Being born in a polygamous family of more than 20 children in Mityana and dropping out of school as early as Senior Three did not stop Harriet Kayonjo from dreaming.
She hated the tasking but less paying casual work and she tried her luck in sports. Truly this mother of five does not regret her decision.
Proud of football
At the age of 19, Kayonjo was already a goalkeeper in Kampala United Ladies Football Club (now defunct).
She was inspired to join football by her late sister Yunia Kayonjo. Her talent grew fast and Kayonjo was called into the She Kobs team (present-day Crested Cranes), Uganda’s ladies national team.
You may think that being a sports woman, Kayonjo is rough, covered with thick muscles but she is tender, soft-spoken and behaves like a real lady.
At 39, (peers say she could be even older) Kayonjo is still in shape, looking like some of her younger teammates in their 20s. Her smile is welcoming which makes her a darling to fellow players, administrators and fans alike.
On pitch, however, Kayonjo is a go-getter, with a sharp eye for killer passes, and a huge appetite for victory. She is always ready for duty save for the times when she is seriously injured. Without the support of her husband it was always going to be hard settling in sports. “I was already married with two children when I started playing for She Kobs.
My husband wasn’t happy with my engagement in football and we were always at loggerheads,” Kayonjo recalls.
“He later appreciated my efforts plus what I earned from sports and he decided to support me. Eventually we were on the same page,” she says.
Football vs rugby
She talks about football with admiration. “It’s an easy sport and I don’t remember suffering any serious injuries; just minor skin scratches and small wounds,” she recounts. “It’s a sport I would recommend any woman to join.”
She played with the likes of Majida Nantanda, now the head coach for the Crested Cranes, and Annet Nakimbugwe, some of the few fine female players who have graced the women’s game in this country.
Meanwhile, women football suffered a setback. For instance, three years without a major tournament, frustrated even the laziest player and the ambitious Kayonjo tried rugby, which promised her more playing time.
Her passion for soccer had not died completely. She divided her attention between the two sports for years but with time rugby overshadowed football.
Of all her football trips on the continent, Kayonjo’s fondest memories came with her last match. The 1998 Cecafa qualifiers in Egypt, where she got a trophy and a pair of soccer boots as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. She also earned US$400 (about Shs1.4m) in allowances.
Though her performances helped the She Kobs qualify, Kayonjo missed the team’s subsequent engagements. When Uganda faced hosts Congo in final tournament, Kayonjo missed the game because she had just returned from the CAR 7s Rugby tournament in Botswana, where the Lady Cranes team finished second.
Her greatest rugby moment was featuring in the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens, in Dubai with the likes of Helen Buteme, Brenda Kayiyi and Charlotte Mudoola, among others.
Kyadondo is my other home
Does she ever regret swapping her first love - soccer - for rugby? “Not at all,” she says. “Rugby has given me much more than I expected; friends, business connections, and more.”
For her friendly persona, Kayonjo is a popular figure, which has enhanced her job as a helper at Kyadondo Rugby Grounds. She is the one in charge of cleaning the bar, organising the tables, preparing the players’ meals, and purchasing all the stuff used in doing all this. She also sometimes works as a messenger. “The money I get here helps me pay fees for my children and also maintain a basic standard of living,” she says.
Her schedule is tight. She works from Monday to Saturday and trains in the evening. However, already 39 years old, she is considering quitting rugby for the youngsters to enjoy.
Among the youngsters is Norah Nabasirye, Kayonjo’s third-born, who plays for the same club Thunderbirds. Currently in Senior Six, Nabasirye is happy to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
Since August 2016 at the Prinsloo 7s tournament in Kenya, when Kayonjo captained the Gazelles (a section of the 7s team), she has not played in any serious tournament.
Having sustained major and minor injuries - a fractured leg that kept her three months on the side-lines, a dislocated shoulder bone - she feels has had enough.
What others say about her
Majida Nantanda, the head coach for Crested Cranes team, who played with Kayonjo says she best remembers Kayonjo as one of the best players in the African Women’s Championships 2000 in Durban South Africa.
These competitions meant a lot to Ugandan football as you can compare them to present day Afcon.
Nantanda describes Kayonjo as a woman who is determined, hardworking, focused and also minds her own business. She doesn’t spare time for useless gossip.
Brenda Kayiyi, also played with Kayonjo in the Lady Cranes rugby team, describes her as a hardworking lady who knows what she wants. Kayiyi adds that she has seen Kayonjo for the past ten years and though they are not friends as such, she cannot fault her in any way.
Likewise, youngster Samiya Ayikoru, Kayonjo’s Lady Cranes teammate describes her as “caring and loving”, one who emphasizes discipline.
Still dreaming big
Of the 20 or more children born to her father, Kayonjo’s mother has seven. Of these, three have since died but Kayonjo says her standard of living is far better than that of her siblings.
In fact, some of them look to her for assistance, something she believes attests to her belief that she made the best decision joining sports.
Kayonjo rents in Kanyanya, a Kampala neighbosurburb, with her husband and four children.
She hopes that from her off-pitch job(s) at the Kyadondo Rugby Club, she can one day build the home of her dreams, although she will always intimately cherish Kyadondo as her other home.
Parenting and games
Throughout her games time, Kayonjo would first do house chores then carry her children to the field for training. This is because she had no house maid to take care of her children. The children would sit down on the grass as they watched her play. Now her children are grown up and she has nothing to worry about.
She adds that her husband did not watch her play. Not because he didn’t want to, but Kayonjo wouldn’t invite him for any game. She didn’t want him to see her fall down while playing.