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The man behind Uganda’s oldest sport

By Vision Reporter

Added 26th December 2007 03:00 AM

IT took two minutes of courage to resurrect a sport that had gone into oblivion for close to a century.

IT took two minutes of courage to resurrect a sport that had gone into oblivion for close to a century.

By Arthur Baguma

IT took two minutes of courage to resurrect a sport that had gone into oblivion for close to a century.

At a seminar in 1998,
Fagil Manday, the then commissioner for secondary education, asked participants to identify a sport which is indigenous and easy to adopt in schools.

The fully-packed seminar hall saw no one respond until an old man raised his hand. Everyone looked on in silence, before he mentioned a word that sent them into prolonged laughter. “Amahiri,” the old man said, before confidently staring at people laughing at him.

While he started off as a laughing stock, the old man’s passion has now spread like a bush fire in schools. Ignatius Kagongi, the founder and writer of Uganda Amahiri Sport Association (UASA), has come a long way. He speaks with a lot of vigour in a high-pitched tone. Someone metres away can hear him clearly. He is conversant with the evolution of Ugandan traditional sport.
The dark-skinned, jolly, medium-size Kagongi speaks with pomp. His passion for African sport features prominently. He lashes out at Western sports, saying it of erodes Africa’s treasured values.

Amahiri sport appears on the sports calendar of the Ministry of Education and Sports. It was one of the indigenous games showcased during the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting hosted by Uganda. Amahiri is a Runyankore name derived from the verb okuhirika (to throw or roll something). In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the sport was popular among looking after goats and cows on the hills of Ruhinda in Bushenyi district.

Kagongi says there are many prominent men with whom he went to school, who enjoy the sport.

The most outstanding are Kahinda Otafire, the local government minister and Capt Peter Magara of the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces. He says a close look at the game reveals some resemblances with golf, apart from the differences in the tools used and the resources required for each of them.

But what value is Amahiri, in the 21st century, an era of modernisation. Kagongi is fast to react to this.

“Amahiri teaches determination, respect for established regulations and endurance,” he emphatically states, occasionally throwing his hands in the air.

It is a simple game which emphasises discipline and tolerance. Not much is involved in the game apart from throwing sticks around, but what is unique about it, is the rules which emphasise key life aspects. “We had no supervisors, no bouncers and no whistles, yet we usually rounded off our games peacefully.

We accepted the winner and respected him for his superior abilities at the sport,” Kagongi talks of his hey days at the top of the game.

Long ago, Amahiri was a popular sport among the cattle keeping communities of western Uganda.

Amahiri is about 150 years old, making it one of the oldest traditional games in Uganda.

When he hatched the idea of reviving the sport, Kagongi was haunted with frustration, finding it rather a tall order for anyone to buy his idea. At Old Kampala Senior Secondary School, fellow teachers laughed at him and wondered what had gone wrong with him. Who would be interested in a replica of Stone Age days?

But little did he know that the first enthusiasts would be the youth.

With a handful of students, he started off what has fast become a popular sport in many schools. The game is easy to teach and learn — even the disabled would find no difficulty enjoying it.

“It teaches self-control. We were young boys and had no referees or overseers during the game,” says 80-year-old Mzee Rukuta of Bushenyi district.

Kagongi’s love for Amahiri began as soon as he started walking. His father, now 81 years, taught him the game. His father learnt the game from his great-grandfather.

The game is played by four people, with sticks whose width is the size of a bicycle hand pump.

While the sport was predominantly played by young males, old people and females can also play it. To play the game, one does not have to go to a sports shop to buy expensive kits or subscribe to a venue.

All that is required is to go to the nearest thicket, cut a stick and head to a hilly terrain, a grazing field or bear ground. “When I go upcountry, I enjoy the game with the locals,” says Joash Munanura, a civil servant hailing from Ntungamo district.

After writing an elaborate book explaining the game and its benefits, the Ministry of Education and Sports approved it. Kagongi authored, The Traditional Sport Amahiri, which was approved by the ministry of education as a teaching guide in schools.

The game was approved by the National Council of Sports and commissioned by the Ministry of Education and Sports. The Uganda Amahiri Sport Association (UASA) was also inaugurated at Old Kampala Senior Secondary School in 2004. “This game provides entertainment, fertile ground for discipline, competition and physical exercise,” the recommendation from the National Council of Sports indicates.

At least over 10 schools across the country practice the sport. It is not an expensive sport. You do not need uniforms, boots, stockings, fields, balls, nets and rackets, which rend sports not affordable in many communities. Kagongi says when he visited Shanghai, the sports authorities developed kin interest in the game and requested him to train some of their officials about the game. But he says this would have been as good as selling the country’s tradition.

“I did not give it much thought because the Chinese can easily take it up and modify it into their own sport,” he explains.

Under the Ministry of Education and Sports Schools Sporting Calendar, schools are encouraged to popularise indigenous traditional games.

“I would like to attract the attention of our President who cherishes valuable African heritage, to promote Amahiri,” Kagongi says.
Through the education ministry, he plans to hold a training course to popularise the sport.

“I would like to inform all schools that Amahiri, a traditional game, has been developed and a documentary and video of the game can be accessed from the Ministry of Education and Sports.

You are encouraged to popularise it among others,” a communiqué from the Ministry of Education and Sports to all schools says in part.

Kagongi was born in 1948 at Buharambo, Kabira, Ruhinda county in Bushenyi district. He had his primary education at Buharambo Boys and Nyakishojwa Primary School. He did his junior secondary school at St. John Fisher, Ibanda.

His attended O’ level at Kitabi Seminary and did his higher school certificate at Uganda Martyrs College, Alokolum.

At Makerere University, he obtained a B.A (Hons) Degree, and a concurrent Diploma in Education in 1974. He is a teacher at Old Kampala Senior Secondary School. Kagongi has written several books including the popular, Grudge At Heart.

The man behind Uganda’s oldest sport

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