On the pitch, Shafik Ssebuuma dribbles and passes with precision, runs at ‘bullet’ speed, and has a huge appetite for goals, like his idol Cristiano Ronaldo. Only that he does all this with one leg and a pair of crutches.
“The first time I saw him play,” says his teammate Alex Mugerwa, “I was left with imaginations. He’s among the best amputee stars I have seen.”
At just three years, Ssebuuma was already at school and like any healthy child, playing several games before his life took a wrong turn. When he caught fever in 2002, his father took him to a clinic in Misanvu, Masaka. However, that evening, his legs begun swelling.
Days later the swellings oozed pus. Something had gone wrong. His mother, Aisha Nakabuubi, was in Kampala. His father had married another woman. His mother the boy’s step-mother of foul play.
An expired injection had messed up his legs and by the time his mother returned, it was too late.
“The left leg had even developed maggots,” she told SCORE.
The subsequent procedures rescued only the right leg. The left one had to be amputated. It took him over nine months to heal.
“After the amputation, my father rejected me. We had to leave his home.”
They only met again 12 years later.
Ssebuuma’s mother had resigned her job in Kampala and hustling with an amputee child was a whole new ball game. She wanted to see her first-born grow, go to school, and enjoy life – like any other child.
“It wasn’t easy,” she says, remembering the many menial jobs she did, remarrying and divorcing again, and the sleepless nights at Mulago Hospital between her son’s subsequent surgeries.
Second surgery was hell
For years, Ssebuuma limped with the aid of sticks but picked his first pair of crutches from Mulago Hospital. “At first, I struggled with crutches. One day, I was returning from school and it rained heavily. I had to jump over a drainage channel. One of my wooden crutches broke and for days I had to move with one.”
But his worst moment was the second surgery. “Doctors faulted the first surgeon for sharpening the bone like a chisel, which was risky,” her mother says.
Even at 13, Ssebuuma had forgotten nothing about the pain of the first operation. But he had to face the knife again. “I was terrified,” Ssebuuma recalls, “It felt like hell.”
His mother, too, endured the hell of three months in hospital, waiting for the surgery. Then eight more months nursing her teenage son. “Doctors ignored us because I didn’t have money. I was jobless. I cried almost every day. Sometimes Shafik consoled me.”
A year later, when Ssebuuma thought he was out of harm’s way, he developed sharp pains in his stump. Stitches had been left inside the flesh. They opened it, again.
Home of Joy
Surgeries retarded Ssebuuma’s academic progress and depleted his mother’s meagre, chancy incomes. They needed a hand. They found it at Salvation Army Home of Joy, a charity in Bwaise, which connects needy disabled children to sponsors.
Ssebuuma got sponsorship while attending Wandegeya Muslim Primary School. All his mother had to provide was a pair of bed sheets. He lived at the home, only returning to his mother’s for holidays.
“At Salvation Army, life was really good,” he says, reminiscing the care, the friendship among the children, and the encouraging words from the caretakers.
Ssebuuma also enjoyed the inclusive sports events every weekend at Kampala International School under the Kampala Kids League.
“Children with disabilities got a chance to play soccer, para-volleyball, boccia, with the nondisabled,” Ssebuuma recalls.
Medals, trophies and certificates boosted their morale but Ssebuuma’s best reward was learning to associate with others.
“I even learnt how to communicate with the deaf kids.”
But the good life ended in 2014 after Primary Leaving Examinations. He had to go back home and pray for another Good Samaritan.
Meanwhile, at the charity home, he had met an Australian couple Pamela and Collin.
“They pampered me like their son and named me Jeremiah. Even when they returned to Australia, they promised to help me more.”
In PLE, he scored aggregate 26. Not bad, but he lacked sponsorship for post-primary. Courting Salvation Army bore no fruit. He gave up.
Ssebuuma joined Facebook in 2015. In 2016, he saw a suggestion among the ‘People you may know’ window. One of them was Leah, daughter of his Australian benefactors.
“She immediately confirmed my request and we chatted. She reconnected me to her parnts.”
Ssebuuma’s dream was joining secondary school but his beneficiaries suggested a vocational course “because it would give me a job skill in a short period.”
Ssebuuma bought the idea and in 2018 he completed a certificate course in welding and metal fabrication from Masuulita Vocational Training Institute.
Soccer on crutches
Doubtless, people with disabilities need help. But they hate unsolicited attention.
“If people, young and old were not calling me derogatory names, they were giving me unnecessary attention,” Ssebuuma says.
“Whenever I joined kids playing, all the attention would turn to me. There’s a way it makes you feel like a misfit, that’s why many children with disabilities resort to isolation, to avoid that unwanted sympathy.”
But Ssebuuma refused to succumb to stigma. As he waited for the opportunity to join secondary school, he met Lawrence Kitimbo, who introduced him to amputee soccer. “We met at Mulago Orthopedic Workshop, where prosthetic legs were donated,” Ssebuuma says.
“The mere mention of soccer made me interested even before I understood the whole idea. He told me in Europe amputees even play for money,” he says.
“He was the first person I called and introduced the idea of amputee football to,” says Kitimbo, the Federation of Uganda Amputee Football Associations president. “He was positive and the next day he reported with an amputee friend.”
During the 2016 National Disability Sports Gala in Busia, Ssebuuma finally got the chance to play a competitive match on crutches. His team lost both games to the more experienced war casualties of Mubende Rehabilitation Centre, but it was a promising portrait of the game.
“I felt this is the game I want to play, with a smile and show my abilities.”
In an April 25, Facebook post, Ssebuuma wrote: “When people see us running on streets and playing amputee football, their negative thoughts change to positivity...And they start discussing our special abilities.”
With time, Ssebuuma’s team mastered the art of chasing, dribbling, sprinting, and scoring on crutches. Their young age was another advantage over the aging war veterans. The Kampala Amputee Stars, made of Ssebuuma, Mugerwa, Tabu Ley and Co. have on three occasions disarmed the soldiers and can only get better.
Last year, Ssebuuma did not have a national ID and missed playing for the national team at the amputee soccer equivalent of Cecafa, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. But at 21, the pursuit has just begun.
He wants to play at the biggest stage possible, before becoming an administrator in the sport.
“I’m fast and strong on the ball, quick thinking at passing,” the forward explains his game. “I love shooting and dribbling, where necessary.
“Football is life. I don’t care diving on the murrum. I watch many of Ronaldo’s videos. I want to play like him.”
Mugerwa supplements: “Playing against him showed me his other special character – you kick him, he gets up and comes for another kick. He’s not afraid…”
Because of soccer, Ssebuuma has met “big people” like former Sports minister Charles Bakkabulindi, when Kampala won the 2018 national title in Mbarara. Also, in 2017, he participated in a clinic conducted by England World Cup winner Steve Johnson.
“Now people recognise me as a footballer, not a PWD. I have done several TV interviews, I’m no longer a failure, I’m useful and can inspire others,” Ssebuuma says.
Kitimbo calls him understanding, hardworking, God-fearing, and cooperative. “He is key in the growth and development of Amputee football in Uganda.”
Off the pitch, Ssebuuma wants to start a hardware and metal fabrication workshop.
When he was still young, his mother used to tell him that his leg will grow back. He now knows the truth. It won’t grow. But Ssebuuma’s pursuit of happiness grows every single day.