During his brief stint at Tunisian club Etoile du Sahel, Emmanuel Okwi used to enthuse to friends back in Kampala how he was training hard to try and make the grade.
But he always also told them of how he missed Tanzania. For the three years he had spent at the 18-time Tanzanian champions Simba, Okwi had found a second home.
Since his move there from SC Villa for $40,000 (Shs100m) in 2010, Okwi’s goals did not only help his side to that year’s and 2012 league titles, it also cut him a cult status at Simba.
He was hated and admired in equal measure by rivals and sworn enemies, Yanga. At Simba, however, it was only untold love.
Whereas Yanga would have paid to have him deported, if possible; Simba would have crowned him king.
He was the star. He was the reference point in the derby bragging rights. He was accorded just about everything, including dining with the powers at the club’s high table.
Okwi had his space almost assured in Tanzanian media you feared he attended morning editorial meetings.
However, one inescapable trait in all this –evident from his earlier days at Villa’s academy side, Jogoo Young - was his mood swings.
His casual self has also been well manifested from his younger days to date, the striker hardly taking well to rigorous training and, sometimes, during matches.
But what was not in question was his ability with the ball. He boasts two good feet, pace, dexterity and efficiency in front of goal to which regional defences could attest.
Okwi’s rich vein of form in Tanzania, where he was banging in goals effortlessly in the Tanzanian and Champions Leagues, was complemented by his good returns for Cranes.
At the time, he was top scorer with four goals in the 2010 Cecafa before netting another five as Uganda reclaimed the regional title they had lost to Tanzania.
The former Villa striker was attracting a lot of attention by now. Only that every time interested parties sought his audience, he seemed to vanish.
Okwi got opportunities to do trials at Italian top sides Parma and Chievo through former Villa coach and current Cranes boss Micho Sredojevic’s connections but somehow no one could seem to get a hold of him.
There was even another opportunity for him to play in Israel, which he never warmed up to. In July 2011, he stood up a chance to do a second round of trials at Kaizer Chiefs in South Africa; instead stealing some ‘alone time’ in Kampala before returning to Simba in Tanzania.
Austria tell tale
In July 2012, another chance from Europe presented itself. The difference this time was that Okwi actually went for trials to Red Bull Salzburg, the team in Austria that Ibrahim Sekagya played for.
Tales are told of how his whining about being homesick cost him what could have been a breakthrough move.
“Some German agent asked Sekagya about me and he said good things about me,” Okwi, whose eyes dart back and forth – mouth widening to reveal a clean set of teeth in his trademark smile, tells us, “That’s how I went to Austria. “But I think I have a problem when I travel. I think change of weather affects me a lot because even when I went for Cecafa in Nairobi last December, I fell sick with malaria,” he adds, drawing us into his troubled voyage.
While sources in Austria say the Salzburg deal fell through because Okwi simply developed cold feet, the player disagrees.
“When I reached the airport in Munich, I felt so weak, the temperatures were high. It’s not that I feared; I was sick.
“So I took a bus from Munich to Salzburg because it’s only two hours. But I wasn’t feeling fine. I told my agent I wasn’t feeling fine and he bought me aspirin.
“I took it and felt a bit better after we reached the hotel. But waking up in the morning, I was so weak. I told him that I was not okay; that I suspected I had malaria.
“But he didn’t know anything about malaria, and they didn’t have any drugs to cure malaria. So he told me that, ‘You have to be strong. Maybe it’s fear. You see it is a new environment; it’s a new club – a much bigger club.’
“I told him I was not afraid of anything. I’ve never been afraid of anyone. He insisted I try and do a workout. I went and trained with the reserve side, I had a good training session.
“Then in the afternoon we had a game between the reserves and some other team,”Okwi, who has missed the trip to Mauritania for Uganda’s return leg of the 2015 Nations Cup pre-qualifier against the hosts because of a groin injury, says.
“I didn’t have the best of games on my first day, which I could attribute to being weak. The coaches were not impressed with my performance and they told me that.
“Then the next day I trained with the first team. That’s when I got to meet Sekagya. He showed me around. I felt comfortable training with them but I was still very weak.
“I had malaria. I was very weak. But somehow I had a better game than my first and the coaches were saying, ‘We can see something.’
“But the truth is my body had started to give up by now. I was only taking pain killers. I shared with Sekagya how I was feeling and he told me, ‘Just try. Just give your best. Try to force, you never know.’
“That day of the first team game, the weather didn’t help… it was so cold and I was even shivering in the dressing room. I took some pain killers again because I had to play. My agent was pushing me: ‘You go, try your best… this is our chance.’
“Man, I was going through the worst time of my life. I was forcing a body that was so weak. I had two jackets on me in the dressing room. We went for warm-up, came back and it was game time.
“Strangely, I had a very good game. I scored one goal and made two assists in that game. We won 4-0.
“I had a very good game but we had beaten the reserves and the coaches said they wanted to see me more in the first team training.
