What you need to know:
- These animal slaughterers-cum-players and their Rwenzori Lions FC were a step away from potentially qualifying for the 2023/24 Fufa Big League last season, but for what they claim is an unfair judicial system at Fufa!
It is market day at Bwera Abattoir in Kasese District, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and with just a few hours into the morning; it is already a hive of activity.
Whistling fills the air as cattle traders flock in and out. Different sizes of sticks land on the unfortunate cows in thuds before the animals are either loaded onto trucks to Congo or face their end right there.
The high temperatures remind you that a line notionally drawn on the earth equidistant from the poles, dividing the earth into northern and southern hemispheres and constituting the parallel of latitude 0°, otherwise known as the equator, passes not far from here.
We do this for a living
Inside one section of the slaughter house, Al Kazel Muhammad, 24, and some of his colleagues, help out as parts of an ill-fated cow, now in the other life, are chopped and assembled ready for distribution.
“I have been doing this for some time now,” said Muhammad, “I have been doing this every time I was on holiday during school, and now as a footballer with Rwenzori Lions FC.”
According to Muhammad, he enrolled for a diploma in electrical engineering at Kampala International University (KIU) after his senior six but because of “high” tuition fees, he could not fulfil his dream there.
“I then had to enrol for the same course at Kichwamba (Uganda Technical College, Kichwamba), from where I completed.
“So, during holidays I would get an opportunity to train with Rwenzori Lions, who at the time were first called Rufura, then Rufura-Proline, and now Rwenzori Lions FC.”
The midfielder added: “But it is during my time at Kichwamba in 2020 that I played for them more because most of their away games involved teams that had their home matches in Fort Portal. So it was easy for me to be available.
“And then on holidays I would join the rest of my teammates here to slaughter cows, help pack the meat and earn a living and also buy some home needs for our families. After that, we focus on football.
“I have since grown in this business and I’m now a middleman. When you are just helping out during slaughtering, you get a small pay but enough to buy food for the family.
“However, as a middle man, you get some big commissions by connecting cattle traders.”
Muhammad’s is a tale of the majority of Rwenzori Lions players, most of whom are born and bred in Bwera, an important connection in itself to the affection of the local community to the team.
This is who we are
Thembo Jofred, aka Pokopoko, is a right back and wore the armband last season. He is from the Pokopoko Bus family, which reportedly has part-ownership in the club.
“This is a place where we get some money to enable our needs, here and even at home,” said Pokopoko.
“It’s a business that helps us as players to earn something, buy school materials for our children at school, and helps us not put our managers and coaches under pressure of salaries.
“Because if you come early in the morning to work here, you earn something and then later you go for training.”
Just outside the slaughter house but still within the abattoir precincts, two Rwenzori Lions defenders have their meat displayed on an open stall.
The two Kules, Vincent and Hashim, stand proudly by their stall containing cow hooves and heads.
They are currently not training as a team since the preseason training program ahead of the 2023/24 campaign is not out yet. For now, they train individually.
“For now, we are busy with business,” said Vincent, “We are here, we try to get some money to help us, our families, and our children to go to school, plus for us as players to have something on ourselves.
“But we love our team so much.” Vincent's colleague, Hashim, shouted his rejoinder over the hooves, “we love it with all our hearts.”
Rwenzori FC are a community club, but one which player midfielder Muhammad believes will grow into an even bigger team and qualify for higher ranks in the national football pyramid.
He, however, also appreciates that playing football to the highest level, while it is everyone’s dream, is not all there is.
“I’m thankful to God so far and as a club we will continue pushing to qualify (for the Big League),” said Muhammad, “but in the end, I want to be a successful businessman and a football agent. I’m already working on that.”
Where it all started
Rogers Baluku Mutahunga is in charge of marketing and communications for Rwenzori Lions, who have been regional champions of Edward Group in the Fufa Regional League three times in a row.
“Our origins come from here, as Rufura (local dialect for abattoir)” said Mutahunga, turning to point at the men skinning a cow behind him.
“These guys working here, the owners of the cows and the boys working with them are some of our players and fans, plus the managers… We all coexist here.
“We get a living from here, when guys finish work here, we are always up for training because we have something, at least, in our pockets.”
Mutahunga, also a former club chairman, added: “We do this because it is an arrangement with the club.
“Whenever we scout a player and bring him to the team, we always make sure we attach them to a manager who has a butchery or who at least supplies meat to other butchers.”
Rwenzori Lions have over 50 managers with a stake in the club and they all deal in cattle trading in this market.
“That way, that player can earn a living. It is an arrangement that after paying the sign-on fee, we see how to maintain these players. Naturally, this is what we do.”
Making Rwenzori Lions truly a community club involves giving back to the community, and that is why “building an even bigger local fan base to be able to support us by buying our shirts among other things is vital,” according to Mutahunga.
To Shamo Vardy ‘Magoal’, part-player, technical director and one of the club owners, Rwenzori Lions and the “Rufura'' are one and the same.
