What you need to know:
- Gone. What started as a pounding headache, turned out to be a brain tumour. Before long, Mark Bugembe,26, who was a kickboxer was gone, writes Abdul-Nasser Ssemugabi.
In the early days of the lockdown, Mark Bugembe was training alone at home in Makerere, when he collapsed and hit his already troubled head on the floor. That would be the last time he did anything kickboxing, as an immediate MRI scan at Nakasero Hospital revealed that he had a brain tumour.
It had been over two years since he developed an occasional headache. In an interview in June, his coach and mentor Peter Kizito of Hard Body Gym, told us that Bugembe occasionally complained of a pounding headache after training but painkillers bailed him out.
However, the problem got serious after sustaining a head injury in an Extra Combat knockout loss in 2017.
“But I don’t remember him being hit on the head in that fight. I think it was his old problem getting worse,” Kizito said then.
Two days later, Bugembe was taken to a hospital at Old Kampala, which referred him to Mulago Hospital. He was discharged five days later.
Bugembe was back in the gym and even fought in Ethiopia about a year ago. When the problem reoccurred, early this year, it came with even more rage. An MRI scan at Nakasero Hospital on May 26, revealed a brain tumour which needed immediate surgery.
At Mulago Hospital, his minders were told the machine was down, until further notice.
He needed about Shs30m for an operation in a private hospital in Mengo.
A fundraising campaign kicked off. Early June, Sandra Namagembe, a Ugandan based in Canada, launched one on GoFundMe seeking $8,211 (nearly Shs30m). It attracted $1,631 (more than Shs5m). Other contributions in Uganda, fetched nearly as much, which was spent on other family and health needs.
Titus Tugume, a kickboxer who has been the driver of the “Save Mark” campaign, and his contacts did their best to save Bugembe. Of the Shs18m required at Cure Children’s Hospital in Mbale, they deposited the bigger fraction and the operation began.
Tugume said the tumour required two phases of surgery between July 23, and August 4, which lasted 12 and eight hours respectively. Bugembe stayed in intensive care. He breathed his last 10 days shy of his 26th birthday on August 12.
“Mark was such a great fighter and an inspiration to many young people,” Shakey Mubiru, who has been behind the publicity of the fundraising, eulogised the fallen fighter in a Facebook post.
“He dedicated his life to kickboxing and was a prodigy in the ring, entertaining and hard-working at the same time.”
He continued: “Most of my interactions with him were bouts where he faced off with the fighters from the team I coached. He was so competitive that four times in a row my team lost points and fights to him.” Yet “I loved his knowledge and fighting tactics and above all, he was adorable, humorous and respectful.”
Within 24 hours, Mubiru’s post had attracted 179 reactions, 85 comments and was shared 11 times by members of the fighting family and the media. Bugembe was not a celebrity like Moses Golola. Not a high profile fighter like Umar Semata. But his persona made him loved and hated in equal measure. “I failed to sleep last night; just kept on thinking of Mark,” one Ronnie Chandi commented. Latif Walugembe, a combat coach said, “He was a true fighter, we can never stop taking him as an example...”
No befitting sendoff
Tugume, Umar Semata and Alex Matsiko, among others, have been key in soliciting the funds for Bugembe’s treatment, though somehow, disagreements with the family on the fundraising strategies delayed the process. Nevertheless, the fighters walked Bugembe’s journey. Even in his last funeral rites where the government or the kick-boxing federation were missing, the fighters were in his corner: physically and financially.
“In kick-boxing we’ve had deaths before but no death has united fighters like Mark’s,” Mubiru said. “The professionals made a huge sacrifice, especially in these hard [Covid] times to save a brother’s life.”
You would see them carrying Bugembe’s casket and lowering it in the grave in Kasana-Luweero as emotionally overwhelmed mourners, mostly women, wailed. The burial wasn’t so ‘scientific’ . But Mubiru wanted more for his colleague, who won medals on the continent. He tasked the leaders: “We need to send him off in huge respect and honour,” Mubiru rallied the authorities via Facebook.
“It’s every fighter’s dream to be flagged off in honour, we may have differences but Mark deserves a decent send-off, National Council of Sports where are you? Uganda Kickboxing Federation where are you? Extra Combat Africa where are you?”
He added: “Our friends and fans contributed funds to Mark’s hospital bills, and now his lifeless body lies in a muzigo, he needs to be respected because he fought for it.”
It’s high time Ugandan government came out and showed some love to this fallen hero…” Sadly, the call seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
In another Facebook post August 14, accompanied by a video of Bugembe’s burial, Mubiru wrote: “Worst feeling ever is carrying your buddy to a place so lonely and so unknown, the emotions and thoughts kind of drive you crazy, you reach a point of questioning your life, your journey, deeds and moments. Death is painful, we should never die, our loved ones shouldn’t.
Most parents hate combat sport and discourage their children from pursuing it. Bugembe’s mother Christine Nabumba was different. Call her his Number One fan, she attended many of his fights. But since 2018, when her son’s head problems worsened, she advised him to quit fighting. His mother hoped against hope that: her son would recover and he would never fight again. Before Bugembe breathed his last, his mother was inconsolable.
Bugembe could crack a joke in training, before or after fighting. But soon his sense of humour was gone. He was addressing the media on his next surgery; not calling fans to buy tickets to the arena, but to help contribute to his hospital needs.
His smile faded with teary eyes. He was unsure his two children would have meals or shelter with piling rent arrears. Now, he could only fight with his spirit and troubled brain.
Nevertheless, like a friend said, Mark died fighting; not in the ring but in hospital.
Born: August 23, 1994
Died: August 12, 2020
Survived by: Two children
Kickboxing debut: 2013
Trained with: Hard Body Gym
Mentor: Peter Kizito
Amateur record: 30 fights, 30 wins
Professional (since 2016): 9 wins, 3 losses
Gold, 2016 East African Championship in Nairobi
Silver, 2016 Extra Combat
Gold and MVP, 2017 Inter-continental Championship, Egypt
Silver, 2017 Extra Combat, Kampala
Gold, 2017 East & Central African Championship, South Sudan
Silver, 2019 Extra Combat, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia