Uganda is often referred to as The Pearl of Africa, The Source of The River Nile, or The Home of The Mountains Of The Moon. Well, this may be partly due to the geographical location of Uganda in the continent of Africa, for being the source of the River Nile which is a life line of millions of people in several countries, or rightly so, for being the home of the wonderful Mountains Of The Moon.
The diversity of cultures and traditions and yet with a people blessed with a remarkable hospitality cannot be overlooked. Sports is one of the activities that bring the people of Uganda as one. Aporting nation that has produced some of the finest sportsmen and women on the world stage. Boxing is probably the sport that is often spoken of in reference to the Stars of ‘yesterday’ that are slowly fading from the memory of today’s youth.
My memory goes back to the 1960s when the Uganda Boxers emerged in the ‘Medal brackets’ on the international scene. I may also admit that seeing my own brother in the Uganda national Boxing squad might have kept my memory alive, not to mention my own participation. As I was growing up and following the Boxing news as closely as I possibly could, the mostly spoken of were as follows: Flyweight – John B. Wandera, Henry R. Hamuli, Busonya and Francis Kaweesi. Bantamweight – John M. Sentongo, Moses Badi and Bernard Walusimbi. Featherweight – Remigio Odongo, Ntwirenabo, etc. Lightweight – Kesi Odong, etc. Light Welterweight – Peter Grace Sseruwagi. Welterweight – Domisiano M. Ochodomuge. Light Middleweight – Francis W. Nyangweso. Middleweight – Powell Ernest Mabwa, Peter Paul Odhiambo and Ben Ocan. Light Heavyweight – Henry Mugwanya, Teddy Mwanje, etc. Heavyweight – Benson Masanda.
The above mentioned dominated the national championships and some of them represented Uganda in many international tournaments.
The British Commonwealth Games held in Perth, Australia in 1962 saw the Ugandan Light Middleweight boxer, Francis Were Nyangweso win a Silver medal. After the return home of the Ugandan contingent, not much was heard again of him in regard to boxing. He left the sporting scene and concentrated his time in the military service.
1964 was the year that ‘shook’ the boxing arena in Uganda. The national Open Boxing Championships were shaken, as the crowd watched in disbelief the defeat of the legendary “hard hitter” Peter Grace Sseruwagi. Uganda’s Light Welterweight champion and undefeated in Uganda for many years, was dethroned by the unknown boxer from Namilyango College, Alex Odhiambo. The defeat of Peter Grace Sseruwagi took everybody by surprise. Sseruwagi was forced into retirement to give a chance to the new Light Welterweight champion of Uganda. He was posted to Kilembe Mines where he worked as Sports Officer and Boxing Coach. He was also to work as an assistant to Tom Kawere, Uganda’s National Boxing Coach. After several years as a successful boxing Coach of Kilembe Mines Boxing Club, Peter Grace Sseruwagi replaced Tom Kawere as Uganda’s National Boxing Coach. Alex Odhiambo was to dominate Uganda, East Africa and the continent of Africa in the years to come. Tom Kawere became the Deputy General Secretary of the National Council of Sports, NCS.
By 1968 and beyond Uganda’s Boxing Stars had multiplied in number, so that Uganda could afford at least two national teams to fight simultaneously in two different tournaments. The Olympic Games held in Mexico that year produced yet two new Stars. Leo Rwabwogo boxing in the Flyweight division won a Bronze medal and Eridadi Mukwanga boxing in the Bantamweight division won a Silver medal. The performance of the Ugandan Boxers was remarkable, as reported by the media.
By 1970 the Uganda boxing scene was embraced by Stars such as Light Flyweight, John James Odwori after the decline of Ogada who had previously represented Uganda in the Mexico Olympics. J. James Odwori won a Gold medal in the British Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was to dominate the Light Flywzight division in Uganda, East Africa, the continent of Africa and the British Commonwealth in the years to come. The ‘British Commonwealth Games’ were forced to change the name in 1974. Demontrations were held claiming that the name of the Games symbolised the “colonial nations and territories of Britain”. There was a strong demand that the word, ‘British’ be removed from the name of the Games. The flag of the British Commonwealth Games was then stolen from the Games’ Village in Christchurch and returned only when it was decided that henceforth, the Games will be known as ‘The Commonwealth Games’.
In January, 1971 Uganda came to an abrupt change. There was a military coup d’etat, so that even the sports scene somewhat changed. Many familiar boxers disappeared from the national scene. The former national Middleweight boxer, Ben Ocan returned as the Manager for the National Boxing Team. While celebrating Uganda’s victory as the Amateur Boxing Champions of Africa at Park Hotel, Kampala in 1973, Ben Ocan was last seen shaking hands with President Idi Amin. It seemed as though Ben Ocan was being congratulated for a job well done, but turned out to be the last day he would ever be seen again. The disappearance of Ben Ocan terrified everyone at the National Council of Sports. Ben was a businessman, a friend to many and certainly had nothing to do with the politics of Uganda.
