Wasswa Kayiiya: Madly in love with pool but living for football

Beautiful game. Kayiiya inspects work at his field. He plans to set up a football academy in the near future. PHOTOS / George Katongole

What you need to know:

  • Five league titles and two individual awards, Kayiiya regrets failing to win the prestigious National Open after. He was closest in 2008 when he potted the black to lose the title to Jonan ‘Joker’ Turigye.

He hoped and waited. At least for 18 years! Despite his legendary stature, Wasswa Kayiiya did not see any end in sight. At least a happy ending. He was desperate to make a decent living out of playing pool but always lived hand to mouth. Without announcement, he stepped off the green bed to concentrate on private business and dedicate more time to family. 

The person commonly known as Wasswa Kayiiya is actually a hustler whose day job is dealing in scrap metals, buying auctioned machinery as well as old vehicles in the shanty Kisenyi suburb.

Born 36 years ago in Kasango village, in Kakunyu parish, Kabonera sub-county, Masaka District with seven children, Kayiiya is the first born of his polygamous father. None of his siblings took sports.

What’s in the name? A twin at birth, Kayiiya was born in what he describes as a staunch Catholic family. His father would later convert to Islam. His grandparents named him Damian Wasswa Mukiibi. He dropped Damian and adopted the name Muhammad. He would later be called Kayiiya taking after his father Ibrahim Kayiiya.

In pool, Kayiiya is the name that stuck owing to his intense calculation of his shots.

Time to make money

All his life, Kayiiya’s face has been synonymous with pool yet when he chose an investment option, it was in football instead.

There is a slight connection as Kayiiya, just like most boys, played football while growing up. Football is cheap as a ball can be owned by a community and be played with bare feet. It is the story of most Ugandan boys.

But Kayiiya, a charming, ever smart persona can connect the dots. At best he can explain what he achieved first working as a ball boy at Nakivubo Stadium. As someone who studied from Nakivubo Blue Primary School, he played in the age-grade tournaments, especially City Tyres U14 organised by Friends of Football, as well as Coca-Cola U14.

And that’s all.

In 2004, aged 17, he was introduced to pool by Abdullah Lukwago in Umoja Pub, a journey that has seen him winning seven national titles. He was more of a team player as he lifted the league trophy eight times and his individual brilliance shone twice.

The reason is obvious. He came during the glory days of pool when such star players as Jonan ‘Joker’ Turigye, Fred ‘Bonde’ Namanya, Amos Ndyagumanawe and Alfred ‘Black Sheep’ Gumikiriza were glowing with passion and form. Individual titles were always exchanged among the galaxy of stars.

A winning journey

Kayiiya’s first triumph was the 2006 Kampala Open, a tournament that was sponsored by Pilsner Lager. It was a tug-of-war. As a minor, he was initially blocked from accessing the venue for the qualifiers near Nakivubo Blue. The war veterans, who used to adore him though, forced his name with an altered age.

“The organisers reluctantly agreed thinking I was not good enough. I borrowed a cue and ended up shocking everyone qualifying for the finals that were held at DV8,” he said.

Kayiiya joined DV8 Club in Kisenyi from where he won his first league title. He was scouted by California the following year.

Those that have faced Kayiiya know him for his stinging shots, calm composure and sweet finishes. But he had worked on his skill over time.

“I played a lot of money games. In order not to lose, I had to make sure I win. That built the competitiveness I later carried into organised competitions and tournaments,” he said.

Kayiiya said he felt it was time to move on after winning almost everything. Five league titles and two individual awards, Kayiiya regrets failing to win the prestigious National Open after. He was closest in 2008 when he potted the black to lose the title to Jonan ‘Joker’ Turigye.

Kayiiya likes to dare. In 2008, he chose to start Kisenyi, which is now commonly known as Scrap Buyers.

But he immediately quit after Samona dangled a juicy offer. He would win five consecutive league titles with the giants. Two other titles were won with Scrap Buyers.

After impressing for clubs and country, Kayiiya called it quits in 2018 to concentrate on scrap deals. But he had a deep hole to live a fulfilling life.

At least pool was a shield from numerous waves even though it was not well paying.

Kayiiya recollects his childhood saying many of his peers are wasted in gambling and drugs. Yet he is grateful pool brought him to the table of men.

“If I had not played pool, it would have been a different story. Pool has supported me for 18 years and now I am ready for the next step,” said Kayiiya.

Retirement plan

Healthy lifestyle is an increasing theme among city dwellers most of whom are desperate to work out yet the green spaces are increasingly diminishing.

This has given keen investors a chance to build recreational facilities in the urban spaces squeezing artificial turf fields which can easily fit in spaces as small as 50x100 feet.

Kayiiya is one of them. He has established a field at Kisimbiri village in Wakiso Town to provide an alternative to the only recreational space at Wakissha, a private property that is mostly occupied with elite football games.

“I saw an opportunity to provide an accessible playing field to the city dwellers instead of them having to go to the city to exercise,” Kayiiya said.

Inspired by his wife, a city businesswoman, who was increasingly becoming frustrated by his husband staying in the drudgery of playing pool. The rewards? Minimal.

“She was concerned about what my retirement would be. By playing pool, I could not pay my bills. I had to rely on earnings from selling scrap to survive. I needed something that could challenge me and I think investing in pool was not an option,” Kayiiya said.

The field, which started operations early this year, took about two years to complete. His grand plan is to establish a football academy to nurture young players.

“I want to make football affordable and accessible to the community. We shall use a holistic approach to get the best out of the children. Many parents in Wakiso cannot afford to pay money to attend established academies and we would like to provide that opportunity,” he said.

It was a big challenge to have the stadium ready. An artificial turf requires expertise yet the original plan was torn apart by price fluctuations and high taxes.

“At one time I felt frustrated. The project was three time more than our original budget. There was tension but thank God my wife was very understanding,” he said, stressing that the wife contributed more than 90 per cent of the budget.

To effectively maintain the synthetic turf, there is a great need for infill materials in the form of crumb rubber which must be replaced regularly. The rubber is mainly imported from China.

“Maintenance is what I hope to be the main challenge. The turf wears out while rubber is also expensive. But we shall try to offer solutions that inspire members of our community,” Kayiiya said.

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