“For us Rufura means a lot,” said Magoal, “That’s where we get what to eat. Some of us are married and this is where our daily lives are with our children and wives.
“We also have players who are still in school. They come here and work for school fees, they return home, then in the evening they concentrate on football.”
As earlier stated, the team were not training together yet at this point of pre-season, but for the purposes of this story, they organised a mock session of what their normal day would be.
Ploughing for new season
Later that afternoon, a few kilometres from the abattoir, Rwenzori FC players, some of them new signings, kicked about and juggled away at a local Anglican church compound in their proud white jersey.
Just across the village road, a ploughed field lay open ready for grass planting with hope of the pitch being ready for the upcoming season.
The Catholic church right next to the ploughed land, according to Rwenzori Lions marketing and communications chief - Mutahunga, allowed the club to use the field “until that time we are ready to have our own stadium.”
The journey of Rwenzori Lions, who started off as Rufura, then Rufura-Proline, before finally settling for the former, has not been without painful challenges and setbacks.
Slap from the boardroom
To date, the club still feel aggrieved by a decision that left them shattered at the close of last season.
Having gone the entire regular season unbeaten, Edward Group leaders, Rwenzori Lions, faced Albert Group winners, Buhimba United Saints, in the Kitara Regional play-offs for a slot in the final to determine who qualifies for the Big League.
Buhimba won that regional promotional play-off 4-2 in a penalty shootout after a goalless draw on June 18, 2023.
Afterwards, Rwenzori Lions petitioned Kitara Regional Committee requesting that the result be overturned because Buhimba had used a double-licensed player.
The committee later threw out the petition after reviewing evidence provided by Buhimba, which “confirmed” that the player in question was, indeed, their bonafide player.
Rwenzori, who appealed the regional committee ruling at Fufa, claimed that Buhimba had used a one “Niwamanya Hussein Kato (Fifa ID 10HCD50), who is licensed by Western Regional League outfit Gorilla Highlands Football Club.
“The above player,” continued the petition, “disguised as Ayebale Hussein in the playoff match.
“They (the above players) were born on March 27, 1994 according to records in the Fufa connect system, which have been attached.
“Follow-up from the National Identification Registration Authority indicates that Niwamanya Hussein Kato possesses a NIN CM94055102566GCI.”
Rwenzori appealed before Fufa as follows: “We were disappointed in the hearing process because Ayebale Hussein does not even bear a valid national ID, which is a requirement for player registration in the Fufa connect system.
“We cry foul of the entire judicial process and ask you to intervene in this matter.
“Our prayers are that the decision of the Kitara Region Committee be overturned, and the playoff match between Kigezi Homeboys and Buhimba United Saints be nullified,” read the appeal dated June 21.
Six days later, the Fufa Ethics and Disciplinary Committee, through the adjudicatory chamber, gave their ruling.
“The Committee took note of the suspicious nature of the player's identity and thus directed the Investigatory Chamber to take necessary steps to investigate the involved parties for potential breach of the Fufa Ethics and Disciplinary Code,” read Fufa ruling.
“Consequently, the prayers of Rwenzori Lions FC are rejected and the matter is dismissed.
“The Fufa Ethics and Disciplinary Committee has decided to communicate only the terms of the decision.
“Any request for the grounds or the reasoning of the entire decision must be sent in writing to the Fufa Secretariat within seven (7) days.
“For clarity, such a request does not affect the terms of the decision, which come into force immediately.
“Only the grounds of the decision can be appealed against. Only reasoned decisions can be appealed against.”
Disappointed, but charge on
James Muhindo, a former footballer from Bwera and Rwenzori Lions FC legal adviser, says they will pick themselves up and go again next season but can’t hide his disappointment in football authorities.
“That's the life of a Rwenzori Lions FC (Rufura) footballer,” said Muhindo, “‘professional’ footballers with Fufa licences in the afternoon, are nothing but butcher men at an abattoir in the morning.
“But, that boys who put everything on the line like you saw this morning, were not spared the inefficiencies of Fufa's dispute resolution process is really absurd.”
For now, according to Mutahunga, focus is pressing on increasing the fan base by organising more local matches where locals enter for as low as Shs1,000-Shs2,000, and sourcing for “urgent sponsorships.”
“We can’t afford salaries, that is why we give the boys an opportunity to work and earn at the abattoir to reduce pressure on that front. But with sponsorships, we can improve on that salary bit.
“However, the team welfare including transport to matches, camp, accommodation and meals, as well as match and training allowances are provided to the team.”
While still at it, another football season is on the horizon, and so is another normal sequence of morning slaughter of animals and evening kick-about for Rwenzori Lions footballers!
18: Games won by Rwenzori Lions in Edward Group of Kitara Regional League
22: Regular season matches played by each of Edward Group teams
58 - Points amassed by Rwenzori Lions in an unbeaten regular season