By mid 1970s the national boxing squad had expanded to include many as, Bantamweights – Ali Rojo, Shadrach Odhiambo, Julius Ringto, etc. Featherweights – Deogratias Musoke, Ayub Kalule, etc. Lightweights – John Mugabi, Vicky Byarugaba, etc. Light Welterweights – Joseph Nsubuga, Peter Odhiambo, etc. Light Middleweights and above included, John Odhiambo, John Opio, John Nyeko, Alex Ojara, Leonidas Njunwa, Deogratias Zinkubire and many others.
The National Boxing Squad was now with many promising contenders, so that the veterans had to exit. Not because they were unable to perform well, but simply to give a chance to the new ‘blood’ in the team. The veterans included, Leo Rwabwogo, Eridadi Mukwanga, Mohamed Muruli, Alex Odhiambo, David Jackson, Mathias Ouma, Andrew Kajjo, among many others. The departure of the Welterweight contender, David Jackson might have been the most poignant moment. He, not only left the national team, but had also decided to leave Uganda for good.
David Jackson, born of a Muganda mother and an unknown to him, a white Englishman. David grew up with a single mother, but also taken care of by a Roman Catholic priest and teacher at Namilyango College, Reverand Fr. Damian Grimes. When Rev. Fr. Grimes transferred to Kamuli College, Namasagali as Headmaster, David Jackson joined him. Later David joined Makerere University where he graduated. After graduation he was offered a job at Kilembe Mines Ltd. Shortly after, he was invited to Namasagali by Rev. Fr. Grimes. The Headmaster had important news to deliver.
On arrival to Namasagali David Jackson was to be shocked by the news he received. After the formalities of welcoming David to his (Fr. Grimes’) home, the Headmaster ‘dropped the bomb’. Indeed, the words uttered to David sounded like a bomb had dropped onto him! Fr. Grimes told David about his biological father and where to find him.
David Jackson’s father was a Roman Catholic priest who served in Uganda until he learned that he had fathered a child with a local woman. The Reverand Fr. Kelly had to bow out of the priesthood and silently out of Uganda. He returned to England where he was believed to have retired. David left Uganda for England to find his father and was not expected to return.
One of the moments for Uganda’s glory was in 1975. Not only for emerging as the undisputed Boxing Champions of Africa, but also a new boxing Star was ‘born’. Almost from nowhere, Uganda’s Welterweight boxing contender in the All Africa Amateur Boxing Championships shook the continent! Vitalis Bbege originating from the Kampala Boxing Club, KBC entered the ring to represent Uganda in the Welterweight division, left everyone amazed. He will always be remembered for his performance. He knocked out all his opponents to win the Gold medal at Lugogo, 1975. He indeed added his name onto the list of Uganda’s stars, alongside the likes of Ayub Kalule and Joseph Nsubuga who had previously won a Gold medal and a Bronze medal respectvely in the World Amateur Boxing Championships held in Havana, Cuba, 1974.
In Uganda talent in sports was abundant, so that being the national champion of Uganda was not a guarantee to represent the nation. The Uganda Amateur Boxing Association, UABA in conjunction with the National Council of Sports, NCS always invited a large squad of potential national representatives, in addition to the national champions of Uganda. After a lengthy period of training under the National Boxing Coach and his Assistant illimination bouts were organised. The winners would then be named and presented as the representatives of Uganda in a given tournament. Where the national champion is not convincingly defeated, a rematch may be necessary.
I remember while selecting the team for the All Africa Championships in 1973 at Nsamizi, Entebbe I unanimously defeated Leo Rwabwogo for the Flyweight division, but a rematch had to be organised. In this case it is not that Leo Rwabwogo was not convincingly defeated, but because it was simply unbelievable. Leo Rwabwogo was undefeated in Uganda, East Africa and the Commonwealth since 1968 and had two Olympic medals to his credit. A Bronze medal from the Mexico Olympics, 1968 and a Silver medal from the Munich Olympics, 1972. The rematch was oganised and I defeated him again.
At the time I did not understand why I had to prove again that I was better than Leo Rwabwogo. Previously in 1970 while selecting the national team for the British Commonwealth Games which were held in Edinburgh, Scotland I contested for the Light Flyweight. I also unanimously defeated John James Odwori, but a rematch was not done. I was dropped and Odwori was selected. This was because I was under age. Odwori won a Gold medal at the Games and was later to dominate Uganda, East Africa, Africa and the Commonwealth in the Light Flyweight division.
