When asked what she planned to do after retiring from netball, Lillian Ajio or ‘Nalongo’ - a mother of twins, announced she was going to stay in netball.
A bold statement, but she is already doing that. Her last born, just aged seven years, is just as talented.
Ajio is Uganda’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) and she will be among the history makers when Uganda plays at the second consecutive World Cup finals in Liverpool, England this July.
Since it began in England in 1963, netball’s pinnacle event has welcomed Uganda thrice. The other time was when Trinidad & Tobago, hosted the event they won back in 1979 in Port of Spain and it took 35 years for the She Cranes to appear at the 2015 finals in Australia.
According to coach Vincent Kiwanuka, who identified her while playing for Red Stars in Ntinda before he secured her a bursary at Bishop Sisto Mazzoldi SS Lweza-Kajjansi, where her career took off in 1998, following the death of her father, Ajio is tailor-made to shine.
Every time she links up arms with her teammates to sing the national anthem, Kiwanuka is confident of a good display.
“She has all attributes of a netball player - aggressive yet hardworking,” Kiwanuka said.
Blessed with a great positional sense, Ajio is credited with executing timely interceptions and winning important balls.
Yet the 34-year-old did not start as a netballer even though her athletics abilities were undisputed.
“I was a good sprinter running 100metres, 200m and relays especially in my primary school days at St Jude Naguru Katale and East Kololo. I only started playing netball as a shooter at Uphill College Mbuya,” she recalls.
Kiwanuka, who is also a national team coach says that Ajio is an uncompromising player yet she is massively talented. She is hungry for success.
But the lean netballer, who captains last year’s league champions Prisons, grew up in a family without sporting history. Her late father Acidri, had a fulltime accounting job at Uganda Consolidated Properties until his retirement before he met his death in an accident while working with Alam while her mother Ayikoru, who groomed her in Kigoowa Ntinda was a housewife and is currently a peasant farmer in Arua. The second-born of six siblings, Ajio is the eldest girl in her family.
“I cannot say there is anything to do with my family background to netball. Certainly I was like any girl growing up. I think the only thing that my family did was to send me to school and the rest I just discovered while at school.”
Rise and a fall
A competitive urge came naturally when St Mary’s SS Kitende lured her away from Mazzoldi. But her obsession suffered a blow in 2013 when she got pregnant before sitting for her O-level exams giving birth to twins.
“I had to first take care of my children before going back to school in 2014. I was renting by then. Mum was rude at first but being a single mother herself, she let it go. Today, she is proud of me.”
She returned to Kitende to complete her O-Level before they admitted her in A-Level. “Dr Lawrence Mulindwa offered me a place. I was disciplined and my coaches too liked me too,” she says.
Despite her burgeoning career with the school, she made another tough decision which forced her out of school before sitting for her Senior Six Exams.
Prison to the rescue
“Prisons coach Imelda Nyongesa convinced me to join the Prisons recruitment of 2005. I thought to myself, my dad was gone and everyone looked at me as the big sister. So I decided to join Prisons and quit school. I don’t think I will ever go back to school again.
In 2006, she was passed as a wardress after attending the nine-month Basic Prisons Officer’s Training Course. She now works with recruits at the PTS.
With determination, Ajio earned her first national team call up in 2007 and has gone on to play for Uganda at all international events thereafter.
After 12 years playing for the national team, her best moment came last year when she was named the league’s Most Valuable Player.
“I have excelled in handball but I was waiting for this moment. Netball defines me and it is for real my life. I only play handball to improve my fitness. Even for training, netball comes first before I join the handballers,” the two-time East African champion, reveals. She has been named the Nile Special Uspa Handball Player of the Year on four consecutive times from 2004 to 2007.
Proscovia, whom she deputises on the national team and Mary Nuba are the only professionals in Australia and England, respectively.
“Last year we had a chance but there was a communication breakdown. We also had inter-forces and I was not given permission. Peace and Nuba are in pro but I cannot say am not under pressure. I have a feeling that one day I will be there.”
Moment of reckoning
Inspired by defender Betty Namukasa, whom she used to adore for her trademark jump and the way she used to hang in the air before she could pass the ball, Ajio says this is their moment of reckoning
“In 2015 we were so green. We didn’t know much. I was surprised we even came seventh. Last time we went to perform but this time we are going to compete.
The national team trains for three days from Wednesday to Friday at Namboole under the instruction of six coaches yet her heart still bleeds for Fred Mugerwa, whom she describes as ‘nicest person who has ever handled’ her. “He was polite and always pushed me to the limits. I still miss him.”
Jamaican goal keeper Nicole Aiken-Pinnock is her idol and thinks many more stars can be bred with increased government funding.
“Apart from Mr Mulindwa, who sponsors the National League, companies don’t seem to realise that netball is a worldwide sport. I am waiting for that day when all teams in the national league get sponsors.”