Kisenyi: The talent factory that churned out legendary boxers like Ayub Kalule

Vision Reporter
Journalist @New Vision
Mar 26, 2024


Walking through Kisenyi and Katwe today, it is hard to believe that these were once huge slums.

It is also hard to believe that this area in the southern part of Kampala was also one of Uganda's most prominent producers for sports talent.

The slums are today quickly being eaten away by all sorts of commercial developments. Shopping malls, hotels, churches and new residential houses are swiftly snapping up the slum. What was once one of the country's biggest ghettos will soon be no more.

Also quickly being rubbed away is one of Uganda's most captivating rugs-to-prominence sports chapters.

Kisenyi and Katwe brought forth boxing champions like Ayub Kalule, Boza Edwards, Moustapha Wasajja, Vitalis Bbege, the Tebazalwa family, Sharif Bogere, John Opio and Fred Muwonge, together with star footballers like Timothy Ayiekho and Shaban Mwinda.

It is a story that had to do with the slums' proximity to Nakivubo Stadium, Mengo Social Center, Nakivubo Blue and Nabbagereka Primary Schools.

The slums' squalid conditions had children seeking refuge in these facilities to engage in sports. The boys ended up as either boxers, footballers or weightlifters, courtesy of the sports facilities. For the girls, it was netball at the two schools.

Nakivubo, complete with boxing and weightlifting gyms together with what was then the country's biggest football stadium, was every boy's dream.

The boxing gym was home to one of Uganda's oldest and biggest clubs - Kampala Boxing Club (KBC). Mengo Social Centre was yet another boxing hub.

"It all started by peeping through the gyms' windows. Next, you would be offering to clean the gym or wash the senior boxers' kits. Before long, we were being drafted into KBC's junior team. The rest, like they say, is history," said Kalule in a 1998 interview.

Once drafted into KBC, the legendary coach Elias Gabirali would take over.

"In football, we were usually let in football matches free because we were young. Next thing you knew you were a ball boy. That alone was a huge motivation for one to emulate the star competitors," said Ayiekho.

Ayub Kalule in action. Courtesy photo

Ayub Kalule in action. Courtesy photo

Kalule has sweet childhood memories of how his boxing journey began but notes that it was not all rosy.

"It was fun becoming a boxer. Then there were also the canes awaiting you the moment your parents learnt of your new pass time."

But to other parents, it was okay for the children to be engaged in sport rather than fall victim to the slums' dangerous side.

"Rather than have a child being introduced to marijuana, mairungi, theft, alcoholism and prostitution, it was better to know that your child was engaged in sports," says Mzee Musa Mwanje, an elder in Katwe.

Boza Edwards says playing safe had huge benefits.

"Sports disciplined us. "We also learnt that engaging in the slums' bad habits would undermine our careers, so we played safe. Many of our childhood friends who didn't play safe died very early."

There was also the movie influence. Children had fond memories of cowboy movies shown at the social centre.

Those who were able to get an extra buck paid visits to the various cinemas in the nearby city centre like Delite, Norman, Neeta and Odeon. Here, they enjoyed performances from  stars like Bud Spencer, Terrence Hill and Bruce Lee.

The fight aspect in most of these movies further enhanced the creative aspect of the youngsters.

It is this movie influence that had the heart of Kisenyi named Chicago while the eastern section of the slum was named Soweto for the area's support for the fight against Apartheid in South Africa.

Katwe was not about to be left out. A section of the slum was named Texas out of the area's love for cowboy movies.  

Amidst all this, sports thrived. Sports benefits like bursaries in the nearby schools for star athletes played a key role in encouraging parents to allow children to engage in sports.

Tebazalwa says that stardom completely changed the negative attitude towards disciplines like boxing. "When Kalule became an African, Commonwealth and later World champion, almost every parent wanted their child to become a sportsman."

Meanwhile, Ayiekho was also scaling new heights in football. He was a star player in big teams like Express, KCC and the national team.

Sam Kizito, a resident of Kisenyi that time, has fond memories.

"They were globetrotting and would return with good clothes, cash and lots of presents for their families and girlfriends. Not even graduates that time were enjoying life this way. Suddenly, every child in the area wanted to become a sportsman."

A lot has changed today. The stadium's future is uncertain in a re-development project that seems not to have taken into account the core use of the facility.

Shops have taken over the area that once housed the gym. KBC has since also re-located to a stuffy small room in one of the neighbouring arcades.

The schools' land is also being encroached on by developers of non-education-related projects.

"Our old Kisenyi and Katwe as we once knew them are gone," laments boxing promoter Emmanuel Mwesigwa.

Related Articles

No Comment

(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});