As her former classmates wrote their Senior Three promotional exams, 16-year-old Winnie Atyang was in the labour ward being delivered of twin daughters on November 11, 2003.
This unplanned transition shaped her life forever. In primary school, Atyang was a Girl Guide. In high school, she summoned the scouting skills to sustain her teenage love affair. Several nights she jumped out of the window to meet her boyfriend. Her uncle spanked her but she could not stop.
Atyang was the brightest and her family had high hopes in her. Her grandmother dismissed any allegations of her wrongdoings until her body said it all.
“I conceived the day I lost my virginity,” Atyang recalls. Soon, everything, everyone turned against her. A classmate and friend told her: “You’ve dropped out, let’s see how smart you can be.”
Relatives: “Granny’s darling has disappointed her. Let’s see what happens next.”
Her grandmother was disappointed but she could bear with her.
“But my uncle ordered the boy’s family to shoulder their burden (me).”
Her father, a soldier who lived in Luweero returned to beat her using a belt.
At 16, Atyang became a school dropout, a pregnant adolescent, a home reject, loathed by family and friends. But none of her ‘haters’ knew that 17 years later this ‘outcast’ would be a beautiful proud mother, renowned athlete, floor manager at a multinational mart and more.
Looking back though, Atyang thinks if she had not hit this snag, maybe she wouldn’t be as ambitious.
“Do your research. You will find that girls who get pregnant at an early age—some don’t get the education I got—but their approach to survival is different to those who finish education and marry.”
Is it because they have a point to prove to the world?
“I don’t know about others but for my case, I was the oldest of my siblings and in Nakawa Estates rumour spread faster than WhatsApp. If you did wrong, just someone’s look would fill you with guilt. I vowed to study, no matter what, and rise from this mess,” she relates.
Atyang discovered she carried twins when she was five months pregnant, “which doubled my worries”. It was a normal delivery, but a horrible experience. She sustained 12 stitches due to a rupture as she pushed. “For months, I couldn’t sit upright. I only breastfed while lying on my back.
“Sometimes I struggled to breastfeed. Only Joy, my eldest sister-in-law, helped me. There were nights when the three of us cried. I’m tired, sleepy and these babies are crying, and no one else is in the room to help me.”
She did not hate her boyfriend. “We were still friends but we looked at each other strangely.”
They had sex again. “But I don’t know if I wanted it. I think I was still mentally tormented. Whenever he touched me I got goosebumps. When I avoided him he thought I was no longer interested in him.”
Then he got into another relationship, which pushed her farther away.
She believes the boyfriend should have given her enough time to recover. “It took me six months to recover,” she recalls.
Atyang says physically, pain heals. Mentally, it always comes back.
“I had even vowed never to give birth again.” She became a loner. No wonder, Maria Asumpta, her second-born, is 12 years younger than the twins. “I learnt to be cautious,” she says.
Living in a stranger’s home was a harder ball game.
“When someone sensed I wanted to ask for money, maybe for the babies’ soap, they would avoid talking to me yet the twins’ father was also a student,” Atyang remembers.
At the new home they footed my bills but some things did not come in time. They were supposed to take her back to school. But they didn’t.
“Aunt Maureen [maternal aunt] gave me a room in her flat. She was the only relative who gave me a shoulder. I owe her a lot,” an emotional Atyang recalls. A mother of three plus Atyang and her twins became one loving family.
“Before they left two years later, aunt’s husband paid my rent a year ahead.” The house had a bedroom, sitting room, kitchen, bathroom, and toilet.
Back to school
In 2005, when her former classmates were in Senior Five, Atyang began afresh from Senior One. She could not return to Bweyogerere Progressive SS. In Senior Two at Crane High School, she took her twins to kindergarten.
She meanwhile worked as a bar supervisor every Friday and Saturday night at Kyoto Restaurant, earning Shs180,000 per month, of which she paid Shs85,000 for her daughters’ fees every term. Six years of school basketball paid her school fees; rugby gave her determination to face life’s challenges.
She first kept her motherhood a secret but she always reached school late; she had to drop off the girls at their school first. She told the matron, the gatekeeper and the school director but they thought she was making excuses until she brought her daughters with her when she picked up her UCE results.
One time she jumped over the school fence because she found the gate locked.
“The Askari caught me, but I pleaded with him so that I couldn’t miss a promotional exam. He let me in because he knew my case.”
Her Saturdays: from Kyoto early morning, after balancing the books, commute to YMCA to play basketball from 9am to 12pm. Commute again to Kyadondo for rugby kick off at 2pm.
