Faisal Gama: All hail Mr Longevity

Heathens' veteran scrumhalf Faisal Gama conducts another phase from a break down against Kobs. PHOTO/JOHN BATANUDDE.

What you need to know:

Faisal Gama is the name. Of course there's a huge difference between Wokorach and Gama. The former is still going strong both for club and country.  Then also, it is an era of social media and he has a huge following there. 
 

Towards the end of the last 15s league, a couple of rugby fans on X came out to praise Michael Wokorach for his longevity and evergreen, stellar performances. 

Not to dim the big man's light, but as a journalist, sometimes you get your story ideas from such stuff. In that case, my mind was tickled. Wokorach should be my age or thereabouts and then I remembered that as a kid growing up reading papers and coming across many names along the way, there is one that is still familiar from more than two decades ago. 

Faisal Gama is the name. Of course there's a huge difference between Wokorach and Gama. The former is still going strong both for club and country.  Then also, it is an era of social media and he has a huge following there. 

Gama (C) waits for the scrum to get steady against Stanbic Black Pirates. PHOTO/EDDIE CHICCO

Gama is from the old generation; people with no social media presence but most importantly, he is not in his team's starting XV day-in day-out.

But what a man! A very affable lad, keeps a smile all the time and walks with the swag of a college kid. Arguably the most decorated rugby player but hasn’t let his achievements go to his head. He lies low to the ground and lets his hard work do the talking. 

I cannot count the times I have seen Gama run water onto the field when his team, Platinum Credit Heathens, is playing. Such humility comes from so deep that you don’t find in many players of the current generation. 

Not many will claim to have seen and done it all like Gama. Put simply, the man has played rugby for close to 30 years and counting. To get the real picture, answer this question: How old are you?

Gama, the longest serving player in the league, has been at it so long that by the time he  touched the egg leather for the very first time, many of his teammates, opponents and fans hadn’t seen the light of day. And it all started by ‘accident’. When he joined King's College Budo in the mid ‘90s, he, like the biggest number of kids all over the place, started out as a footballer. 

Gama shows his agility. PHOTO/EDDIE CHICCO 

He paints the picture using Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Erling Haaland. "I was a very good forward but not your Messi or Ronaldo. I didn’t have their skillset but I was very good at scoring goals. So, in simple terms, I was a Haaland sort of forward. Not very silky and skillful but a bloody goalscorer and for many years I was the topscorer in the Budo internal competitions,” he boasts.

But the footballers found him very rough and ostracized him for that. He found himself going to try basketball but it was the same. “I used to bang them so hard and that made me a villain. To be honest, basketball wasn’t for me. I found it so soft and guys were always telling me that I was destined for rugby. That is how it all played out.”

Flanker? 

Gama says he started out as a flanker, then played hooker until one day when a certain Mzungu whose name he doesn’t remember advised him to switch to scrumhalf, and like the old adage goes, the rest is history. It is a position that has defined him for all these years on and off the pitch. 

In 1999, Gama joined Senior Five at Kololo SS, which came as a blessing. Kampala Rugby Club (current Legends) was/is just a walkable distance from school and that is how he joined Kobs after a few training sessions. And we are talking about a Kobs team that had the big names like Emmanuel Mwaka, Ronnie Kaddu and Martin Kasasira and coached by the eternally revered Edward Kitaka. 

What followed was a trophy laden career with the blue army that ended in 2016 when he crossed over to their sworn rivals, Heathens.

And his trophy cabinet must be asking for more space. Because, picture this. He has won every trophy that Kobs and Heathens won between 1999-2024. Except a few 7s trophies because he quit the short code midway through his career. 

Gama is not yet calling a time-out. PHOTO/JOHN BATANUDDE 

Gama’s longevity is something we just take for granted. In his time playing rugby, The United States of America has seen five Presidents come and go. What a feat! He credits God for the honour. He points to the skies. 

“God has been the most important support system in my career. I have been very lucky to be healthy; no major injuries and He also gave me a supportive family; both parents, my wife, siblings and children. He also gave me a good work environment that fits within my training and playing schedules,” he adds. 

The (long) journey of Gama’s story cannot be told without pointing at his hard work, commitment and passion. He says rugby has really defined him as an individual and opened many doors for him. For instance, 17 years ago when Hima Cement offered him a job, one of the bosses, after looking through his CV, agreed that as a rugby player of Gama’s qualities and discipline, they needed him. Because like they say, rugby builds character, tenacity and rewards head workers. 

Hima offered him a vacancy as the face of their customer service department. He has since grown through the ranks to become the chief Territory Sales Manager for the Eastern, Northern Uganda, South Sudan and Rwanda market. 

