On a hot Sunday afternoon, at precisely 1.30pm, mothers are frantically trying to rustle up a quick lunch. But how fast can one be about preparing a traditional meal?
With six little girls, between four and seven years, in one compound, bickering soon sets in.
And as their mothers chase them out of the house, Okwepena, an all-time favourite game, beckons. One girl brings her night shirt and quickly, they fold it and wrap it in two polyethylene bags to form a ball.
“Ani agenda okukuba?” (Who is going to shoot?) one of them asks.
They divide themselves into shooters and dodgers and the game begins. It is an elimination game; if you are hit, you get out and become a shooter. Within seconds, the first girl is hit by the ball.
“Nedda! Nedda, banange!” (No! No, my friends!) she calls out at the top of her voice, throwing her arms in the air.
“The ball has beat (sic) you! Get out!” another girl calls out. The game stops for a minute as they sort out the rules.
“Tulina okukola wansi, mowa , tayimu okusooka, (We have to first do once, more, and time),” one of the shooters speaks up. These words soothe the first who was beginning to sulk.
Now, the shooters have to throw the ball above the dodger three times before the game begins, giving her time to orient herself.
The game goes on for 30 minutes. Such is the noise they make that the neighbour’s sons climb onto the roof of their outdoor kitchen to watch. The girls’ enjoyment is visible in the quiet that engulfs the compound as the dodger is playing, and the loud cheers and laughter that greet her when the ball meets its target.
Okwepena (Luganda), Adoji (Samia), Suna Baby (Botswana), Fulayi (Malawi), Maflawu (Zimbabwe), Kati (Kenya), Boruboru (South Sudan), Tayari (Tanzania), is a game that almost every young girl played, everywhere, even by the roadside. I once witnessed it being played in the most unlikely place – the newsroom.
The main rule of the game is that once you are hit, you exit the arena and become an onlooker or a shooter. There is also a version of Okwepena called Seven Stones.
In the American version – dodgeball – players from two teams throw big balls at each other, at the same time, while avoiding being hit themselves. The objective is to eliminate members of the opposing team by hitting them with the balls, catching a ball thrown by a member of the opposing team, or forcing them to move out of court boundaries.
Two bodies represent dodgeball; World Dodgeball Federation (WDBF) and World Dodgeball Association (WDA).
Over the last 10 years, with the advance of technology on the African continent, little girls in middle-class families have been denied the chance of enjoying Okwepena because they spend time playing games on their (or parents) phones and computers.
A vision for Okwepena
Four years ago, though, a young man set out to innovate a new version of Okwepena – which he called Cheza. Simon Peter Tumukunde,23, is an IT specialist who has played Okwepena only once.
In 2011, during a Senior Five Economics class at Katikamu SDA Secondary School, Tumukunde found himself dozing off. “I was bored, and as I dozed, many thoughts were going through my mind. Suddenly, a memory of an Okwepena game I had watched came back to me. I was like, ‘Hold up! How come I have never seen Okwepena at the Olympics? How come I have never seen this game played at a professional level?’ I turned to my neighbour and told him I was going to launch Okwepena competition during the holidays.”
However, he knew that in its current form, the game needed touching up to fit into the grand dreams he had for it.
“We needed a court. All sport must have parameters. The shooters and dodgers (Chezas) needed limits within which to move. I drew a sketch of the court at the back of my Economics book.”
The court would be 14 metres long and 4 metres wide, divided into shooting and dodging grounds. Next, a game flow was needed. There are different styles of Okwepena. Some play to eliminate each other, to get points, or the Seven Stones version.
“I came up with four rounds. The first and second rounds would be played on a point basis with a time limit of 15 minutes for each round. If a dodger is hit by the ball, the opposing team gets two points. One dodge of the ball is worth two points to the playing team. A special art in dodging, such as kwawuza (jumping high so the ball sails between the dodger’s legs) or a somersault is worth five points. The third and fourth rounds involve seven stones (cones), which are also elimination stages. The more dodges a player makes, the more stones they pile. If the dodger is hit three times, that is the end of the round.”
Tumukunde came up with a 20-page rule book. For instance, the game needs two umpires. None of the dodgers or shooters can step out of their court limits; if they do, the opposing team is credited with a point. Each team should have only five Chezas who can be dodgers or shooters. If one player is tired, a substitution is made. The book also standardised the jerseys, balls, and stones players use. The game has five classifications according to age, gender, and there is a mixed game as well.
At the back of Tumukunde’s mind was only one driving force, to mordernise Okwepena and get people to play and enjoy the game. “I wanted people to encourage their children to play and watch it on TV. Look at how the Japanese are getting entertainment value from their Ninja culture which they have transformed into an entertainment show (Ninja Warriors). People pay to watch it, participate, and TV networks pay for broadcasting rights.”
Okwepena’s birth pangs
In October 2013, in his first semester at Makerere University, Tumukunde sought endorsement from the National Council of Sports (NCS). “I was urshered into Jasper Aligawesa’s (secretary general) office and proceeded to make my presentation. Suddenly, he said, ‘Biveeko! Genda osome. Tebikola sense. Oba omuzanyo wagujja China.’ (Abandon it! Go and study. It does not make sense. Maybe you got this game from China.) This is a person in the highest sports office and he thinks I got Okwepena from China? A game that was here even before we knew China existed? I expected him to support me. I had not gone there for money; I just wanted endorsement.”
Much as the innovator was disappointed, he did not give up. He went to the Parliamentary Committee on Education and Sports and made his presentation. The committee chairperson, Hon Sylvia Namabidde Ssinabulya (Mityana Woman MP), gave him a recommendation letter which opened doors in schools including Gayaza High School, Katikamu SDA Secondary School, Kakungulu Memorial School, and Kitante Hill School.
Cheza was registered on January 22, 2014 and officially launched by the commissioner for Education and Sports on July 28, 2014. The first school to embrace the game was Greenhill Academy.
“The children loved the game. We had no money but we did not care. There were days when we did not have the fare to go to the school yet we were expected, but things always worked out.”
Why the need for development
Tumukunde’s dream is to unite communities and people across Africa through the game. In the last four years, Cheza has had 20 events, including Beach Okwepena, partnering with a number of organisations. These events also address social issues. “We had Together for Her, in 2016 at Lugogo (Phillip Omondi Stadium) to help girls with crisis pregnancies. We had 20 teams from different companies playing. The tickets for the event were sold at Shs5,000 while the teams registered at Shs300,000 each.”
Cheza has also held events on World Menstrual Day in different districts to promote menstrual hygiene.
Tumukunde and his team face an uphill task to get people to take the game seriously. “It is all about changing their mindset, especially the older generation. The youths appreciate innovation. However, people in their 40s and above are like, ‘Find something else to do. Get a job.’ It is harder to convince a marketing executive in their 40s or 50s because they do not see the value in Okwepena.”
Another challenge has been in creating a self-sustaining venture. “The last thing I want to do is ask people for money. Even now, I’m in a place where I cannot ask government for money. We have tried to build a revenue model to sustain the game. When we introduce the games to schools, they have to buy our game equipment.”
The jerseys, portable courts, cones, and balls were designed in Uganda and made in China. The balls are made from pumped sponge – they are soft and can fly through the air.
To mark five years in existence, Cheza is organising a Okwepena League, to begin in March, with 20 competing teams.
“We are in talks with YMCA for the venue. We want it to be like Friday Night Lights and we hope to televise it. It will be a social event because we are running it alongside Dodge Aids where young people will be sensitised about HIV – Dodge a ball, Dodge AIDS.”
The balls will also change; instead of sponge, they will be made of fibre covered with sponge and leather and will be manufactured in Uganda. “Because our story was featured on BBC and Al Jazeera a people are interested in the game. We want to make a franchise model and are registering international ambassadors. Once the game is out there, they will use authentically Ugandan balls.”
Besides Cheza, Tumukunde works with his brother’s firm, Ultimate Capital Ventures. He also runs Focus Feats, a digital marketing and IT product development firm. He also does creative consultations with young people.
Tumukunde envisages Okwepena at the 2024 Summer Olympics. He is also designing a new version of Duulu which he will launch this year.