Ucaf preach to the converted in Bujagali

The best female athlete at the River Nile Regatta Martha Biyinzika. She recorded a time of 7:56.22 in the 500m single sprints. PHOTO/MAKHTUM MUZIRANSA

What you need to know:

The athletes at Kisubi Beach, like Bujagali's old guard, may not have the same opportunities.

Last week, Uganda Canoe Federation (Ucaf) started to build momentum through the River Nile Regatta in Bujagali, Jinja.

Canoeing has suffered its fair share of leadership wrangles in previous years but the Ucaf faction, which claims affiliation to the international body (ICF) and continental body (CAC), believes it is time to give athletes a platform to showcase their talents.

A lot of time has been lost in trying to first sort their differences with Uganda Canoe Kayak Federation (UCKF), which is recognized by National Council of Sports (NCS). 

Ucaf have established their strategic plan dubbed Engage 2026 with an aim of bringing as many people into paddling as possible. In fact they feel that the resolution of leadership challenges can be enhanced, in the background, if there is a running activity calendar to bring the athletes and clubs together.

According to Isima Iga, a member of their advisory committee, Engage 2026 started last year and is mainly about "enrolling more athletes especially females, recruiting more coaches and empowering officials in the sport."

This he says will "prepare us for our next strategic phases ‘focus’, and ‘excel’ within the next decade."

Hungry athletes 

The River Nile Regatta is part of a grand plan to strengthen local competitions and the federation will also such activities at Kisubi Beach and Lake Bunyonyi. 

Fortunately, in Jinja, they found ready athletes.

Ucaf rightly acknowledge in their strategic plan that the long tradition of paddling for domestic, mobility, recreational purposes along the shores of the various lakes and rivers gives their sport a huge boost  - and this was evident in Bujagali.

Moses Kibombo, one of the locals who helped Ucaf organize the regatta, is a tubing and surfing instructor. He says he and most of his peers literally live on the water as it is not only a recreational attraction but also a source of livelihood.

"These guys (Ucaf) wanted powerful and skillful athletes with lots of endurance. That is why we have just about 50 athletes.

But you would be hard-placed to find someone that hails from Bujagali that cannot paddle, surf or swim in the river. We learn these things at a young age because any child that runs away from home will probably follow his friends to the river. The most likely accident they will suffer in this area at such times has got something to do with the water, be it drowning, disease or death. 
So we are taught to befriend the river to avoid such circumstances," Kibombo, who looks to be in his early 20s, explains. 

He is also not convinced with reports that the waters here are infested with Bilharzia.

"We have tourists here all the time so we would at least have had cases among them. I also think it is mostly in still waters like in the lake but here the water keeps flowing downstream," Kibombo reasons.

Kibombo and his colleagues have been running events on the Nile without much reference to the nitty gritty of the sport. They are taught how to handle these exotic boats and equipment by white tourists or business owners who have some knowledge about the sport but that is about it.

Their normal 'training' sessions are usually unguided, independent and fun-filled. 

"We usually have such boat racing competition every year. But we do not even know the distance we paddle in metres. We just put starting and end points then rank ourselves according to who finishes before the other. 

Now we are being told that the distance is 500m, we have to record times because we compete in heats and that the finish line is diagonal. All the same we are eager to learn and take the next step in the sport," Kibombo shares.

Call to action

Improving these technical aspects of the sport is where Ucaf's next priority should be. For example the world record for the men's 500m single sprints kayaking is 1:35.04 and 1:46.46 for the women. 

The locals were all well over six minutes on the Nile and even if we took into consideration that many of them kept cutting time from the heats to the finals and that they were paddling against the tide of the river, it is hard to imagine that these raw Bujagali kayakers can significantly close the gap on their international colleagues who paddle in still waters. They will still need a lot of training to catch up.

Ucaf have it in their plan to train at least two coaches in each of the canoeing disciplines to at least Level Three, and empower them to train at least 20 coaches to constitute their network. 

They want each of their centres to have at least one coach per paddling discipline. But each centre will also need its own equipment. For now, some of the athletes who work on the Nile are investing in their own equipment.

Equipment shows Nile is lucrative 

One of Kibombo's friends Brian Kasango learnt how to kayak from a Canadian tourist named Matt. Kasango, who finished as runner up in the men's sprints last week, works with Tubing the Nile as a photographer. He bought his canoe and its paddles from Matt at Shs1.3m as the latter could not travel back home with it. A Google search shows that new canoes cost between Shs2.2m to Shs5.7m.

The Nile is surely lucrative if this 24 year old and a host of his peers from Bujagali can afford their own boats and paddles. 

When leaving the area, I asked a middle aged boda-boda man Erukana Tenywa, why the older generation has completely left this economically viable venture to their younger ones if indeed many of the people in this area can swim.

Tenywa, who works on the dusty Bujagali road that is skiddy in the rainy season but has for now left him with a constant cough and flu, says their young counterparts are luckier because the Nile in this area "became safer" when the dam was built in November 2011. It "dissolved" the rapids that made the river a no go area for most of his generation and gave a new burst of life to Bujagali.

"When we were children, most of our peers feared the rapids so we did not get a chance to turn the Nile into a business for us. I used to swim in the rapids but I hit something one day and visited Mulago (Hospital) at least thrice for surgery," Tenywa, who operates at a stage that is just outside the entrance to the falls, shares as he reveals scars on his chin.
The athletes at Kisubi Beach, like Bujagali's old guard, may not have the same opportunities. Ucaf will in a fortnight's time embark on studying the situation at Lake Bunyonyi before it holds its National Trials in hope of qualifying athletes for the World Championships due August 23-27 in Duisburg, Germany. 

Of course, the fact that they are not recognized by NCS means that they will sweat to find funds for the trip.

The numbers:
1:35.04 - Men's 500m K1 world record
6:35.25 - Time recorded by Musa Bangili to win River Nile Regatta
2026 - The year when Ucaf hope to start focusing on excellence for their athletes after growing participatory numbers between now and then
47 - Number of athletes at River Nile Regatta. These included seven women 
2.2 - A good canoeing boat ranges from Shs2.2m to Shs5.7m.
But athletes here can aquire them from tourists at a discount