It took a few months to tie down ex-Cranes midfielder Friday Ssenyonjo Sserubiri for a chat. Reason? He had unfinished business with journalists.
“I cannot give you my story because in the past a newspaper wrote falsely about me,” Ssenyonjo warns as he leads me to his wife’s shop located along Kisaasi-Kyanja Road about 100meters away from Kisaasi Trading Centre.
I had to convince him that he is set to appear in a series that has featured some of Uganda’s best footballers like Fred Tamale and Polly Ouma.
“Kati ngenda kuwa Data Calcium wange. Naye ogenda kola yo ekintu kimu,” translating to, “I will tell you about my career but on one condition.” Data Calcium is the term he uses to refer to his biography.
“Inform the readers that I need a job to save me from alcoholism,” Ssenyonjo says without mincing words.
“I take a lot of waragi because I have no job. I walk to the bar in the morning then come back home late in the evening I end up struggling to put food on the table for my beautiful family.”
Due to alcoholism, his wife has ungrudgingly tendered for the family.
Ssenyonjo was born in 1974 (his passport however carries March 28, 1978). He started playing football at a young age under the tutelage of his grandfather Grace Ssenfuma in Kiira but only paid special attention to it when 17.
He attended Kisaasi Primary School and joined Kisaasi Rangers as early as 1991. Ssenyonjo joined Kololo Secondary School from there.
“I used to run along Wabiibe Hill in Kiira everyday as part of my roadwork.”
While at Kololo SS in 1993, his talent forced the then Bell FC team manager Charles Bakabulindi, the current State Minister for Sports to recruit him. It was then that he broke into the national under-21 team.
His time at Kololo was cut short when he moved to St Joseph Nagalama for A’ Level. Surprisingly he refused to play for the school team and instead joined Nagalama Islamic Institute. Apparently the latter’s headmaster Sheikh Jamir Kakeeto was giving special treatment to sportsmen. Ssenyonjo’s talent again shone and Express FC sought his services. That marked the end of his formal education.
From playing an U-21 game away in Nigeria, Ssenyonjo was fast-tracked into the Cranes set up. His best moment in a Cranes jersey came against Tanzania’s Taifa Stars after teammate Tamale was sent off just five minutes into the game for two bookable offences.
“Hussein Marsha, the Tanzanian right back was about to take a throw- in but the ball slid out of his hands so Tamale picked it and gave it back to him but Marsha refused to hold it.
Tamale tossed it down and was booked. When Marsha finally made the throw-in, Tamale was sent off for tackling their tricky right winger who made so much out of a simple challenge. Tamale’s ejection was a blessing in disguise for me because we (and Joseph Mutyaba) pumped up ourselves and played the game of our lives.
Ssenyonjo even put the icing on the cake. “I won the ball and passed to Mutyaba, he ghosted past Marsha, cut the ball back to me and I steered a low shot from outside the box past the Tanzanian keeper to win the game 2-1.”
Sadly, Ssenyonjo cannot recollect many of his good memories. He instead leads me to a tavern where he takes his local potent gin, in an effort to source more national team memories from his peers.
But instead an argument ensued on how many games he played for the Cranes. His already tipsy friends failing to realise the purpose of my visit jokingly told me, “He only played two games in two years,” they yell endlessly. Ssenyonjo though insists he served the nation for six years.
Flying with Red Eagles
The retired midfielder is quick to confess that he wouldn’t have played for Express were it not for his desire to get his career going. Yusuf Katumba, brokered the deal from Bell FC to Express in 1994.
“I loved to battle and to show that I was a tough to beat,” the SC Villa diehard explains while shoving his hands, fists clenched, in the air as though he was imaginatively pushing an opponent off the ball.
“But I also had a knack for dribbling forward when things were not going our way. Our team at the time made Express FC what it is today. We made them the best team in Uganda,” he shares.
Ssenyonjo played for Express until 1997 when he fell out with the club over a move to South African side Orlando Pirates.
“Pirates wanted to sign eight of us but Vincent Bbale Mugera sabotaged our deal and I moved to my dream club Villa in 1997.
“The South Africans backed out because Express could not state their asking price,” he says with a broken voice.
The players on Pirates’ wish list then included Fred Tamale, Joseph Mutyaba and Abdu Nsubuga, who has kept close ties with Ssenyonjo.
“Some say I was expelled from Express for indiscipline but Hajji Mandela bought me after I dominated Villa’s midfield,” he is quick to tell off his peers who were opining else at the local bar. “I really wanted to join Villa so whenever I played against them, I tried to make my mark.
“I think the turning point was when goal keeper Abu Kigenyi and me had a very good game against Villa. Because it was after that game that I was bought.”
Ssenyonjo’s stint at Villa lasted only a year because he broke a bone in his left leg after he chose not to wear shin guards.
Diaspora & retirement
“Mandela asked me why I didn’t wear my shins. Not all went well between me and Villa when I was at Mulago Hospital so I left and joined Umeme in 1998 for a year.
“Then I went to Oman where I played for Majis for a year before going to Abu Dhabi where I played for the Royals’ Purchasing Department in 2001,” he says.
While in Abu Dhabi, Ssenyonjo got a knee injury that forced him to return home.
I later learn from his peers at the tavern that Ssenyonjo’s career could have been longer in Arabia, had he converted to Islam.
Without denying or confirming this, he shoots back at them; “I wasn’t born a Muslim so there is no way I was going to become one for money.”
From Asia, he joined Military FC in 2002 for a year before returning to where it all started at Kisaasi Rangers where persistent injuries forced him to retire in 2004.
1994: Uganda Cup with Express
1995: League and Cup double (Express)
1996: National League with Express
1998: League and Cup double (SC Villa)