Uganda was undeniably undisputed Boxing Champions in the continent of Africa and beyond. The boxing Stars, the old and the new could be recognised on the streets and other places across the country. The new Stars like the Heavyweight contender, John Nyeko, Light Heavyweight contender, Deogtatias Zinkubire, the “Over size” Heavyweight Alex Ojara, were simply fun to be with. John Nyeko’s sense of humour, apart from his ever impressive performance in the ring had made him a friend to many. Deogratias Zinkubire had also a tremendous sense of humour. His lack of school education, or lack of history and geography knowledge contributed to his blunders and humour. One could not easily know whether he was jocking or lacked knowledge. I remember while in the cinema hall in Bucarest, Romania he nearly bust my lungs of trying hard to suppress laughter. Watching an American film, when Zinkubire saw black people he asked, “Eh, are there Bakiga in America too?” I ignored the question, but he insistet and wanted the answer. Zinkubire was, or is a Mukiga from Nyamarogo village in Kabale.
Alex Ojara was a very tall man and his feet were too large for the ring boots availble at the time. National Boxing Coach, Peter Grace Sseruwagi told him to put his foot on a piece of paper and with a marker Sseruwagi made a sketch of Ojara’s foot. The sketch was sent to Germany and special ring boots were made for the Heavyweight contender, Alex Ojara. Uganda enjoyed success in many tournaments around the world, so that even the tension that existed between Tanzania and Uganda governments did not seem to matter so much.
1977 altered the scenery of Uganda, but also the minds of the people. Uganda was overclouded by fear and surely, the country would never be the same again. The murder of the Arch Bishop of the Anglican Church, Janan Luwum and the two Cabinet Ministers, Oboth Ofumbi and Erinayo Oryema was only the tip of the iceberg.The murder of the Acholi and Langi in all the Uganda Armed Forces had commenced. Lorries, buses, pick-ups and other vehicles could be seen as they dropped the widows and orphans at Kampala Bus Park and similar locations around the country. The clouds in the sky had turned red and many people simply watched in disbelief. Probably one of the most beloved boxers of our time, the Heavyweight contender, John Nyeko was murdered at Simba Army Barracks, Mbarara. Receiving the sad news at my desk in Kampala nearly shocked me to death. I had only to cry silently, lest nobody know that I was crying for a murdered Acholi. Before the end of that year, 1977 many boxers had already fled the country. Ayub Kalule and the Light Heavyweight boher, Mustafa Wasajja had fled to Denmark where they signed contracts to box as professionals. They were to be joined later by the Middleweight boxer, John Odhiambo.
The year 1977 changed Uganda and also killed the sporting spirit of our people. The unity of Ugandans and the spirit of brotherhood that many of us grew up embracing, was put on a serious test. The following year, 1978 as the remaining population was trying to rebuild their lives, the Uganda Armed forces in retaliation to an attack from Tanzania, crossed into Tanzania, destroyed the Kagera bridge and claimed a part of Tanzania’s territory. Tanzania fought back and the Uganda governmentheaded by President Idi Amin was overthrown and the entire Uganda Armed Forces erased. After the fall of the Idi Amin government in April, 1979 many former soldiers were detained in prisons. Many died there, some were released and many others were kept in prison and released only when the National Resistance Army / Movement took power in January, 1986.
After the fall of Idi Amin’s government as mentioned above, the Uganda National Liberation Front, UNLF took over the governance of the country.When I left prison I was instructed by the new Army Commander, Gen. Tito Okello and the Army Chief of Staff Brig. General Oyite Ojok to help re-establish boxing in the UNLA. I was given a number of people I could recruit into the UNLA who would, after military training be posted to the sports department. I surely hoped that peace would return soon. Some of the people I recruited into the UNLA included Eridadi Mukwanga and John Mugabi. I had hoped that Mukwanga would be of help in coaching and that Mugabi would bring a good name to the UNLA Boxing Department, but also attract more young boxers to join our ranks. John Mugabi might have been scared by the daily threats of war and disunity in the government. He fled to the UK and signed a contract to box as a professional. His performances have truly left a mark on the international Boxing scene. His nick-name, “the Beast” is unmistakable; it is indeed John “the Beast” Mugabi.
At the UNLA Headquarters at Bulange, I did what I possibly could to revive sports and in particular, Boxing, but threats and assassination attempts on my life, it became impossible to continue. I fled the country to save my life, but have always worked for the unity of Ugandans as a family. I believe that sports is one of the ways we can unite our people and together, Uganda shall rise again.
May the souls of our departed sportsmen and women Rest In eternal Peace. May the Sportsmen and women of today build a spirit of unity and may they be victorious for many years to come.
For God and My Country.
Byaruhanga Jonny Rubin.