ardently, watching the good and ugly. After 2007, the Uganda Rugby Union failed to maintain the level the team had reached, and thereon like many Ugandan success stories the rugby dream crumbled. Some clubs like Nile RFC from Jinja are no more. In Uganda, we have talent in everything, from academia to the innovative field and sports but we don’t have plans to get anything from the talents. And this has been the same story for the last 57 years, with the soccer team reaching the African cup of nations finals in the past but taking 40years to make a return on the stage.
If you happen to pass by the Rugby club on game day you can easily mistake the event for a concert if Kobs is playing Heathens or if Pirates is in the mix with Kobs or Heathens. If the National team is hosting Kenya, Namibia or any other side you would think it’s a festival. Rugby has this community that likes a full package of the fun bringing out Uganda’s social life. It’s one event that unites people of all ages and genders. The saying that, “Rugby is synonymous with beer” can best describe the Ugandan game. In recent years, the men’s side has joined the heights set by the lady’s side of qualifying for the world cup. Not many Ugandan sports disciplines have been at the world stage save for the Netball side that is exceptional.
Uganda’s story post-1986 is one of hope basically, not much can be beheld. This applies to rugby, in the past three years, we have seen new teams from Kampala join the Rugby community like Lira Bulls and Gulu elephants. Last season, Jinja had two teams in the ten-team top league. Personally, I am in Kyambogo Rugby Club, a team that I must say has changed the landscape of lower-tier rugby in Uganda. We have in our ranks players that have left the top side to come to play for the downside for example Solomon Okia from Kenya Harlequins joined the Kyambogo rugby team, Patrick Leku from Kampala Old Boys (Kobs); Makmot Kevin who has played for the highest number of teams in Ugandan rugby, played for the national team, is a now a coach-player at Kyambogo Rugby.
It is in the past three years that the rugby community saw a Black Pirates team join the great 3(Impis from Makerere (Graveyard)), Kobs from Legends, Heathens from Kyadondo Rugby Club,) to make 4 now in winning the league. Black Pirates are stationed out of Kampala at Kings Park in Bweyogerere, a place that is going to be the future of Ugandan rugby. The game is now growing at the same pace as the development of the country. It is a movement that is growing despite the challenges the players and stakeholders face.