I first got to meet Zebra Ssenyange Mando 2011. At that time he was the most senior boxer in the national team. The national team was preparing for the All Africa Games in Maputo, Mozambique.
Ronald Sserugo who went on to win bronze in Maputo, was my neighbour in Kibuli. At that time I was contemplating quitting football. Injuries had become a problem. I had also started my work as a journalist, so Ronnie and I would jump onto his bike to the boxing gym in Lugogo. Almost every day. The gym was always a beehive of activities. With my camera, I'd just position myself, take pics, write interviews etc. Zebra,
Mike Katongole, Atanus Mugerwa, Sulaiman Ssegawa, Hamis Ssemakula, Emmanuel Kyambadde, Mike Ssekabembe were some of the guys working out under Coaches Kent Musa (RIP), Dick Katende (RIP) and Charles Libulwa. Justin Juuko was more of a TM.
If you've been keen enough you must have realized that I am a man of few words when surrounded by people I don't know.
So those days I'd just talk to only Ronnie and the coaches. Now, one day, Zebra came to me after training. Still dressed in his training gear, sweating head to toe. Looked me in the face and said: "Amawulire gagenda gatya? Nkwagala nnyo kubanga ggwe buli kaseera ojja nootulabako..." Literally translated as, “How’s journalism treating you? I love you a lot because you usually come to check on us.”
He gave me a high five and walked away. Of course growing up reading all sorts of local newspapers I'd read about him. But had not met him. Case of "knowing" a person before meeting them. Happens a lot.
So, we started talking, talking. And yes, he was a big talker. All sorts of bragging. He told me he was going to beat all guys in his Middleweight category during the trials. And yes, he did. He told me that Ugandan selectors had a problem with his age. "But if I have beaten the young guys, what's the problems with my age? It's an advantage," he told me.
A year or two before, Zebra had quit boxing; selectors said he was rusty. But man, that guy was a hard worker. He got himself into shape and beat Ali Yusuf and Godfrey Nyeko, who, according to Zebra, were favoured by the selectors.
For his final fight with Nyeko, I bumped into him near the NCS hostel. He was with Mercy, his wife. She was helping him arrange his bandages and gloves.
Zebra told me: "They said Nyeko is going to beat me in the final. Here we are. I have the power to KO him but I'll take it slow. I want the crowd to enjoy the fight, but above all, I want Nyeko to pick lessons from our fight. If I KO him, he won't learn. I want us to go the distance..."
And yes, after the three rounds, Zebra's hand was raised by the referee. After the bout, I told Nyeko what Zebra had told me. Nyeko agreed that Zebra had taught him a lesson. "He is a veteran of the sport. Very experienced. He could have knocked me out. Congratulations to him."
It was getting to sun set so I met Zebra again. I was with my brother Hussein Mawazo and Zebra took us on a kiboozi (casual talk) for like two hours. Long into the night when everybody had left, we also left. Hussein loved the guy from that day.
As I continued to hang around the boxing gym, I got close to many of those guys. Led by Zebra, these guys and coaches tried to entice me into boxing, same way Koyokoyo Helen , Buteme Christine Kizito, Deusdedits Bugembe Kizito and Anne Alan Sizomu made me fall in love with rugby.
I did some introductory drills for a week or two but gave it up. Especially now that Ronnie had relocated to Sweden. In fact, coach Kent died while bitter at me. He said he had seen lots of qualities in me.
As time went on, with the unending wrangles in boxing, I moved on. My contact with many of these guys including Zebra, waned.
But yeah, on a few occasions whenever I'd bump into him, he'd greet with lots of affection. Very jolly guy.
It's sad he got killed under silly circumstances. May God serve the toughest punishment to these bloody murderers.
Rest In Peace, Mando.
This article has been slightly edited and was originally published on Raul Swaib’s Facebook page