Kids can’t play or breathe ‘coz we  put profit ahead of public spaces

Mr Daniel K. Kalinaki

What you need to know:

  • If we can’t reclaim the public spaces we have lost to so-called developers, we should at least take some of the tax they are (hopefully) paying and create new ones”

For young boys growing up in Kampala in the 80s and early 90s, life was great outdoors. As soon as one was able to slip unnoticed from parental line of sight, one disappeared into the sights and sounds of the city and its neighbourhoods.   Downtown, with its noise and snake oil salesmen waiting to separate young boys from their money, was generally to be avoided. 

To the keen-eyed, the golf course offered a chance to recover wayward balls. These were rumoured to contain rubber bands (I don’t recall ever seeing an open one, though), which, like silicon chips to computers, were essential to the manufacture of hand-made footballs converted out of milk pint sachets. One could make a ball out of banana fibre, of course, but we “city borns” preferred the milk-pint balls which were pressurised (by mouth), could bounce, and offered endless hours of pure, unadulterated fun. Factory-made balls came later, and these were knocked about all around the city: between blocks of flats, in vast church compounds, and in the acres of open fields that littered the city.

Almost every school had a field, and even those that did not were within spitting distance of one. On a good Saturday one could play early at Kololo S.S, dash up the road to East Kololo mid-morning, walk to ‘Lincoln’ next to the museum for a quick game, then wrap it all up at Kira Road police ground. 
Lugogo was the jewel. Here you could play football, rugby and even handball if, like my friend Paul Obenga, you wanted a game that aligned with your feminine side and did not make you too dirty. There was also volleyball and, if you ventured inside, the gift kept giving: hockey, cricket, tennis, etc.

 We did not know it then, but sport broke us into life. Victory gave us confidence and self-belief; losses taught us humility and resilience. Playing on teams imbued a sense of teamwork, as well as respect for coaches, teammates, officials and even opponents. We kicked each other on the field, then shook hands afterwards; always rivals, never enemies.

 To this day you can tell people who played sport in their formative years from those who didn’t by their ability to play the game – fiercely and competitively even – but never the rival player.   Sport kept us from drugs and the various bits and pieces of equipment in the devil’s workshop. It delayed our introduction to fermented beverages of the mind-altering variety, and allowed us time to learn to fear Kampala women (and men!). Whatever failings our generation might have, we would have been worse without sport! News of a planned redevelopment of Lugogo Sports Complex is therefore welcome. We badly need a world-class facility that can host competitive games, but this can only be a start. 

Most of the grassroots sports facilities have been grabbed and ‘developed’ into malls and office blocks. Lincoln? Gone. Kololo S.S? Gone. Kira Road Police? Gone. Lugogo fields? Gone. East Kololo? Going.

Young people today spend their down time hanging around shopping malls scoring narcotic drugs and sipping cheap industrial varnish that strips them of the well-founded fear of Kampala women (and men!). The only sports they play are on games consoles – when, that is, they aren’t handing over their money to sports betting companies. So where will the sportspeople meant to compete in the refurbished Lugogo sports complex learn and train from? It is nice to have a gleaming new national sports complex, but what’s the point of having icing sugar and no cake?
 Why can’t we see that a country with a young population and no open or green spaces is brewing a generational crisis of confidence, narcissism, indiscipline, and type II diabetes?

 Individuals can help; at Kira Tennis Club that your columnist is involved in, few things are as gratifying as seeing young children holding a racket for the first time and going through the swings. Or older folks rediscovering forehands they last played decades ago. Other individuals have built five-a-side football pitches to try and fill this gaping hole in public services but these efforts can only go so far, and are hard to sustain profitably. We need public money to carve out public spaces for sport, public parks, libraries, and the like. Beyond their aesthetic value, these open spaces contribute to building a sense of community and making citizens more respectful towards and accountable to others.

If we can’t reclaim the public spaces we have lost to so-called developers, we should at least take some of the tax they are (hopefully) paying and create new ones. If we can’t do it for ourselves then we should do it for our children and future generations.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter. 
[email protected]; @Kalinaki