Kukundakwe continues to make waves in para-swimming

Laura Kanushu, national member of parliament for People With Disabilities (PWDs), handed over two air tickets on behalf of the Speaker Anita Annet Among to para-swimmer Husnah Kukundakwe and her mother Hashima Bamutariza as they travelled to Canada for the Ken Demchuk Invitational event hoping to make qualification times for the Paris 2024 Olympics in France. PHOTO/JOHN BATANUDDE 

What you need to know:

Kukundakwe, 16, has a congenital limb impairment that left her with no right lower arm but all that doesn't matter as she always wears a perpetual smile.

Husnah Kukundakwe isn't your ordinary teenage girl. While many recount her journey with compassion, she proudly embraces her identity as a swimming sensation, a determined go-getter with a melodic baritone voice, and a Senior Four student at Aga Khan preparing for her Uganda Certificate of Education (UCE) final papers next year.

Yet as a young girl, she was shy and tried to hide her hand in the school sweater sleeves.

Kukundakwe, 16, has a congenital limb impairment that left her with no right lower arm but all that doesn't matter as she always wears a perpetual smile.

A trailblazer, Kukundakwe, who proudly walks with her mother Hashima Batamuriza, competed at the World Series in Singapore back in 2019 and the London 2019 World Para Swimming Allianz Championships.

Few before her have managed this feat since Para swimmers from Africa are a rarity to begin with. There were just four female swimmers at the Rio 2016 Paralympics; out of 593 swimmers who competed then, just 10 hailed from Africa. Only one other Para swimmer from Uganda has made the quadrennial Games in the country’s history so far: Prossy Tusabe at the Sydney Games in 2000.

This has meant putting in more energy as she had to compete against able-bodied athletes all her life.

Rising star

Kukundakwe started her pursuit of glory naïvely at the age of five when she was enrolled at Sir Apollo Kaggwa Primary School. She had doubts about her abilities but she became motivated when she realised swimming was all she could do.

“I was childish and did not take swimming seriously,” she remembers.

She first tested the waters in 2017 when she participated in the DSTV swimming gala challenge at Greenhill Academy. She would later participate in the 2018 Korea Paralympic Youth Camp where she won gold in the 100m breaststroke.

“This was my first world series. That championship helped me realise that swimming could be a career for me. I realised that I had to take it a step further and also be more serious,” she said.

The only classified para swimmer in Uganda, Kukundakwe competes in the S8 (freestyle, butterfly, and backstroke), SB8 (breaststroke), and SM9 (Individual Medley) which were reviewed at the World Para Swimming World Series 2019 in Singapore. She recorded three personal best times in the 100m breaststroke (1:57.8), 100m freestyle (1:30.43) and 50m freestyle (40.24).

“It was very exciting and nerve-wracking. I went there on a wildcard. I met lots of world-class swimmers and set personal bests. It was an eye-opening experience for me. Also, that was the first ever huge experience I had,” Kukundakwe said.

From Singapore, she emerged as Uganda's sole representative at the London 2019 World Para Swimming Allianz Championships. At this event, she bettered her times in the 50m (38.14) and 100m (1:24.85) freestyle events.

“During this time I didn’t think I was good enough to qualify and hoped to go on a wildcard. When Covid came in I was sad but at the same time I saw it as an opportunity to actually qualify. I kept on doing gym at home and keeping myself fit. And when some swimming pools opened [during the nationwide lockdown], I began training more seriously as I saw myself really close to the qualification time for the 100 metres breaststroke,” she said.

She went for the qualification event in Sheffield, UK in 2021 and qualified with a personal best and also made the minimum entry time. This made her the first ever Ugandan swimmer to ever qualify for the Paralympic Games. She would be the youngest athlete at the Games.

“There were high stakes and high pressure. Many people were expecting me to give a good performance since I was the only one representing Uganda in para-swimming and Uganda had not been represented in almost 20 years at the Paralympic Games. At the Games, I did not know what to expect because it was my first. I was more than excited to be at the Games. I was kind of stalking the Games village. I knew what was there. I was prepared to tour around the whole Paralympic village and also make new friends,” she recalls.

At the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan she recorded her personal best (PB) in her favourite 100m breaststroke.

“I enjoyed the feeling of participating in the Paralympic Games,” she said.

Road to Paris

When Tokyo ended, her focus turned to the Paris 2024 Games.

In 2022 she represented Uganda at the Lignano Sabbiadoro World Series and earned Uganda her first International Para Swimming medals in 100m Butterfly and 100m breaststroke.

Her star has been rising earning her a place at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in August 2022 as its sole Para Swimmer. Her S9 class was still new in the Commonwealth Games, so she was invited to the event.

Still, in 2022 she participated at the Konya 2021 Islamic Solidarity Games in Turkey and raised Uganda's flag higher by winning six medals; two gold, three silver, and two bronze in Para Swimming events.

“I was very excited to hear the national anthem played for the first time internationally, not once but twice, for those two gold medals,” Kukundakwe said.

In 2023 she went for the World Series in Sheffield where she managed to make the qualification time for the Manchester World Championships which were going to be the Paris 2024 qualifier. She took part in three events; 100m butterfly, 100m breaststroke, and 200m individual medley, and qualified for the Olympics in all three events with minimum entry times.

“I am more than happy to represent Uganda at the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games next year,” she said.

However, her team is still ensuring smooth qualification by looking at events that can enable her to attain minimum qualification standard time.

Team Citi

Despite her achievements, financial challenges persist, and her family continues to grapple with securing the necessary support. However, a significant breakthrough occurred when Citibank extended a landmark Shs45m sponsorship, making Kukundakwe a part of Team Citi—an exclusive class of para-athletes supported by the bank.

Back in 2019, her mother wrote a proposal to banking giant Citi for sponsorship.

"I was told by the team that Citi doesn't sponsor sports and I left it at that," she said.

But this year, all the pieces fell into place when she was contacted by the bank as they were following up on her daughter's sponsorship.

First Kukundakwe has been performing exceptionally well while the bank became the founding partner of the PARA SPORT program that was launched in 2022 with the aim of driving societal change through diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Akin Dawodu, Citibank's Cluster Head for Sub Sahara Africa (SSA) expressed overwhelming admiration for Kukundakwe's inspiring journey.

"Her story is very inspiring and I think that is the most remarkable thing about Husnah. To just go down a path that is not travelled is great. That is where Citi likes to think of the people we work with and the things we do. We try to support people who have that spirit, courage and ambition," Dawodu said.

As partners of PARA SPORT, the International Paralympic Committee’s grassroots high-performance program.  Through the partnership, Citi supports 23 national Paralympic Committees and a collection of more than 30 individual athletes around the world known as Team Citi. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the bank supports two national teams; Nigeria and South Africa as well as Team Citi athletes in those two countries as well as Cameroon, and now Uganda.

Sarah Arapta, the managing director of Citibank Uganda was excited that the partnership ticks the box around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“It’s our first sponsorship to the sports fraternity in Uganda and I must say we’re honoured and very proud of Husnah,” Arapta said.

For Kukundakwe, this sponsorship is a game-changer, breaking barriers and changing perceptions about people with disabilities. With her eyes set on the Paris Games, she remains determined to push boundaries and be the best version of herself.

"I am very much certain that now I have changed the perceptions of people with disabilities. Now that I understand what I do, I will push myself. The people who count on me to be the best version of myself give me the bravery to push through," said Kukundakwe, who hopes to make the finals at the Paris Games.

Husnah Kukundakwe

Date of birth: March 25, 2007

Age: 16 years

Coach: Muzafaru Muwanguzi