“Unfortunately my body had given way. I could not push it further. I was crying at this time.” His eyes tear up as he remembers that period.
With his detailed narrations, it was easy to feel sympathetic towards Okwi, yet the cold-feed theory could still be traced in his elucidations.
“We had gone to hospital and done all necessary tests but they could not detect malaria. Anyway, the agent was still pushing me. He was only looking at the money; I don’t think he cared much about my health.
“I went for training weak and their training is very intense. You have got to be in perfect health to live with them.
“After training, I told the agent that no, I can’t do this anymore. That night, I called my mum and told her, ‘Mum, I’m giving up this chance because my health and body have failed me. Maybe God will give me another one.
“She encouraged me to give it one more try but I couldn’t fight anymore. I had made my decision now. I woke up the next morning and just told my agent to get me a ticket back home.” And that was it. The end.
“But on the football side, I think I would have made it if it had not been for sickness. I honestly thought I had a great chance there.” But it was over.
Enter du Sahel
Okwi returned home, recovered and went back to Simba. On his return, he picked up from exactly where he had left. He scored goal after goal after goal. Before long, big money from Tunisia’s Etoile du Sahel was shown Simba and Okwi’s way.
In January 2013, du Sahel completed the signing of their man for $300,000 (Shs750m), a record in Tanzania. Okwi’s VIP treatment had come to an end. But with the hope of using Tunisia as a transit point to Europe, off he went.
It was the beginning of yet another journey that would leave Okwi’s rather irregular reputation unscathed. But he wants to be heard.
“I didn’t do much research about my move to Tunisia,” he admits, “I think it’s a wrong move I made in my career, and it’s a move that I would really love to forget, because, to be sincere, I made that move because of the money that was on the table.” When asked the sum, he was not willing to mention the price.
“I can’t say the contract I signed was very good but it was definitely better by Uganda and East African standards.
“Unfortunately I didn’t look at other things. I didn’t know much about the league, I just went into unchartered waters.
“I went there and they were promising of course. The coaches – we didn’t talk much because they spoke French and Arabic and I spoke only English.
“But the managers I had spoken to told me they knew me before. They had watched me in the previous season against some team from Algeria in the Champions League.
“I had two very good games against them. So with that they promised me a lot. ‘You will play, you will prosper – in one year you will be out of here and in Europe’ – things like that.
“And I was like; oh… let me sign this deal. When I reached there, I didn’t know their foreign-player clause.
“I later came to know that they allowed only three players in the league out of the 18. So it was not easy.
“But also, I got sick in my early days there. I didn’t play the first weeks… I was down with malaria. So I had problems getting back to training. And I found them fitter and already playing the league. It was difficult for me.”
What about the alleged contractual breaches? “We had this problem of the money we had agreed on not being paid; the sign-on fee that we had agreed on.
“So I used to remind them and they would promise that they would pay… it went on like that and later it was clear that the club didn’t have money as fans had been banned from stadiums.
“In the end I really didn’t wanna stay there. First, I wasn’t getting enough playing time. The chances that I had were always in African competitions where the foreign-players quota didn’t apply.”
Out of the six games Okwi played for du Sahel, only twice did he start. “I scored one goal and had an assist in the other game. But I just wasn’t feeling myself,” he says. “I wasn’t feeling part of Etoile du Sahel. I just felt like I had never played football before. Actually I made up my mind of not going back to du Sahel before I even came for the game against Liberia in June last year.”
The striker returned and had a stint at Villa before controversially signing a two and a half-year deal with Simba’s rivals Yanga. Yanga have so far witnessed some great goals from Okwi, including one against Simba.
What they cannot bet against, however, is the player’s vanishing streak re-appearing. “Truth is I’m in transit,” he says, “I’m expecting to make a move to better leagues but nothing concrete so far.”
What they say about umony
“His versatility and speed prompted me to promote him from Jogoo Young. He had the hunger to win. But he was also a proud guy who believed himself a lot. That could have been his undoing and made him less of a team player. You see that in his game today,” Coach Asuman Luboya, who promoted Okwi to Villa’s first team from Jogoo Young
“He has one of the best personalities off the pitch and listens to advice. But there is a difference between listening and acting. Many a time he seems not to have acted according to proper advice. He seems to have found a comfortable home in Tanzania and whenever opportunities come he has not taken them with open arms. He has not played to his full potential. He needs a personal manager,” Ruben Luyombo, sports commentator with Super FM and Ennyanda columnist
Mid 2007–2010: SC Villa
2010–2013: Simba (Tanzania)
2013: Étoile du Sahel (Tunisia)
2013: SC Villa
2013: Young Africans
2009–Uganda 36 (18)
Okwi’s numbers: 36 Cranes caps, 18 goals, 11 as a sub (2 in WC qlfrs, 1 in Afcon, 13 in 22 Cecafa games, 2 in friendlies).