KAMPALA- A group of Somali women make the rarest of scenes at Lugogo. Clad in black burqas, with only eyes left uncovered, they jump, scream and punch the air as Emily Nakalema throws powerful punches at her opponents.
When she wins, and she usually does, they greet her with hugs - the affection flows seamlessly. Despite the sharp contrast in colour and culture, she is one of them. Connection? She is their fitness trainer.
Boxing though, is Nakalema’s new sport. For the better part of her 25 years, this tomboy was a footballer, playing with and against men.
To trace her background, I walked through corridors, market stalls and jumped over clogged water channels before reaching the famous Kasaawe, a purely red-dirt football pitch in Katwe.
Adjacent, I saw a punching bag hanging from a tree and a makeshift boxing ring. I made my way in through a small wooden entrance.
Coach Abdul Kabuye sat me down on a small bench to wait for Nakalema, who came in a few minutes later.
I later learnt that it was from Kasaawe that Nakalema trained to enhance her football skills when she came to Kampala from Mbarara in 2017.
And it was from the same ground that Kabuye spotted her and persuaded her into boxing.
Now, it would be no exaggeration, to claim she is the most popular figure in the neighbourhood. When she walked me through the Katwe ghetto after the interview, people openly congratulated and praised her for beating Cape Verde’s Moreira Ivanusa and winning bronze at the recent African Olympic Qualifiers in Dakar, Senegal.
“We are proud of you our champion, we watched all your bouts, next time better,” some said as Nakalema bounced through the streets.
Born in 1994 to Samuel and Teopista as Emily Kyomugisha, a Mukiga, she embraced a Kiganda name Nakalema after her dad.
“Kyomugisha is a name associated with blessings in my language. I believe the success in my life comes as a result of that name,” the third born in a family of two boys and two girls, said.
She says her polygamous father could have sired about 14 other children from his two other wives.
Nakalema was hardly 13 years old when her parents passed on. The situation for an already struggling family in Kakoba Division, Mbarara, worsened. Necessities like food and education became a luxury. But somehow Nakalema endured, completing her primary school at Kulumba Primary School.
She admits to being a temperamental tom boy and lover of sports. She played football with boys and would easily provoke them into fights.
“Actually I used to be a very hot-tempered person, I would punch anybody who annoyed me, including my brothers,” she said.
Nakalema joined Allied Secondary School for her Senior One. It is from here that she was spotted during a football gala - earning herself a bursary at Citizen High School, Mbarara.
Nakalema was elected games prefect after guiding the school to a district trophy in 2012.
In consequent competitions, they lost at semi-finals. It was from these competitions that Nakalema earned the name ‘Golola’—likened to kickboxer Moses Golola— for her energetic and aggressive conduct on and off the pitch.
She also played for Mbarara United at regional football tours.
Mbarara to Kampala
After her A’ Level in 2016, Nakalema dropped out of school.
Her elder brother advised her to go and work in Saudi Arabia - an idea she warmly welcomed but later dropped. She instead moved to Kampala and stayed with her sister in Katwe, a slum along Entebbe Road.
The sister sought greener pastures in Juba, South Sudan, and Nakalema replaced her at a retail shop where she worked.
She used to earn Shs200,000 a month, which only paid her rent and food.
While at it, Nakalema trained with a Congolese men’s football team at Kasaawe. She later joined Nawanku FC and then Super Eagle — both men’s sides.
Later a friend called Eddie Kimbugwe linked her to Kampala Queens FC which trained from Villa Park.
She only trained with them for four months before she quit due to her tight work schedule.
She continued training with the men’s teams while looking for a better job because she wanted to quit being a shopkeeper.
One day as she passed by the Katwe Boxing Club, coach Kabuye talked her into boxing. Since she didn’t need anyone’s approval her decision came fast.
“He told me you have a good physique and you can make a good boxer. I decided to give it a try,” Nakalema recalled.
Without a job, she couldn’t afford standard meals, and found it hard to train on an empty stomach. She quit for a month.
“Football is not as draining as boxing, I used to feel weak because sometimes I could go for training when I was hungry, so I decided to give it a break up to when I got a job,” she said.
Nakalema debuted for Katwe Boxing Club in 2018. It is hardly two years into her boxing career and she now boasts of a bronze medal from the Africa Olympic Qualifiers and a gold at the 2018 East African Community Games in Burundi. The Golola nickname couldn’t be more befitting.
Nakalema beat Scovia Nakayibale from Zebra Boxing Club by split decision at the 2019 National Open.
She out boxed Lydia Nantale to book a ticket for the East African Games. She later stopped the same boxer at the National Boxing Trials to qualify for the African Olympics Qualifiers, where she came within one fight to become the first female Ugandan boxer at the Olympics.
“I forego a lot of things to train hard and that is the reason behind my success,” she said.
Work and sports
After applying at various organisations, Nakalema finally landed a scouting job in the KCCA sanitation department.
“I wake up very early and head to where my bosses deployed me to see whet
her the places are clean. I take photos and send them to my bosses for clearance before heading for boxing training,” she said.
Thanks to the discipline enhanced by her boxing training, Nakalema is able to do all her work in time and her bosses are proud of her.
“…and if I have a boxing trip, or when I enter residential camp, they give me a leave.”
Doubling as a fitness trainer in Kisenyi, Nakalema now earns a moderate living even though boxing has not given her a penny.
Nakalema links her success to her former school director, now Hon. Mwine Mpaka, a Youth Member of Parliament for the Western Region, who gave her a scholarship from Senior Two to Senior Six.
“I discovered my potential from Citizen Secondary School, the director liked me so much, he not only gave me a bursary but catered for my other needs,” she said.
She also praises coach Kabuye for introducing her to boxing.
“We do not pay him but he trains us, I had never thought I would be a boxer.”
In Uganda, female boxers still play second fiddle to their male counterparts. They have fewer opportunities in clubs and on the national team and attract little media attention.
“In Senegal we met boxers who have been in the field for over five years, but most of us we have a two years’ experience. I believe with more exposure, we shall reach their level,” she dreams.
Nakalema qualified for the 2019 African Games but the Uganda Boxing Federation only managed to select only two female boxers: Jalia Nali and Hellen Baleke, who got bronze before throwing a punch.
Nakalema still dreams of qualifying for the Olympics through the World Qualifiers in Paris, France.
Nakalema at a glance
Gold medallist: 2018 East African Community Games
Bronze medallist: 2020 Africa Olympics Qualifiers