Waiswa Lukungu is a former national team athlete who dominated the 400m in the 2000s. Lukungu started out as a footballer with Kakira before answering the call to athletics that later became his trademark.
He is not a wall of fame athlete, but Lukungu gave athletics his all and he is not about to stop. The former national sprinter is in the mix of grooming upcoming players who are expected to represent the country in the next few years.
His academy, Lukungu Athletics Academy, started in 2017 after his retirement. He is among the few individuals giving Uganda’s golden sport a fresh start through talent identification.
Getting into athletics
At first, Lukungu played for Kakira in 1999 before the team was relegated from the Super Division the following season. He was the team’s leading scorer with seven goals but he scored 49 times in the First Division.
“During my first competition in Namboole in the national trials in 2001, I finished third. I was so happy,” says Lukungu, whose daughter, Babirye Martha Lukungu, is a middle distance runner.
His career started when he was named on the team to the East African championships in Zanzibar in 2003. He did not disappoint as he won silver on his debut. He was then to represent Uganda during the Garoua African Junior Championships in Cameroon where he earned another silver before a third place finish in Italy for which he says he was denied a bronze.
Lukungu became a household name in East Africa winning three gold medals, including one in hurdles. He is a bronze medallist from the 2006 Africa Grand Prix in Kenya which he won again the following year in Kampala.
He dominated the university games defending the gold five consecutive years with Kampala International University.
Due to injuries, he was forced into retirement in 2017 after Davis Kamoga advised him to put an end to his career.
“That day I won the 400m run but Kamoga told me that time was up as I was struggling and using a lot of energy. He told me that the younger athletes were going to spoil my reputation. When I factored in that I had numerous injuries, I obliged,” he says.
His had a nagging groin injury and age was also calling time on his career.
“That injury contributed a lot. I had picked it in 2015 and for two years I was in pain. It was the right time to retire,” he adds.
Lukungu is the head coach and president of the academy, which receives some assistance from Jinja politicians including Kakira LC III chairman Sunday Kabule and Butembe County MP Livingstone Zijjan and Frederick Ngobi Gume, the State minister for cooperatives.
For more than seven years, he was the household name although he could not break Kamoga’s national record of 44.37 seconds set at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Lukungu’s major challengers to the crown were Samuel Egadu, Samuel Mawanda, Steven Akena and Anthony Okiror, among others.
Lukungu says he envisaged the idea of creating the academy 10 years ago. Fellow retired runners provided him with incentive to create a similar way for other children to experience success through a format of academics and athletics.
In 2010, while an active athlete, he started coaching and with more time in retirement, he put all his weight behind the passion.
“I decided to register my academy although I was coaching Kakira Athletics Club. I was also the Jinja District coach,” he said.
“I want people to remember my name because Waiswa has produced some athletes. Secondly, during my time, we did not get money from running and I thought I could give the next generation a chance to earn what we could not.”
Sprints, in Lukungu’s case, are not the only event the academy offers. He has partnered with four other former national athletes to help in middle and long distances as well as field events.
The Level One trained coach has assembled more than 50 athletes but he proudly says he has more than 10 promising athletes ready for the national team, including middle distance runner Prisca Akello and Lilian Adebo.
Lukungu Athletics Club runners attend classes at Wairaka College. Lukungu is the head coach of Madhvani schools (Kakira SS, PMM and Wairaka College). The academy trains at Kakira grounds but when schools are open, he divides the time between Wairaka and Kakira, the academy’s anchor locale.
Lukungu describes himself as a giveaway coach training athletes who big clubs such as Uganda Wildlife Authority and Uganda Police can take for further development and competition.
He sources most of the athletes from Kakira area while those from Kapchorwa are recommended by Joshua Cheptegei, a former student at Wairaka College.
The trainees pay registration fees while parents contribute between Shs20,000 and Shs30,000 weekly to facilitate training. He supplements with income from his sportswear business as well as the six rental rooms that generate Shs420,000 monthly.
“This is a great opportunity for where we’re at right now, and especially for the Kakira community,” Lukungu said. “Kakira is a sports hub, and I’ve seen that over and over again. The community will see some of our local athletes start to compete on bigger platforms.”
The academy’s struggles come in different shapes and sizes but Lukungu cites lack of a tartan surface as a major.
“We train on grass but compete on tartan. This is what you’ve to keep reminding the athletes. We take them for national trials to get acquainted with the tartan at Namboole,” he says.
In terms of equipment, he sometimes uses locally made equivalent, especially the hurdles.
“But sometimes I share with those of Kakira Club but we still lack spikes and training attire. But whenever I get money, I buy for them,” Lukungu explains.
Lukungu said he was bitter for a while about not being helped by Uganda Athletics Federation in terms of training and equipment to grassroots coaches. However, he has resigned from that position.
“The federation should boost us. We get raw talent and polish it. Then we seek scholarships to schools and universities from where they are picked even for national teams. As giveaway coaches, we need to be empowered,” he said.
When the Tartan Burner Athletics Club held its Girl Empowerment Camp in Kakira last month, he was optimistic of the ripple effect. The camp, funded by the US Embassy, seek to raise awareness among athletes while making them aware of what awaits them. Lukungu was the coordinator of the Kakira camp.
“Parents who have witnessed this today will possibly change. Some used to stop their children from coming. But by listening to national athletes, I’m sure they will change,” Lukungu said.
The late bloomer who left a humble mark
Waiswa Lukungu was a household name in Kakira and Jinja at large. Starting out as a footballer, he played centreback for Kakira under coach Timothy Ayiekoh.
But there was something remarkable about him. He was that lanky defender who took throw-ins like the Womes and Njitaps of Cameroon and he had a penchant for overlapping from the back during offences yet he would gallop back in time to cover the backline.
He was simply fast and that pace saw him shifted as a forward, playing for Kakira in the topflight.
But there was someone else who had his eyes on Lukungu’s talent. Nathan Mujongola was a football referee and athletics coach who spent most of his time inside Kakira Main Stadium.
This was a time Kakira held its own as one of the best athletics talent hubs in the country, providing athletes on the national team. The likes of Denis Jonyera (shot put and triple jump), Sirino Abong, Musa Ladu (distance), and Sunday Mono (sprints) made many go to the stadium just to see them train.
Mujongola convinced Lukungu to swap the studs for spikes and this turned out as one of the best coaching calls. A late bloomer, Lukungu went on to represent Uganda at various international events and won the Silver at the Africa Junior Athletics Championships in Cameroon in 2003.
As he ramped up his athletics academy, there were no cartons of water or crates of soda awaiting the athletes on trial last Saturday at Kakira ground. Water came in kavera and glucose was gold. The sight of the former sprinter sharing a kavera of water with a youngster was humbling.
This humble beginning for his academy is also the one that defined his career. Back then, Lukungu lived hand-to-mouth. Robert Kibuuka, a former staff at Kakira Sugar Ltd, recalls that after dropping out of school for lack of school fees, Lukungu got on-and-off employment as a taxi tout.
‘‘Every morning, Waiswa would wake up early and take a road run up to Bugembe and back, a distance of ten kilometers. After that he would take a mug of black tea and a stick of cassava. Then he would look for work, calling passengers,’’ Kibuuka recalls.
‘‘Even for desk workers, that breakfast would put one on the boundary of starvation. For an athlete fighting to stay on top form with a draining training schedule, it was like a death sentence.’’
But that is how Lukungu lived through it all and while he started late, the former 400m national champion is determined to at least help many get a chance to test their talent at a young age.
And he hopes that, while at it, he will be able to provide his athletes with more than just kavera of drinking water.