Bob Menani: The founding father of Uganda’s pool

Menani plays a game of pool at the Black Sheep Arena. PHOTO/GEORGE KATONGOLE 

What you need to know:

In snooker, there are scores. Each ball has its own scores, so I would record them. At the time I was 16 years old. That is how I picked the interest. Whoever would come in the hall and find my brother playing against the Whites would call out his name. I felt I also needed to be praised like my brother. When he died in a car accident in 1987, it hurt me so much while I was away in the UK.

Bob Menani lives a life of contrasts. His name would have been properly spelt Minani but he prefers to be called Menani in respect of his great father.

“As [Minani’s] his children, we wanted to leave him with that respect as our elder and mentor. He has got his history which is above every one of his eight children. He is a global phenomenon,” Menani said. Curiously, as a Seventh-day Adventist believer and church elder of the conservative faith, few would expect Menani to be the founding father of pool, a sport synonymous with bars and all forms of gambling. Yet he is the gentleman who took the sport to the greatest heights on and off the table. Living a low life, Menani speaks about the game’s past and the regrets he holds about its current status. He still believes pool has an opportunity to overcome its current storms to bring more youths together.

Who is Bob Menani?

My story can be properly understood from the perspective of my father. I am a son of a common man Nathan Minani born around 1938 who became the most prominent carpenters in Mbarara after being appointed by the Ankole kingdom for the palace’s furniture requirements. In the course of his work, a man called Aaron Muhinda enticed him to become a Seventh-day Adventist missionary in 1942. Muhinda, a Muhima royal, offered his cousin sister to make Minani, a peasant from the Abiiru people, eligible for church work. He rode his bicycle to Itojo, a 40-mile journey to check out his bride.

“He told us that he never expected to have such a beautiful girl as wife. My mother was 17 at the time my father accepted to take her in marriage,” Menani said.

My father was first posted in Nchwanga (the first Seventh-day Adventist station in Uganda) in present day Kibale District then later to Bugema where he would become a pioneer student of Bugema University. He was among the first people to attain a Diploma in Theology in 1949. History has it that my father is the founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in western Uganda.

Personally, I was born in 1957 and I am the sixth born of nine children. As a son of missionary parents, we moved a lot and I studied from many places. I attended nursery school in Kazingo around Mitandi in Fort Portal, then Primary One and Two I went to Nyakasura Demonstration School. From there my father was transferred to Kibale in a refugee camp. That is where I met with the current Rwandan president Paul Kagame and he was my classmate. He [Kagame] has been a good friend of mine until today. We were again transferred to Ruhanga in Ntungamo where I finished my Primary Seven. Ruhanga Primary School is now a secondary school.

I followed my ancestral grounds and went to Bugema then Makerere College for high school. This was the time of the Obote II insurgency. As westerners were being tormented by the regime, we ran to exile in the UK. I was in the UK from 1982 up to 1988 when President Museveni and the late Samson Kisekka announced that we were free to return to Uganda. When I went to the UK I attended Waterloo College where I offered tourism studies but did not graduate due to financial hitches. I later went to London College of Business studies at Trafalgar Square where I graduated in textile technology. I went for a piloting course which I never finished. I was supposed to do 88 hours but I completed 48 hours. The balance of 40 hours, they needed £40,000 cash to get a pilot bag which I did not have. That’s me in brief.

Talking about pool, where does pool come into your life?

One of my mentors was my elder brother, the second born in our family called Yosamu Menani. Yosamu was one of the inspirations we had in the family because he was so brilliant. He taught us in primary school and when I went to Bugema secondary he still taught me because he was doing his theology degree there. He used to care about me a lot and mentored me in different ways. When he finished his Senior Four from Bugema in 1970, he made some good friends in Kampala. At the time it was mainly Indians. That is how he got involved in snooker and he became one of the best snooker players at the time. They used to play at Eldorado, City Bar and another place under what is now B-Plus. In 1971 when they were choosing the Uganda national team, my brother was selected number two behind Elrod Ridges, also a former rally driver. Because my brother had just finished Senior Four, he did not have money to travel to Kenya for the East African championship. Ridges ended up going alone but he was unhappy because he wanted his partner especially for the doubles. It so happened that Ridges, who was the only Ugandan athlete of the 80 participants from Kenya and Tanzania, became champion. My brother and Ridges continued playing together and I started joining them around 1975 during school holidays.

