Francis Kulabigwo’s story is that of a frustrated man. Looking at him, you have no doubt that he was a good footballer during his heydays.
His piercing gaze which made him dreaded by opponents, is still evident. And for a 70-year-old, his memory is legendary.
I met Kulabigwo at his garden in Kyakatabuka Cell, Nyangahya Division, Masindi District. He looks frail, a fact he attributes to a bout of malaria that he is recovering from.
For those who watched him play football then, his current condition is a sharp contrast of an undisputed midfielder who tore teams apart with his powerful dribbles for Coffee FC, Police FC, Simba SC and Nytil FC.
He was famed as one of the best midfielders to have ever donned a Uganda Cranes jersey. For 12 years, he was invincible in the Cranes. His first Cranes game was in 1967 and Burkhard Pape, the German Cranes coach in the 1970s, modelled his midfield around Kulabigwo, whom he nicknamed ‘Kuli’.
From the barber shop to the Cranes
Kulabigwo started his career at Masindi Dynamo in the late 1950s. At that time, he was a barber in Masindi Town. During the 1966 inter-regional tournament, Kulabigwo, then 22, led the western region to the title and was voted the best player of the tournament.
A host of top-flight teams started tracking him down. In 1967, Coffee FC sent Steven Baraza, their captain, to pick him. The club’s parent company, Coffee Marketing Board (CMB), employed him as a superviser in the maintenance department.
After Pape’s departure, Kulabigwo’s talent caught the eyes of new Cranes coach Robert Kiberu. Kiberu, who was both Coffee and Cranes coach, handed the youngster his national team call-up in 1967.
“Playing for the national team was a great honour. It was about pride, and not money. The money would come in form of small allowances because the players were employed by the corporate companies and government institutions that had teams in the league. These companies would be their official work stations.
Kulabigwo was also part of the Uganda Cranes team that toured Germany in 1970.
He tells a story about this trip where they were supposed to play three games-against Bavaria, Nurnberg and Hamburg-but ended up also facing Werder Bremen because most people in Bremen had never seen a Black person.
“We played them and proved that Blacks are not inferior when we beat them 4-2.” Polly Ouma, Parry Okech, Joseph Onziga, Ibrahim Dafala and Joseph Masajjage were some of the players on the team.
He also tells of his greatest match, an Afcon qualifier against Sudan in 1975. “We lost 1-4 in Khartoum and drew 0-0 at Nakivubo stadium. I was named man-of-the-match. Many people, who were seeing me for the first time, thought I was a mercenary. The whole stadium came to a standstill.”
“I think Uganda’s football will never regain its aura for as long as corporate companies are shunning it. Individuals cannot manage clubs, especially in terms of finances. We need the big companies back,” he opines.
Kulabigwo’s performances made him a regular in the Cranes jersey, playing at four Africa Cup of Nations editions (1968, 1974, 1976 and 1978).
“The Uganda Cranes of those days was full of good players and when I made my debut in 1967, I was a young man learning from the seniors.
Basically, it was a learning experience because you could not just come and push them out. My first big tournament was the 1968 Afcon in Ethiopia where we got eliminated at group stages level.”
At this time, he says, he was one of the best midfielders in Uganda and East Africa and teams were chasing after his signature. He ended up signing for Police, who gave him a job in the Special Force department.
Moving to Simba
As fate would have it, Milton Obote’s government was overthrown in 1971, sending Police into disarray. Many Police players fled the country or were jailed by the new government.
But because of his talent, Kulabigwo survived jail on condition that he joins Army FC (later renamed Simba). He, thus, accepted and guided them to the 1971 league title. He, and other new players, were inducted into the army, where he rose to the rank of Warrant Officer under army number UA16979. The following year, Simba reached the Africa Club Championship final.
“At that time, most of the best players were playing for Simba. Ouma, Paul Ssali, Godfrey Kisitu and John Dibya all had their best years at Simba,” he says. In 1977, they won the Uganda Cup and the league in 1978.
He was also part of the Uganda Cranes team that lost 0-2 to Ghana in the African Cup of Nations final in Ghana in 1978. But due to the emergence of youngsters like Mike ‘Computer’ Kiganda, Kulabigwo decided to pull the plug on his Cranes career. On top of playing in four Afcon tournaments, Kulabigwo helped Uganda win five Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup titles in 1969, 1970, 1973, 1976 and 1977.
Serving jail time
Having survived jail in 1971, his time to sleep behind bars came in 1979. When Amin’s government fell, many Simba players were jailed by the new government.
“I was jailed for three years. Boxers like Mohamed Muruli were not spared either, because Amin loved sports and the new government saw us as a threat.”
Kulabigwo served one year in Dodoma Prison, Tanzania, until 1980 when he was transferred to Mbale Prison. He was released in 1981.
“The time in prison really cost me a fortune. Everything that I had gathered just went up in flames. It was a rebuilding period when I left prison. In fact, I have never stabilised because that was the beginning of my woes,” he painfully explains.
From prison, Kulabigwo joined Nytil FC up to 1984. He then became their coach in 1985-1991. At this time, he had lost all his energy due to incarceration.
Misery unheard of
When Nytil FC ceased to exist in 1992, Kulabigwo went back to his old job as a barber in Masindi.
A few years into the job, he came back to Kampala and landed a job at Kiwatule Recreational Centre as a swimming pool attendant. When Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, the proprietor and former Cranes manager, retired from active politics and settled home, Kulabigwo was one of the workers laid off in a new downscaling move.
“Mr (Bidandi) really helped me a lot. I was like his son, but time came when I had to leave. There was no more work for me and I left in good faith,” he says.
Despite serving in the army, Kulabigwo has never received his retirement benefits, which irks him and other ex-Simba players. “I have never been officially discharged from the army. I have been chasing for my benefits for a long time but nothing has come to fruition. It was only in 2011 that they called us and gave us some little money and promised to get back to us, up to now,” he says. He currently lives in a ramshackled mud-and-wattle house.
His sentiments are echoed by Ouma. “I was a Captain in the army. We served with our hearts and put our bodies on the line for this country, both on the pitch and the frontline. But we have been sidelined and our pleas for benefits and discharge from the army have fallen on deaf ears.”
When contacted, army spokesperson Lt Col Paddy Ankunda said he will cross-check with the director in charge of welfare, but was yet to get back to us by press time.
Kulabigwo is trying to cultivate some crops but it is evident his life is full of broken dreams.
“Because I spent most of my time playing football for Uganda, I have gained nothing from my sweat. I am living like a stranger in my own village because people don’t know me.”
SOURCE: Daily Monitor