One sunny Tuesday morning at the Kampala Hockey Grounds in Lugogo James Mangeni dribbled past one defender, lifted the ball across the goalkeeper to score a beautiful goal. Impressed, I guessed: ‘he’s scored such goals with his favourite (left) foot.’ I was wrong.
Actually, that was his first time playing soccer using crutches, four years after his stronger (right) foot was amputated. Long story.
Mangeni, 33, wide-chested and of sizable height, played conventional football. He was a versatile defender, comfortable in any position from six backwards. “I was deployed according to the opposition,” he told me. “My coach always assigned me to track Tony Mawejje (the famous Uganda Cranes midfielder) whenever he faced us. But I would play any defensive position.”
Mangeni played football from school through sub-county to district level to clubs like Game Boys, Hoima-Busia (in the Super League), among others, but most notably, he aided Maji or Water FC’s promotion to top-flight football before falling out with the administration in 2009.
After a worthless stint at ‘stunted’ Kibuli United, Mangeni retreated to Busia; returning to the Super League with new outfit Hoima-Busia, until 2012 when they were relegated.
Riding a motorcycle to an Independence Day football match October 9, 2013, Mangeni and two friends were terribly hit by a boda-boda that broke their legs. After eight months of frustrating hospital trips, with his right leg rotting away, Mangeni lost hope of ever recovering. The leg was cut off below the knee.
After that training session with English legend Steve Johnson at Lugogo, Mangeni feels inspired to teach soccer to his fellow amputees in Busia.
“Coach Johnson showed us how to control the ball with the outer side of the boot and pass with the inner side, that way you can easily beat your opponent,” he said. He was given a pair of crutches and balls. The afternoon that followed his debut at Lugogo, we had a long phone conversation but he had missed my calls when he was training.
He told me of a friend who was a good footballer before a policeman shot his leg in an altercation during national IDs registration. “When I told him about amputee soccer, he was very excited to join.”
Is it determination or excitement over a whole new experience? Feeling chest pain the first day he played on crutches, Mangeni asked for painkillers, but later convinced himself ‘I won’t be taking tabs every after training.’ He threw them away and “now the body is used.”
That impact is partly why sport is a vital rehabilitation tool against disability. And to others it’s an addiction.
Bernard Baraza, a para-volleyball player in Buyanga-Busia, told me “if I miss a week’s training I feel sick.” Hence, he repairs the unwanted balls for his personal training at home. Training alone, his house’s walls are the playmate. “I bounce it on the walls until I sweat the whole body.”
Disability sport in Uganda has come a long way. Since our first appearance in Munich 1972, our first Paralympics medal came in 2016, despite several efforts amid government neglect.
In 2014 Uganda National Action on Physical Disability (UNAPD) launched the Capacity Building for Sustainable Development Project, funded by Denmark. The project also engaged the Spinal Injuries’ Association (SIA) and Brain Injury Support Organisation of Uganda (BISOU) to mobilise persons of various disabilities and empower them with life skills, among others, sports.
At the project’s climax November 24, Mogens Pedersen, the Danish ambassador to Uganda, praised UNAPD for “the efforts to ensure that people with disabilities in Uganda lead better lives.”
Generally, Scholar Opoti, UNAPD sports project coordinator, says Mubende Rehabilitation Centre was the easiest to mobilise, because soldiers were many and lived in the barracks.
However, in other areas like Busia, Nebbi, even Kampala, PWDs face many challenges to converge. Nevertheless, efforts were made and today, members merge in sports groups some on sub-county level, others according to disability.
Baraza, 33, heads Buyanga Sports Group for PWDs. He used to play soccer with the nondisabled but got bored due to lack of motivation and direction.
“But UNAPD brought a completely new chapter,” says Baraza who is also a coach. “They trained us in new sports like para-volleyball, and athletics. They also trained coaches among us…we now have a direction.” They train every Wednesday and Saturday. Today, Baraza’s sports group—like others in Lumino, Lunyo and Busia Municipal and Nebbi—is a fully registered Community-Based Organisation with potential to attract government funding.
James Etyang, chairman Busia Physical Disability Association, says by bringing PWDs together, the sports project has brought their issues close to government attention.
As a result, with the support of the municipal council, Busia managed to host the 2016 Disability Sports Gala.
Playing to save
Realising PWDs needed financial ability as much as the physical improvement, UNAPD introduced saving schemes among groups to create income-generating projects.
The day I was in Buyanga, after para-volleyball training, members contributed from as low as Shs500 to a total of Shs19500. Banking it into a metallic box provided by UNAPD, the treasurer thanked and urged the subscribers to “keep the spirit up.” They save every Saturday.
Only 20 of the 50 members have so far embraced the saving scheme. Some lack the means, some are children. The immediate goal, Baraza says, is to start a small poultry of local breed chicken.
In Kampala, Myleen Kyomuhendo, one of the leaders in SIA sports group told me members are saving towards a mobile money project, with units across suburbs. This type of business, she says, suits them because due to spinal damage they move in wheelchairs.