In snooker, there are scores. Each ball has its own scores, so I would record them. At the time I was 16 years old. That is how I picked the interest. Whoever would come in the hall and find my brother playing against the Whites would call out his name. I felt I also needed to be praised like my brother. When he died in a car accident in 1987, it hurt me so much while I was away in the UK. It disorganised my life. Even that course at Waterloo I was supposed to have completed because I was getting some funds from him.  At the time he was the Registrar of Bugema University, a teacher and Communications Director of the university. That is the time I returned to Uganda. I was welcomed back by mostly his friends. I joined his friends at Eldorado which is near present-day La Bonita at the current Emirates offices.

But how were you getting along?

I was welcomed by well-wishers of my elder brother and among them was Juma Seiko. He was a very good player and was his best friend. As far as the tokens and upkeep, Seiko would sort it. Sometimes he would give me his car to go home. At the time we only had snooker registered with the National Council of Sports (NCS). Towards the end of 1987, Speedway Sports Club in Muyenga started and Arthur Blick introduced pool. At the club he had table tennis, squash, pool, snooker and shooting. Most of the rally drivers also used to meet at Speedway. We formed the management committee of Speedway and I was voted the director of sports. That is where we started the pool association. We could not transform quickly from snooker at the time but we registered the Snooker and Billiards Association to which I was the director. We started organising tournaments and a pool league in 1988. Eight clubs attended the inaugural league. Among them was Club Paradise at the Railway, Reco Bar now Capital Pub, Half London, Sliders in Bbunga, Sheraton and Speedway, who emerged champions. I was playing with Speedway.

How did you make the transition at the time with all the new responsibilities of a new association, a league and maybe a national team?

We did not want to go for the national team at the time. We wanted to bring up the sport first. Our target was to bring in as many tables as possible. Only eight places had pool tables. In 1992, a gentleman called Henry Njuba brought in about six tables, then the owner of Woodstock bought Capital Pub and brought in 22 Super League tables. We kept encouraging people to bring in more tables showing them how they could make money.

Now we have the tables, paint for me a picture of pool at the time.

The job I had at the moment as the director of sport was to look around for the pool tables wherever they were and teach them the rules. I would go to such places as Sabrinas and Sheraton which were booming. We started organising tournaments but it became so hard for me because I was both a player and the organiser. Most of the certificates I was giving I would sign as the organiser at the same time I would win. I was a national champion for 10 consecutive years. This would make me run to Arthur Blick to sign as chairman. It became hard but I insisted because it is very hard to promote something when you are not involved. When you get involved and people see how you conduct yourself, it motivates them.

Why did you opt for pool instead of snooker?

I was a champion of snooker and I knew that snooker was more expensive. It could not take root in Uganda easily. The tables are very expensive yet they are very big too. The game takes very long too. The minimum time a snooker game takes is 55 minutes. You find that you are paying Shs3,500 per game. But on the pool table they were paying Shs1,000 and the game takes a minimum of three minutes. In 55 minutes, how many pool table games can you play? So, when I started going around, I found that pool was more attractive. The people in Uganda like quick games. It makes pool table a good investment. At the time, the table was about Shs4m yet a snooker table was Shs15m. Therefore, recovering the initial money was easier on pool tables.

Were you the first pool leader or was there is someone before you?

When you talk of pool presidents, I am the only one in Uganda. All the others are chairmen. Our association doesn’t make the leader the president.

From 1992 we were holding championships sponsored by Bell and Capital Pub but in 1994 we had many pool tables across the city.

When MTN started operating in Uganda in mid-1994, they got a marketing manager, Caster Ssemwogerere, who was looking for the best way to promote their brand. Ssemwogerere suggested the formation of an association. He looked for signatures from the mandatory 13 districts as required by NCS.

That is when MTN introduced the first national championship in 2000 and I was the champion until 2002. From 1987 up to 1999, it was the Snooker and Billiards Association. Through MTN the Uganda Pool Association (UPA) was formed in 1999. Ssemwogerere was the first chairman of UPA for three years before he had some problems in 2002.

Because we had many clubs springing up in Ntinda, many people had interests like David Mugabi, who had good money. Together we formed the Pool Association of Uganda (PAU) in 2004.

