When someone is disabled, many everyday activities become too challenging for them to handle, and often sports is out of the question. Majority of these physically unable persons resort to sitting by the street as beggars.
However, one Wednesday morning, I happened to attend a training session at Lugogo Arena where a group of men, some without legs and others with short legs, were sitting on a marked concrete court and playing volleyball. They energetically spiked the ball as they crawled on the concrete court and cheered each other.
During the break I approached Ali Mukasa, a player who I later found out is Uganda Sitting Volleyball Federation (USVF)’s chairman, dreams of representing his country in the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games in Brazil. He told me for more than 10 years now, this group has revolved their world around a small volleyball court and a ball. For Mukasa, a man struck by polio at the age of one year, impairment has never been a handicap in courting success. His soft-spoken voice conceals an invincible will power as he tells me his story.
“My mother told me I was not born like this. I developed severe fever that turned into cerebral palsy when I was only one year old which later turned out to be polio. The doctors tried all they could but all was in vain. I do not regret anything because I have done so many great things for my country.
I started playing sitting volleyball in 2008 after trip to Kigali, Rwanda where I had gone to represent my country in sit ball World Cup. I remember during one of the games, I heard an announcement about a training course for sitting volleyball and luckily, it was free of charge.
I decided to attend it with my friend Rebecca Akwenyu, who is also a team member of the sit ball women’s team, to see if we could gain anything from it. The training turned out to be very interesting with lots of hope for persons with disabilities. When I came back to Uganda, I gathered my friends and took them through the drills of sitting volleyball. We formed a club and trained thrice a week; Monday, Wednesday and Thursday at MTN arena Lugogo. Thereafter, we started playing competitively. It is from there that I became chairman of Uganda Sitting Volleyball Federation.
Later, I met the Kampala Amateur Volleyball Federation committee members and they gave us a coach, a team doctor and referee. After a short while, my team also appointed me as the chairman for the Uganda Sitting Volleyball Federation (USVF), that was a turning point in my life.
In 2009, I led my teammates to Kigali for our first championship, the Open International Cup of Sitting Volleyball, we finished third out of six countries. We did not qualify for the World Cup since they chose the top two teams; Rwanda and Egypt but the women’s team qualified.
During that tournament, I got nervous. Many people were watching and I did not want to let my country down. But after emerging third, I was confident that we still had a chance to perform better.
So, we did not stop at this tournament. In 2011, we played in the East Africa Cup in Tanzania and we emerged second out of five countries. We also went back to Rwanda for the Africa Sitting Volleyball Qualifiers which also doubled as the Great Lake Championships and we won a bronze medal. We were lucky to be among the three teams selected for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers currently going on in Morocco.
The team looked forward to it. We made an effort to see that we had double practice sessions to stay fit and well-prepared. We needed about Shs100m to cater for a 16-man team while in Morocco. Unfortunately, we couldn’t raise that money and cancelled the trip at the last minute. Given that our main rivals Rwanda had cancelled their trip, we had better chances to win the event because we are very strong.
During our training, sometimes we would not access the MTN arena but always trained from outside, at the concrete court. Most of us don’t have good training kits for persons with disabilities, so, we always suffered hand bruises and injuries but we resiliently nursed them and kept going.
We love this game because it has raised our self-esteem and we want to send a message of hope to other people with disabilities. Unlike the able-bodied people, we use both our hands to move and play. However, we also have families and jobs like them.
Internationally, we are not doing so well because we have not played in any international event for the International Paralympic Committee to rank us. But regionally, we are superstars. We are the fifth in Africa after Egypt, Morocco, Rwanda and Kenya. After telling his story, the writer met Mukasa’s friend who has played a notable role.
Mukasa’s friend, Godfrey Katende supported him when he discovered the world of sitting volleyball.
“I was the Communication Officer of the Uganda Society for the Disabled as well as the General Secretary of USVF when I met Mukasa. He approached us after their return from Rwanda and we were very supportive of his idea. I got to believe that what an able-bodied can do so can any disabled person do,” recalls Katende.
“The team’s main challenge is lack of funds to sponsor them for most of those world tournaments yet most of the time they qualify. We lack equipment and kits yet being vulnerable people they need proper kits to use while moving to avoid getting major injuries and bruises on their limbs and bodies.”
ABOUT THE SPORT
Volleyball was first developed in 1895 by an American named William Morgan. However, Sitting Volleyball was selected as a sports event for the people with disabilities in Netherlands in 1953, which is far later than its introduction. The origin of Sitting Volleyball was sitzball that was enjoyed in Germany. Since sitzball was a very passive sport as the participants played the game while sitting on the floor, more dynamic change was called for and in 1956, the Netherlands Sports Committee first introduced a new event called Sitting Volleyball that combined sitzball and volleyball. It was introduced to the world at the Arnhem 1980 Paralympic Games.
Sitting volleyball is open to athletes with a permanent physical impairment to at least one of their lower limbs-- this may be from paraplegia, amputations, cerebral palsy or polio.
To join, one has to submit his particulars like identification card, copy of your birth certificate to club officials or executive members. You only haveto attend trainings regularly every Monday Wednesday and Thursday at MTN Arena in Lugogo. To join the national team, you have to be an excellent player .
This game requires a smaller court (10m x 6m) and a lower net, and the game is considerably faster than standing volleyball. It is played in a best-of-five set format, and the first to reach 25 points (with at least a 2-point lead) wins the game.
A team consists of six on the court at a time. At all times, an athletes’ pelvis must be touching the ground, and service blocks are allowed.
Education: Ali Mukasa went to Nazigo R.C Primary School in the early 1980s, then St Kalemba and Kasubi Secondary Schools. He dropped out in Senior Five due to inadequate finances.
Family: He is a single father. His daughter studies at Ebenezer Junior in Nansana in Top Class.
Childhood challenges: At Nazigo , they were two pupils with disabilities. The school exempted from participating in most activities especially sports. He says the, Physical Education teacher always stopped them from joining the rest during PE, a move that hurt him.
Away from sports: He is a businessman. He has a shop where he sells clothes and shoes in Abalema Market.
Hobbies: He loves playing with his six-year-old daughter. Besides, he is an enthusiastic football fan. Internationally, he supports Liverpool FC and locally, Kampala Capital City Authority club.
Favourite food: Posho, rice and beans to boost his energy level.
Most memorable moment: When he won a gold medal in last year’s MTN wheelchair marathon and bagged Shs1.5m.
In sitting volleyball, his best moment was when he won the best attacker crown for the East Africa region.
Other activities: He trains wheel chair basket ballers, wheel chair racing and power lifting. He is a gym instructor of the athletes with disabilities who do weight lifting.