ARUA. On this typical Chilly Monday morning common in Arua during the months of August to October, I embarked on this short trip to Arua tennis court; not sure of what to expect.
Tennis is not a popular sport in the West Nile and across Uganda. Football makes most of the headlines; athletics, boxing, netball, rugby, kickboxing and the like would make it closest.
On reaching the Anyafio courts, I was greeted by an utter silence and a serene ambiance save the sound of whistling birds from the old colonial trees. This upscale neighbourhood boasts of the cream of hotels, residences and offices in the town.
About 100 meters ahead of the classy Golden courts hotel lies this colonial facility. I met a group of children playing football on part of the unfenced land but inside the fenced portion that hosts the clay court, young girls hold rackets and are grouped at one corner.
The Tennis court at my first impression though operational, has a lot of challenges that threaten its existence.
How it was left to children
15-year old Faith Mercy who studies at Arua secondary school is the second seed (system of ranking) at the tennis club among her group and started playing Tennis at the age of 10 years.
Despite having challenges coping with domestic chores, her school schedules and the society stereotypes about female participation, Mercy has put in hard work to excel and wants to play at an international level someday.
13-year old Norman Dembe Bright is the captain of his age group and was introduced to the game at 8 years taking advantage of their stone-throw residence to easily access the facilities.
Dembe, a senior one student of Our Lady of Africa secondary school, Mukono district in central Uganda is inspired by American Tennis star, Serena Williams. He says Serena’s style of play has made her his favourite ahead of familiar male names in the game. Dembe describes playing Tennis as fan.
He has been restricted to playing on holidays because his school has no Tennis court. Besides the challenge, Dembe is determined to make it to the top.
Stanley Turu, 22, is the current caretaker of the Tennis club being delegated by the management of West Nile golf club that owns the Tennis court. Turu is the first male seed but struggles to attract mature players to play with.
He is the coach to the kids, a commitment for which the golf club allowed him manage activities. Turu has more than 100 kids to train on the facility with only two courts. Most of the kids converge here during holidays.
Turu says the club has struggled to thrive on its own since the departure of the colonialists.
“We have had a scenario where people who are mostly working class play here but once they are transferred, the game collapses again,” he narrates.
As we move round the facility, I noticed the old chain-link fence is slowly eroding away but Turu says animals and other intruders often enter under the demolished part and cause havoc.
The clay court has no cover and according to Turu, playing is hence restricted to dry conditions, a reason why at the time of our arrival the girls are stranded because the wet ground can’t allow them play the game they love.
The facility has a hand-pushed roller that is used to hard-press the court once dry.
Turu says friends are the life line of the club. Some of the kids here are once in a while sponsored for competitions in Lugogo, Kampala while a few other friends in the Diaspora especially a one, Jas Karim from the United Kingdom have supplied equipment like rackets, balls and nets but such come at will and are not able to fully sustain club activities.
Resilience in the face of adversity
Through the bare minimum conditions of training and equipment, some of the kids from the club have excelled. Ms. Sukurani Sebbi, the first seed in the lady category and perhaps the best product in the recent past, won herself a scholarship at Ndejje University thanks to her perseverance.
She has crossed borders to play in countries including Kenya and her next dream is to play professional Tennis with eyes set on the Asian country of Malaysia.
Turu says given the best conditions of training, the kids have enormous potential to challenge at the top level.
“We in the West Nile are natural athletes and whenever we take these kids for competitions in Kampala, they come back with many medals although they don’t have the best of facilities,” he says.
In a bid to increase the competition and expose the kids more, the club by press time, was planning to organize their biggest competition dubbed the ‘West Nile open’ which Turu says is intended to attract participants from Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and other parts of Uganda.
There are also plans to establish district clubs across the region as well as popularising the sport in schools.
Other plans include building changing rooms and restaurants that are farfetched for now given the bleak financial position of the club.
Turu believes that despite the obvious challenge of executing the said plans, through the media and the few friends who have come in support, the sport can become popular in the region.
Uganda was admitted back to the International Tennis federation (ITF) after more than half a decade in the side-lines in 2018. Sections of the media called it a Golden year for the country’s Tennis.
Apart from hosting the Uganda pro-circuit tournament, an international event that ran for four weeks with a whopping price money of $60,000, the federation also embarked on a five year strategic plan in line with the ITF vision of 2024.
However, such developments at the national level can only trigger to the West Nile region if more concerted efforts are put towards uplifting the current batch of kids at Arua tennis court. And it is only when the likes of Dembe and Mercy will see their dreams come true.