At Heathens, we have seen Gama play different roles. As a mentor to many young players and one to be looked up to, he has not disappointed. He has mentored many young scrumhalfs like Aaron Ofoyrwoth, Paul Epilo and Nicholas Kato. No fear of losing his position? "Team comes first, bro. And I know that I cannot play forever, and a candle loses none of its light by lighting others,” he philosophically responds.

Talking about the current generation of players, comparisons will never die. It's only natural. And Gama, more than any other person, has the right to tell us where the comparisons and contrasts begin and end. “It’s hard to compare the two, because times have changed. Our generation played the sport for the passion and fun bit of it. The old guard was like mad dogs. We used to hunt until the last breath. We were also lucky that most of us came from good backgrounds so we were not playing for money. But today, players come from all sorts of backgrounds and the needs are many. 

“So sometimes you will find that today’s player is less committed because he has to hustle here and there. He has to look for money to survive. You have to respect them because it is not easy. But also, the sport has opened up to offer big opportunities to players who really put their heart into it. Phillip Wokorach is the best example. And many others will follow him because to be honest, today’s players are much more talented,” he points out. 

Gama (C) plays a pass against Rams. PHOTO/EDDIE CHICCO

Secret to longevity

Until recently, the league had guys like Alex Mubiru still shrugging it out with the youngsters. Simon Wakabi, another veteran and old guard, called it quits two months ago. Scott Oluoch is still going after 22 seasons. This writer has been lucky to train with Heathens in the past and witness, first hand, the amount of work the likes of Gama put in. 

“I subscribe to the Muhammad Ali mantra of ‘work hard when others are resting’. You will find me taking a jog, swimming and doing ball work even on non training days. Following rugby from all parts of the world also helps in keeping up with the trends. But above all, my family has been of immense support to me and they are the reason I am still doing this.”  

So we still have many years seeing Gama play. 

“I am a human being and I know that time (to retire) will finally come. It actually freaks me out. But for as long as I still have the support, especially from my wife, children, parents and siblings, I will play till I drop. The day rugby stands between me and my wife and children, maybe that’s the day I will stop. For now, things are flowing well. 

“Whenever I come back home after winning, my daughters hug me and congratulate me. Those are some of the smallest things that keep us going. I want my 5-year-old son to play rugby so the journey is still long,” the father of three adds.

Family support 

Gama’s family has been his strongest pillar, after God. His father, Ali Nyango, who served in Uganda’s foreign missions, used to play football for leisure in Japan. His wife, Farida Nyango, gave the boys a shoulder to lean on in times of hardships. Gama says she used to massage them and be their 'private doctor' through their injuries.

Back to their father. While living abroad, Mzeey Nyango tasted the sweetness of sport and the power it had in transforming livelihoods and communities. So when his children got the chance to play, he fully supported them. Perhaps, for them to be born  abroad adds another perspective to it (Gama and Athiyo were born in Japan while Ebra was born in Libya. Only Jamil and Alissa Nyago were born here). 

Gama loves his game. 

It was Gama and his follower brother Ebra that introduced rugby to their family. Their oldest brother, Muhammad Athiyo (Gama’s current coach at Heathens) was into basketball and swimming but when he saw his younger siblings enjoying and talking rugby all day and night long, he switched and joined Pirates during its early years. They formed a small rivalry around themselves, as is wont with many sporting siblings.

Currently, only Gama is still active, playing under Athiyo. Ebra retired some few years ago. Jamil, who was following up in Ebra and Athiyo’s footsteps as a second row, surprisingly quit before turning 30 to concentrate on his career as a businessman.But how does it feel playing under your brother as your coach? 

“It is both pressure and privilege. Many people will think you are being favored. But those who know the amount of work that I put in, every day and night, know that I earn my minutes on merit. I am a positive person, so I block the noise and appreciate God for the opportunity He offered me to play with, against and under my siblings,” says Gama.

One thing is for sure. Gama has earned the right to be respected. He has seen, been through and done it all. A true legend. 

Gama 15s league titles
1999: Kobs
2000: Kobs
2001: Kobs
2003: Kobs
2006: Kobs
2007: Kobs
2008: Kobs
2014: Kobs
2017: Heathens
2019: Heathens
2020: Heathens
2022: Heathens 
2024: Heathens 

Gama Uganda Cup titles

2024: Heathens

2022: Heathens

2016: Heathens

2012: Kobs

2011: Kobs

2010: Kobs

2008: Kobs

2006: Kobs

2005: Kobs