Rugby: A story of pain that seemingly never leads to gain.
I have never been a perfect person. Neither will I ever lay claim to being a good person. Like many people, I have my many flaws: some I have managed to conquer, others I have fought with little to no success. One thing remains constant though: I am a man of beliefs and convictions. A boy at heart chasing a dream against the tide while flying headstrong into the winds that the politics of my path of choice in defiance blow at me. My constant castigations of the Uganda Rugby Union are not because I believe in perfection, but rather because I know that in as much as we are imperfect, we owe it to the people we serve to look out for their betterment first and always. Then and only then can our mistakes be perceived to be honest mistakes, rather than the intentional result of fat-bellied men that have never played the sport looking to add extra layers of lipids, or line their pockets off the hard work of young boys.
First off, I would like to thank the National Rugby 7s team for their outstanding performance this year. For years, Coach Onyango Tolbert and his management squad have managed to shield himself and his boys from the distracting influence of Union politicking and as a result, they all have made us proud of being Ugandan Rugby Players. They have very outstanding player welfare policies among other things, where the effort of the players is rewarded duly, highly and in a timely manner. Other than that, his and their commitment to the demands that perfecting their art requires are nothing less than commendable. I’m quite sure their failure to make it to core HSBC status will not dampen their resolve, just like it hasn’t in the past years.
Non Desistas, Non Exieris.
The glorious achievements of great men are often overshadowed by the selfish actions of small men. This is why it truly hurts when the victories that the national 7s team has won both us as a rugby community and Uganda as a country on the international stage are marred by the misdeeds of the union back home every single time.
After winning the Africa Cup 7s tournament and branding Uganda African Champions, a very much needed win for Uganda after two Covid19 riddled seasons with many ups and downs, when rugby was supposed to capitalize on the win to get sponsors aboard for clubs ahead of the 7s season and for the 15s national team ahead of its World Cup, the Uganda Rugby Union shared that Nile Special had awarded 9.8 billion shillings to the rugby community. Wows were shared, beers were drunk, fist bumps were the order of the day and old fat men shook hands across tables filled with kyadondo pork and bond 7, congratulating themselves for the work well done. Even I was fooled for a minute until some things stopped adding up.
· When the deal was announced, it stated that the 9.8 billion would span 3 or 4 years. Which kind of contract is not time binding enough and leaves a whole year in question?
· We are two weekends into the 7s season and most clubs haven’t received their allocation of funding from the 15’s season that ended months ago. Why is this the case if we have been allocated 9.8 billion?
· We are two weekends into the 7s season and clubs still aren’t being allocated enough facilitation to cover the basic costs of transportation. Food isn’t catered for at the games, the ambulances don’t have k-tape and the reward for a team that wins a circuit is 500,000 Shillings. All on a supposed budget of 9.8 billion Shillings.
· Teams have a budget for the entire 7s season that the union knows about, but they’re forced to get onto their knees just to get facilitated for each games-circuit they’re set to travel for. This facilitation is usually less than a fifth of the money clubs spend. They’re then forced to depend on well-wishers and fans to facilitate something that has a budget in the books of the union.
· Is the 9.8 Billion Shillings a lie? Would transparency by the union clarify this issue and answer our many questions?
There’s a great price to be paid by those affected by a system’s inadequacy. It must be also known that this price will never be paid by those that lead the kleptocracy, but will be carried, like a burden that gets heavier with every step, by those hard-working men and women who put in the hard work on the ground.
You see those young men and boys with BBC English, perfectly chiseled jawlines and muscular thighs jogging onto pitch every Saturday to entertain you? They pay the price. Those young men beaming with pride and well-mastered smiles who stand in front of Nile Special advert boards at the end of every game and celebrate two crates of beer as a reward for their passionate effort to entertain you and advertise the beer brand… Beneath those tired smiles, they wonder how they’ll get back home because their team manager just told them the club wasn’t going to be able to give them transport refund. Why? The club’s funding for the season promised by the union hasn’t been released yet. All this because someone in “The Union That Doesn’t Represent Rugby” delayed the release of club funds and went to France with a wife and a sidepiece on money meant for other things.
One student has to go back to his hostel in the outskirts of Kikoni and convince his beautiful 2nd year girlfriend that Rolex and water is a balanced diet, all the while regaling her about the highlights of his day as Man Of The Match and silently praying she doesn’t choke because Kabode’s chapatis have been tougher to chew lately. She proudly wears his MOTM medal as she listens adoringly, her eyes missing the fact that he has barely eaten after 80 minutes of bone-rattling rugby and had to touch his weekly allowance from mzei just to get to the games and back to hostel. He doesn’t know what to do for the rest of the week, but man must hustle and he is man. He remembers celebrating and retweeting the post by rugby union announcing the 9.8 billion. He decides to go twice as hard this coming week, both to impress his pretty flower of a girl and to be worthy of the 9.8 billion. He doesn’t know it yet but clubs might be allocated only 10 million from that money and some might miss out fully on the money for not having enough money to install cameras on their home pitch. The irony.
Nearby, there’s a drunk fan crowdfunding with a bucket-hat looking for transport and accommodation for a team that came in from outside Kampala for the games but is now stuck with no options. He has managed to collect 150,000 Shs for the team in his bucket hat after moving allover the stands. The team needs 450,000 for a coaster back to Mbale. There’s a small hole at the base of his hat where some notes are falling out one by one. He has no idea. He wears a nile special branded tee shirt, drinks nile special and is an avid supporter of the brand for all it has done for rugby. He doesn’t know that during the covid season almost half of their rugby-allocated money went to a company called TBH holdings to do advertisement for rugby. He doesn’t know that he has been ripped off by the system but he does it for the little boys that play for his team. He does it because he believes in them, and in their abilities.
Elsewhere is a young man with a family of two he just sent to the village to live with his parents because his club has not released his monthly contract money for 3 months. He sips on a very cold beer as he wonders what to do next. He has dedicated his life to rugby, and every sip brings the regret to the front of his mind. He has been slowly slipping into depression and hiding in the bottle more often but that’s not something he knows about because sportsmen are hard guys. His phone vibrates. It’s his mom in Masindi. She wants some money: his child has fallen ill. He blames his team manager for not paying him his dues for 3 months. Little does he know, his team has not even received the little money allocated to each team for the season that ended three months ago, and their presence in the ongoing 7’s season circuits is demanded by the same union. The team manager has turned his phone off and is slowly getting frustrated. He silently decided a month ago that this would be his last season as a team manager but he loves his club so much and keeps on compromising, lying to himself that he will soon quit.
Another hard guy will drink 7 beers to fill his engine enough to give him both the energy and the courage to walk through nighttime Kampala at 2am to get back to his kafunda in Kireka where he can drink on credit. He didn’t move with any money for the games and hadn’t carried his atm card because they’d been promised allowance on game day. He has work early morning but he needs to feel well-rewarded for his day’s efforts and his body has been programmed to take beer as celebration from years of celebrating rugby gameday with only beers. His boots hanging off their laces around his neck, he pours one for the road into a plastic tumbler and starts his journey. On his way out of the gate his team’s coach who works as a banker will pull up in his newly bought Subaru and ask to give him a ride. They’ll laugh about the transport allowance and monthly allowance and the banker will intimate to hard guy that he is leaving early because he had run out of cash helping out younger players with no way of getting home. He loves the sport but can’t bear to see the executives in the union that doesn’t represent rugby all seated on tall stools with marketing executives from the beer brand that isn’t Guinness, laughing loudly while toasting to good life with two bottles of Bellaire while the players that fund their lifestyle don’t have food or transport allowance secured for them after the games. Hard guy will probably nod it off cause he has grown accustomed to it, and has given up hope of ever seeing change.
Close by, there’s another former national team player that’s soon turning 40. He had to pay entrance at Legends to watch the last Elgon Cup game hosted by Uganda. He represented the nation a good 10 times in his lifetime but work obligations saw him transfer to Nakapiripirit for a 5 year spell which ended his rugby career. He has a crew of 10 young players surrounding him as he tells them old rich tales of rugby before the new laws were brought up. Hardened by life and happy enough on his 7 figure salary from a cement company, he is oblivious to the fact that some of those he is preaching to about the values of representing the national team represented it in France some weeks back and are yet to receive their game allowances. He also doesn’t know that they had to pick almost half of their 600,000 Shillings travel allowance to pay for their visas in Turkey when their wait in transit exceeded 8 hours. They have never been refunded but they have hope. They have faith in a system that he has seen fail myriad times.
The actions of the few demotivate and break the hearts of the many who give it their all.
There is also a great price to be paid by those who fight the system’s inadequacy. Ask Zeno Owora Otieno or the multitude of other players who dared to raise their heads against the system. Better yet, ask me about the Kangaroo Court I faced after last year’s rant about the Uganda Rugby Union’s poor health policies, something I faced again this year when I was denied medicals after I got injured on national duty again.
There too is a harsh reality check that comes with being pulled out of your comfort zone. It’s a hard fact to face but most humans operate on the principle that “if it doesn’t affect me, I’m mostly blind to it.” Clubs that once sided with the union later fell out and faced the reality of things after their place at the table was given to another, and some who once fought the union now sit at table with them and share the bread of our sufferings on the pitch.
One question always lingers on my mind. Where is the 9.8 billion shillings? If it hasn’t come through, why are clubs being tied by the union to the terms of the contract which one party of the deal hasn’t delivered on? Could internal conflicts on the upcoming elections be reason to a hold-up on dutifully fulfilling obligations? Is TBWA the advertising agency for Nile Special? If so, are they aware of the conflict of interest that existed when TBH holdings, owned by one of their own, was receiving the largest cut from the money that Nile Special allocated to rugby? Are they aware of the conflict of interest that will further arise if one of their own is also in charge of the 9.8billion the company they represent is going to give rugby, if at all he/she has an elective post in the union? Why limit clubs and deny them their right to Alcohol Companies as sponsors if you can’t negotiate well enough up there with Nile Special to get them a deal that caters for their basics? If the deal you struck with Nile cannot cover the costs of a club why isn’t it allowed to get that facilitation from Bell? In order to limit clubs, shouldn’t you ensure they are well facilitated? Shouldn’t you capitalize on your self-proclaimed mobilization skills to lobby multiple companies and create a pool of sponsors ready and up for grabs by clubs that meet the requirements or we wait for free water from Rwenzori?
You see, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel but when Umeme is in charge of this light, you have to be ready to move forward even when you see no light. Rugby has done this for way too long — moving forward without a light to guide us or a plan for how we move all the while compromising our core beliefs to appease small men in powerful positions.
My name is Isaac Rujumba, and this is the table I choose to shake.