In 2006, I retired from the game to pave the way to the new blood. That was when the AGM agreed to name me honorary president.

What have you won as a player?

As far as trophies are concerned, there are so many titles I have won. I won about 21 major events organised in different places. The most notable were in Kasese, another in Rwenzori Ballroom at the Sheraton then ‘Who’s the Pool Master’ at Capital Pub. Twice I won at the International Hotel in Muyenga, another in Sabrinas, at Gabiro in Bugoloobi, another one was in Kajjansi and Kitintale. Internationally, I went to Kenya to represent Uganda after I had won the national championship and still I won. What stands out for me was the ‘Who’s the Pool Master’ at Capital Pub in 1993. One would say the national championship but at the time I was known. But in 1993, there were many people who wanted to prove themselves. Beating the best people at the time was a great achievement.

What did you achieve as the leader of pool in Uganda?

I was the chairman for two years from 2006-2007. I was also president until 2009. After achieving so much, I knew what the game needed. I opened the website, a postal office box, had an office, registered with the NCS and the like. But at the time, the police commander at CPS Grace Turyagumanawe had ordered for pool to be banned saying it was a game of hooligans. I walked into his office and asked why he would close a game just like that. When I reached his office I introduced myself as the founder, a multiple champion and now the leader. He looked at me and said there was no way a gentleman like me would be involved with what he called hooligans. He was very happy and gave us the greenlight. For such a fight, I was voted the honorary president of pool during the AGM.

Who did you hand over the mantle?

Many people including at the NCS did not want me to leave because they saw that I was the only person who could handle pool at the time. But I went to Mr Jasper Aligaweesa to assure him that the sport was in good hands. I organised elections for the new chairman. But the delegates wanted me to continue because I had just brought in Nile Breweries as sponsors and we had agreed on certain terms for them to be main sponsors. They were also not happy with my departure. I scrutinised among the candidates and spotted Godfrey Mabiriizi whom I campaigned for. When I left, I went back to my normal life. I have a real estate company called Success Properties. I have got a family and a few other businesses.

Coming from the Seventh-day Adventist background, this is a sport played in bars, how did you feel? Was it contradicting your faith?

I am a member of Ishaka Adventist Church. It used to contradict my faith especially when I became the national champion. Nile Breweries asked me to appear on the billboard and they were paying me good money. But I turned that offer down. I loved the money but could not do that. There is no way you can take my photo and advertise it with e Nile Special beer. The church elders did not refuse me to go to a drinking place to win a soul. My behaviors and good standing was unquestioned. Of course, as a church elder myself, it is not advisable to enter bars. But everyone knew what I used to do in bars.

How do you feel about the current status of the sport?

It is not what I expected as somebody who started the game. After Mabiriizi, people took the game to be a commercial sport. Because I had brought in Nile Breweries, they saw an opportunity to make money. They never came in as people who loved the game. Personally, I cared much about the sport’s growth, sometimes injecting personal money, but now people just come in to make money. Look, none of the leaders has ever been a champion in pool. All of them just come of the management of the funds and the players. I had the game at heart. Coming in for the sake of money spoils the game.

I would love to see the game prosper. The pool fraternity must combine efforts to save the sport. The players, leaders, elders, sponsors and well-wishers should all be in harmony. Doing things as a leader against the players kills the game.  Forgetting the former leaders and players is bad. In life, you can never make history where there is history! It also hurts because competitively pool is only in Kampala. By the time I was the leader, we were present in Iganga, Jinja, Mbale, Fort Portal, Masindi and Mbarara.

How often are you consulted?

Never. Not even once. I feel ignored when they make decisions that are not good for the whole fraternity. All those things make me sick. They really make me sick and it is taking this game nowhere. I felt so bad when Nile Breweries pulled out of the National Open because of the decisions of the new leader. It is very bad to miss out a sponsor like Nile Breweries who was ready to go all the way. How do you lose him because of a few things that you as a leader take personal? You are supposed to sit as an executive. There is no single executive meeting that decided to take Nile out. As a leader, there are many things you would want but the executive helps you.

Anything else?

What pool needs as of now is to have all stakeholders make unions. Out of the unions, the PAU should recommend an elders’ council who should oversee this game. If you call me as an overseer, we can provide guidance. PAU should not sit on the game and dictate. Forming a federation may not solve much because these people remain as the main people reporting to NCS.