“Sometimes I played before eating anything to save money for home needs,” she confesses.
Some evenings she walked almost 9km to Kirinnya- Bweyogerere, where she rented a self-contained house at Shs150,000. That was her life for six years.
That tight schedule brought sleep disorders: “Most nights I was either up reading, attending to the children or working.”
Then her bosses at Kyoto relocated to Kenya.
“I would have followed them but I had to attend to my children.” Atyang volunteered to sell religious books for Family Care, a Catholic charity, earning in-field transport allowance of Shs30,000 on Saturdays and Sundays.
At 16, Phyllis Apio and Tamara Achen are inches shy of their mother’s height. Both in Senior Four at Crane High, Kitintale, they play rugby and basketball. Maria, 4, also plays tag rugby.
“They are my motivators. Whenever I’m failing to do something, I’m reminded that I have to live for them. I don’t want them to be like me. I tell them my story and insist ‘I don’t want you to make the same mistake.’”
Her dream is seeing them graduate.
“I won’t demand a First-Class degree but a good grade. I show them my results; aggregate 18 in Senior Four, and 14 points in Senior Six and ask for better.” In Primary Seven both scored aggregate 11. They are also disciplined and punctual.
Atyang was raised by her grandmother.
“We never lived with our mother. When I messed up, I lacked persistent guidance. My grannie defended me. But my mother did not want any inconveniences. When the Estates were razed, mum returned to Lira.”
But Atyang wants these inconveniences, to save girls from messing up like her. That’s why in 2015, she began the Winnie Atyang Foundation to help destitute girls to play rugby, get an education, earn a living and avoid men’s predatory baits.
“I look at myself and say if I made it, I can also help someone else make it too.”
Most of her beneficiaries play with her in the Thunderbirds club. They train every Wednesday and Friday evening at Kyadondo Rugby Club.
Recently, Betway gave her Shs3m from which she bought 240 books, 120 pens and 20 sports bras. Another well-wisher offered five pairs of training boots. The foundation caters for 20 but every month, she receives about two new girls. She also does motivational speaking in Kamwokya and Naguru slums.
The girls are aged 10-25 “because these are the most vulnerable age groups. When they get pregnant, parents force them into marriage. “This is wrong. My daughters are now 16 but I can’t believe I got pregnant at that age because I see they are still children.”
The project survives on handouts.
“I approach someone and they say Atyang I don’t have money but have this Shs200,000. If someone offers me a beer I ask them to instead give me that money and I give it to a girl for transport.”
Rugby, my first love
Earlier this year, Atyang set herself a lofty target of shedding 10kgs in two months. Every evening at Kyadondo, she did sets of donkey kicks, laps, sit-ups, squats. Finally, the ex-national captain returned to the Lady Cranes to pursue dreams of another World Cup.
She retells the dramatic road to the 2009 World Cup Sevens in Dubai with fondness. After beating Uganda 12-10 in the quarterfinals, Tunisia waited for Kenya in the semis of the qualifiers. But Tunisia met Uganda again the following day.
“On the bus to that game, everyone prayed. Then we went quiet, perhaps meditating. We had identified the problematic Tunisian players. We sorted them. I played like a mad woman; broke the lines, chased the ball. Isolated the last person with the ball and got up.”
Brenda Kayiyi got a red card. Everyone doubled their effort. “We attacked at once and defended at once. Rachel Kakaire was a good sweeper. We beat them by one try.”
Uganda lost the final to South Africa 17-12, despite leading the first half 7-0. But they had already qualified for the World Cup. The first Ugandan team to qualify for any World Cup [since netball in 1979].
“That was the best moment of our [rugby] lives.”
Sweet, supportive, understanding is how Atyang describes, Maria’s father: “He is attracted to my ways and I’m attracted to his patience. If you aren’t patient you can’t live with me. I go home late and he is straightforward. What he does not like he tells me face-to-face.”
Others failed to tick those boxes.
“If you annoy me and I threaten to beat you, run because it’s what I’d do next.”
When her side wins the Heathens diehard is like a queen dancer. “She can singlehandedly get a crowd singing and cheery,” one rugby follower says. “But I’m a bad loser,” Atyang confessed.
She could fight, anywhere. “The OC at Jinja Road Police Station just got tired of my face. Whenever they detained me there, he would tell me ‘I will release you tomorrow.’”
But with time her friend, a psychiatrist, has helped her handle emotions better. She’s learnt to lose with grace, and move on. To defend her rights not with her fists, a lesson she teaches her daughters.