On Thursday/Friday night, Kenya and Tanzania played each other at the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations tournament in Egypt in what was termed The Great East African Derby. Most people, all of three of us, in my kafunda supported Tanzania. One of us because he went to university in Dar es Salaam many decades back when East Africa was East Africa.
The rest of us supported the Taifa Stars because we could or may be because we thought it was the better team going into the game. Two guys rooted for Kenya. One was Kenyan, which is understandable, although he fled after his country swallowed the first goal. The other supporter was a Ugandan who earns his buttered bread in Kenya.
He told us he needed to show solidarity with the country of his ugali. But he made this quip: Yesterday I was all Uganda. Yesterday meaning Wednesday night when, despite Zimbabwe hustling us, the Cranes held on for a one-all draw, which pretty much means our team will get into the next round.
Yesterday I was all Uganda. Good one. Apart from the Kenyan, the Ugandans in the kafunda were from different ethnicities/tribes, or what Kenyans euphemistically call communities. But every time the Uganda Cranes take to the pitch, including this Sunday against the Pharaohs of Egypt, we are all Uganda(ns).
The key element of the beautiful game is that it unites. In our case it unites Ugandans into something that comes close to being called a Ugandan nation. We all go gaga, especially when the team is performing well. In fact, we are even ready for war — of the social media variety. Ahead of the game against Zimbabwe, Ugandans spent almost 48 hours in a mighty confrontation on Twitter with the Zimbabweans. You may catch up with this third world war known as Twar at #UGAZIM. It ended in a stalemate on the pitch in Cairo. No blood shed. Thank the planets.
Outdoor sport is largely a contact business. And football gives as much contact as any sport. It is pulsating, sometimes the outcome unpredictable. The tackles, the strikes, the saves, the dribbling trickery, the ball flicks, the twists and turns, the sweat, the raw energy and flashes of passion of young men, the cheering fans inside the stadium. The drama.
Football is one of those sports made for end-to-end entertainment. Do we just love that. We lap it up. We all get joined in a moment of collective ecstasy. We are Ugandans rooting for the same cause. We embrace the flag. We wrap ourselves around it.
One of the reasons we love the Cranes is because the selection of players is (almost entirely) unbiased. We love that kind of fairness, that nod to merit. Why, because we are never sure whether a hire or promotion in some public office is entirely fair or meritocratic. Besides, we can judge the performance of the team because we watch as they play. We can deduce a few things about the ability of each individual on the pitch. We can’t quite do that, say, with President Museveni’s political appointees. They are just there feeling important in their motorcades chasing other motorists off the roads.
This is why some use the flying Cranes as a prop to comment on national affairs. The most common one is to observe that people from a certain community are not represented on the team yet they are over-represented in other spheres of national life where performance is not in the public glare and, therefore, anyone can get away with sloth and other mischief. Given the bizarre events at Bank of Uganda regarding the printing of shilling bills, the quip was that the unrepresented or under-represented group was busy printing cash and didn’t, therefore, have to sweat for it on any soccer pitch.
Despite the sly but important commentary, often couched in humour, sport remains an amazing national uniter, even if it can also be quite a distraction from the cause of filling potholes on our streets and highways.
Either way, if I were the boss of Uganda, I would do much more to open up sporting opportunities. A place to start is to ensure every parish has a sporting venue for different games. Then pump some decent amount of shillings into national teams. Before you know it, Ugandans are fit, they are winning, they are united, and they don’t even bother whether you rule them for another 30-something years.
Okay, I have heard President Museveni last week was chatting up the Chinese about building stadia in Uganda. I hope we won’t go for shiny and expensive things, which will quickly evolve into elephants of the white colour.
But, maybe, someone is now figuring out how to continue at the helm for a couple more decades. Uganda’s sporting glory may yet lie in the future. That would be something to look forward to.
For now, may the Uganda Cranes continue to soar above the pyramids and everything else between the Cape and Cairo.
Bernard Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala.