Fast and furious, Atukunda is not your ordinary 'makanika'

Atukunda in full flight. PHOTO/DENISE NAMALE 

What you need to know:

Atukunda came straight from Mbarara High School (Chaapa), blasted the ceiling and landed atop the house. Infact, as a Senior Five student in 2017, he landed a call up to the 7s national team training camp. What a feat! 

Arnold Atukunda is the name. So fast, they nicknamed him "Safe Boda". Lethal on the wing. He actually reminds me of Brian Habana in many ways. He has perfected the signature Habana diving try scoring style. He is as fast.

Also, wears white muscle tights like the former Springboks star and world player of the year. And the killer instinct in finishing is the same. Ironically, that's where it ends. 

Habana doesn't even feature on Atukunda's top five wingers. 

Stanbic Black Pirates have a gem on the wings in Arnold Atukunda. A fan favorite, social media darling and puts the money where his mouth is. Some cocky lad, he has built a massive following on social media, especially X, both for his exploits on the rugby field and his workplace as an automobile engineer. Not an ordinary makanika, he keeps saying.

Atukunda poses at his day-job. PHOTO/COURTSEY 

From Mbarara with pride

To be honest, there are not too many people from Ankole that can claim to have excelled in sports, nationally. Especially, to come straight from Ankole and hit the top charts. Not many. Mark that.  Especially in a sport like rugby, which traditionally has been cultured around schools like Namilyango College, St. Mary's Kisubi (Smack) and King's College Budo.

Atukunda came straight from Mbarara High School (Chaapa), blasted the ceiling and landed atop the house. Infact, as a Senior Five student in 2017, he landed a call up to the 7s national team training camp. What a feat! 

It is thus surprising because Atukunda did not play rugby until late into his school years. As a primary school pupil at Booma Primary School, Atukunda first set eye on the leather egg on his usual walks from school to his home in Kamukuzi.

He used to pass by the Ntare School pitch just adjacent to Kakyeka Stadium and there, he could only watch from a distance.

"One of our neighbors was actually playing with the Ntare guys so he could come to me and explain some few basics to me," he recalls.

Atukunda is pursued by several Heathens players. PHOTO/EDDIE CHICCO 

As destiny would have it, Atukunda joined Ntare for his Senior One studies in 2013. But the interest for rugby wasn't there. A small, young and new kid couldn't just throw himself into the den of lions mauling each other on that hard turf. He dedicated time to his books. He admits he was a "book worm". 

His actual rugby journey started during his Senior Five at Mbarara High School (Chaapa). I put it to him that for studying at eternal rivals Ntare and Chaapa, he is a traitor; a Judas Iscariot. Luis Figo of Barcelona joining Real Madrid. I briefly went to Ntare myself, so maybe I am biased towards my old school. Atukunda is unfazed.

So, why did he cross over to the Kiyanja-based side? 

"At Ntare, I had an uncle who was a teacher there and when he died, somehow I found myself going to Chaapa to join my big brother, Roland Ainembabazi. He was a big boy in Senior Six and well established in athletics. I was welcomed with warm hands," he recalls.

Athletics over rugby 

Ainembabazi was the school's star athlete. Atukunda started measuring up to his big brother and actually dethroned him.

Atukunda remembers taking athletics seriously and dominating in the school, zonals and district competitions in 100m, 200m and 400m sprints. He says he was 4th overall in the 2018 national schools championships. 

Now you know why he sprints like a ghost down that wing? 

Alongside athletics, Atukunda picked rugby and excelled at it. After his Senior Four exams, his mother, Beatrice Kyomuhangi, the head statistician at Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Mbarara Zone), wanted him to return to Ntare. But the combination that Ntare offered (History, Economics, Geography) was not what Atukunda wanted. 

He made a last minute call to Chaapa and on top of his preferred combination (Physics, Mathematics, Technical Drawing), they assured him of a full sports bursary.

"I told my mother that she wasn't going to pay a single coin for me in two years. She couldn't believe it until we picked the admission forms and that reminds me of one of my biggest achievements," he boasts.

Atukunda quickly repaid Chaapa's faith in him with top drawer performances in the 2017 USSSA Ball Games held in Kabale. The highlight being their win over powerhouse Budo, coached by Pirates blue eyed boy, Dennis Etuket. That's how Pirates came into the picture.

Enter Etuket and Pirates

Etuket bleeds Pirates. One of the most respected Sea Robbers in the history of the club for his achievements on pitch and in the boardroom, few would doubt Etuket about anything concerning Pirates.

So after that game in Kabale, Etuket pulled Atukunda aside and "lectured" him about the future, and his chances of joining Pirates.

"First, you must keep doing well in school. That way, you will get a good university and that will make your way to Pirates an easier one," Atukunda quotes Etuket to have said.