On court with love
At the 2017 Kampala City Carnival in October, revellers—some seeing this for the first time—marvelled at wheelchair basketballers exhibiting skills on Parliamentary Avenue.
Kyomuhendo, slender and light skinned, played with visible passion: frowning whenever she missed the ball, smiling when she finally scored. Her team lost 14-12, but: “I just love basketball,” she told me during a break, “Winning isn’t the issue, just playing is great.”
In 2003, Kyomuhendo was returning to Uganda Christian University (UCU) in Mukono after overnight prayers when a tragic accident overturned her life. That frosty morning the driver of the taxi she was in was overtaking a fuel tanker. A bus crashed the back of the taxi which collided with the tanker and rolled off the road.
Of 11 passengers only four survived. “I don’t’ know whether it was in the course of rescuing me or when the car overturned, but when I regained my consciousness, my spinal cord had been fractured twice,” Kyomuhendo recalls.
A painful spell ensued—inability to control her bowels and bladder and the generally stigmatizing environment. “Navigating Kampala’s narrow roads without walkways, buildings without ramps, insensitive taxi operators and passengers, was all hell.”
Discontinued from UCU—the moralistic institution suspecting she was coming from a nightclub—she joined Makerere University on affirmative action, graduating in human resource management.
But after a frustrating job hunt, which exposed her to more discrimination, she gave up and resorted to making beaded handbags and shoes. But the sales betrayed the effort. Nowadays, with her sister, she imports the bags and shoes from China and sells in downtown Kampala.
Kyomuhendo has played before bigger crowds. In 2016, she played for Vikings in Denmark, as part of the project. “But playing in the Kampala Carnival, to show Ugandans our abilities means much more.”
Sulaiman Mayanja is Kyomuhendo’s contemporary. He was a thriving information technology engineer at New Horizons Computer Learning Centres, a multinational ICT company.
But in 2008, a mysterious condition paralysed his lower body. Reflexology and surgeries just worsened his spinal damage, confining him to a wheelchair since.
However, Mayanja found solace in wheelchair basketball. He smiles whenever he or his teammate scores. Through the partnership SIA-UNAPD partnership, Mayanja joined Kampala Wheelchair Basketball, which trains twice a week at Makerere University court.
He only joined the game last year but for his passion, sociable character, education—Master’s in business administration—and connections, as the national general secretary in the PWDs League, Mayanja was last year unopposed to become interim president of the Uganda Wheelchair Basketball Association.
Assuming office, he vowed to “develop the sport that has enhanced my health and physical wellbeing.”
Baraza, who plays para-volleyball on grass in Buyanga, also knows what it feels playing on the smooth floor of Lugogo. “It was like a dream for me a villager from Buyanga playing against the best in Kampala; where there’s no rain, wind or sunshine,” he said, expressing inspiration to “make the national team one day.”
Mangeni’s dreams are even bigger. “I want to play for Uganda in Europe.” He draws inspiration from Johnson, the Everton amputee soccer legend who won three consecutive World Cups for England in the late 1980s. Johnson lost his left leg in a tragic football injury. Using a blade, he also represented England in volleyball at the Olympics in Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996.
Adapting to sports for the first time, Mangeni, on a prosthetic leg threw discus, shotput and javelin at the 2016 Disability Sports Gala in Busia. He missed the second chance as Busia missed the 2017 edition in Gulu.
Ole Ansbjerg, Parasport Denmark’s development manager, has anchored this project. He told me their dream is enabling the creation of many amputee soccer clubs in Uganda, a competitive league, and a national team to compete beyond borders.
He pointed to Shafic Ssebuuma—bedazzling opponents in that session with Johnson at Lugogo—as “some of the promising talents.”
But Ansbjerg quickly added: “the National Paralympic Committee must also act by following up, identifying such talents and polishing them.” Equally important: ensuring continuity of activity.
At the climax of the UNAPD project recently, Ssebuuma’s Kampala Amputee Stars (for the first time) beat Mubende Rehabilitation Centre 3-2. Credit the goal scorers as much as goalkeeper Mario Odima whose fantastic saves kept Mubende soldiers at bay. He only conceded penalties sent the side of his amputated arm. But Odima cannot train with his team regularly because of distance and lack of money.
Odima, once a builder, fell from a roof and fractured his left arm. Since it was cut off in April last year, he no longer works. He survives on handouts from friends. He lives in Kayunga, Bugerere and his Kampala team only facilitates him on match days.
Those in Busia face similar challenges. Betty Nerima, a polio survivor comes from far and as coach for Buyanga women’s para-volleyball team, she is bothered that sometimes she comes late or misses training.
Even those, like Baraza, who ride their bicycles, need to set off from home or work early because it’s a long journey. Some come from six miles away “and even rain can catch you on way.” It can be tough on the muddy roads.
Ms Opoti, the UNAPD project coordinator also noted that whenever Community Development Officers are changed, it deters progress. “When a corporative CDO goes, engaging the new one is another task; some are irresponsive.” Before I left Buyanga, members gave me a three-page handwritten report in which they thanked UNAPD, partners and the “international donor” for the project. That they wish for more is only obvious.