Before long, Etuket was on the phone with the boy's mother for two hours. He managed to convince her to let the little man hop onto the bus to the unchartered waters of Kampala rugby. 

So, Atukunda was living at Etuket's house his entire Senior Six holiday training with Sailors (Pirates' junior team). They struck a father-son bond that has continued to this day. After all, Etuket was a winger just like his protege. Easy to connect, no?

Atukunda worked his palms sweat to fit into the Sailors but as he was nearing his debut, disaster struck. He broke his ankle and that threw him miles back and off the rails. Recovery took long and impatience from him and a few friends grew tenfold.

He actually recalls Desire Ayera trying to convince him to focus more on athletics. "He had studied with Tarsis Orogot (current sprints record holder) at UCU so he thought I had a chance in athletics because I actually have very impressive times in sprints," says Atukunda.

Persistence paid off and his 15s debut came against Warrior at Legends in 2021. He came off the bench. That was a big relief. 

"I couldn't wait for that day. I had worked hard to be there. I didn't score, but I felt the ropes and was very excited. Even our captain, Ivan Magomu, said some sweet things about me and that meant a lot," he recalls.

Atukunda has never looked back and he became a mainstay in the Pirates 15s and 7s sides. A crucial cog, a try scoring machine. His sprints down the wing and diving style are a thing fans have gotten used to but keep asking for more. 

He has been called up to the 7s national team a couple of times but somehow has not yet broken through for a number of reasons ranging from injuries, school commitments.

Atukunda in the garage. PHOTO/COURTSEY 


If you are a rugby follower on X, formerly Twitter, you must have come across that hashtag. To many, it's just nothing not much more than just a hashtag.

For Atukunda, it runs deep. He remembers the day his sister needed a quick shs5.5m to undergo surgery. Etuket relayed the message to the Pirates fraternity and shs7m was mobilized in less than 24 hours.

"Trust me, that's the day I understood how tight and united the Pirates family is. Our family is forever grateful. Tell my mother that I want to leave Pirates and she will kill me. Somethings are beyond mere slogans and hashtags..."

Automobile Technician, not a makanika 

In 2023, Atukunda graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Makerere University. In his trade, Ugandans classify anyone in that line as a "makanika". Paints a funny image of a man with hands soaked into oil, dressed in greasy and dirty overalls and torn shoes. And that blows him off. After all, many use it as a way of looking down on him.

"I studied this thing and I am advancing my scope to things beyond what your ordinary makanika can know about a car. I've invested in research on new car engineering trends so much so that sometimes you talk to a client and they are totally green; they are used to their mango tree shade chaps," he says.

Recently we wrote about veteran Charlotte Mudoola and how some opponents diss her with "ono mukadde" lines, in relation to her age.

For Atukunda, "ono makanika" has been thrown at him countless times.

Isn't it meant to be banter? I ask him. He disagrees: "Why don't they say the same about lawyers or civil engineers? It's just people ignorantly throwing words around," he shoots back.

And that keeps him focused to work more. He says one's workplace should not be an issue, but what they earn from there is the most important thing.
"If my job can offer me the kind of stuff that other professions give then you dont have a right to diss me. I can manage anything that a lawyer can. I dress well, sleep in a place that many would dream of. If we go to the bar and you order for some drink that I can comfortably afford then there's no difference. I actually earn more than most "formal" guys," he boasts. 

What Atukunda can not take for granted are the opportunities that rugby has presented him. He got to his workplace through a referral from former coach Bobby Musinguzi during his internship after First Year at Nakawa Vocation Training College.

Because of his commitment and excellence at work, he was retained. After graduation he never hit the streets job searching.
He also appreciates his ever growing clientele from the rugby fraternity; players, fans, administrators. From what Atukunda stands for as à hard worker, there is surely no doubt about where career is headed...greatness. All signs are positive. 

Rugby idols:
Timothy Kisiga, Adrian Kasito (local)
Cheslin Kolbe, Marcos Moneta (International)

Top five wingers (international)
Chelslin Kolbe, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Marcos Moneta, Mack Hansen, Damian Penaud

Top 5 wingers (Local)
Karim Arinaitwe, Lawrence Sebuliba, Timothy Odong, Roy Kizito, Denis Etwau

Toughest opponent
None, I have beaten everyone 

Why don't be while scoring
I fear knock-ons. It has ever happened. Diving keeps the ball safe in my hands. 

Best friend in rugby
Joshua Engwau. He's been like a brother, he's very supportive, we went through the ranks together.

Most memorable game
15s debut against Warriors in 2021. Dreams come true; wearing Pirates colours and playing for the club of my dreams after a lot of hard work.