To many Ugandans, woodball is an alien sport. Some don’t know about it at all; while others who have seen or heard about it might have no interests in the sport. It is a poor man’s version of golf, they joke.
Unlike golf balls, a wood ball is larger in diameter and heavier. As a result, it only rolls on grass, sand or wood. Like golf, the goal is to complete 12 gates.
The player who completes these gates with fewer strokes wins. The sport has become a definitive part of Janet Mpambara’s life. It is a story she cannot tell without a beaming smile on her face – a champion’s mark of journey well-started with accomplishment to show.
She is something of grandmaster on the field. In fact, in some exclusive circles she is referred to as ‘the woodball queen’. This is phenomenal, considering that she was introduced to the game just two years ago.
“I had not played woodball before joining UCU [Uganda Christian University]. Initially, I loved golf but when my friend Shalom took me to the woodball field, I found it was more like golf. So, I started practicing,” she says. “Soon I was playing, and eventually joined the university team. Woodball picked me; it chose me.”
Even though she turned 22 two days ago, Mpambara is already a two-time gold medallist in the national and East Africa inter-university games. She is also top marksman for the UCU woodball team.
Because of her love and passion for sport, Prisca Amongin, the university guild president, appointed her minister of sports in her cabinet. This is an opportunity Mpambara is using to promote woodball as a competitive sport alongside basketball, rugby, tennis, volley, football and netball, among other games that UCU is famed for playing.
On the pitch, Mpambara is like the Cristiano Ronaldo of woodball. She plays the game with unrelenting passion, hunger and pin-point accuracy – like her life depends on it.
It is her determination to win that Ronald Awany, the former sports editor of The Standard, attributes Mpambara’s success to.
“I watched her play during the 2015 university games in Busoga, and was impressed. I had never seen a woman play that passionately,” Awany says.
Mpambara’s passion is evident in the flair and quality she displays while on the pitch. She has an imposing walk-and-talk about the game.
Woodball was invented in 1990 by Weng Ming-hui and Kuang-chu Young in Taiwan, home of the International Woodball Federation. This begs answers to why a 22-year-old would be so engrossed in a game merely five years older than her. Well, she says, it was about her talent discovery.
Mpambara has tried rapping, lawn tennis and football, among other games. However, nothing has given her the satisfaction and exposure like woodball has.
“I took time to find myself, explore all my abilities and see where I fit in most games, but nothing comes close to this game,” says Mpambara. “I just love it. It is simple, yet very strategic.”
She is amused that some people go through life without making any effort to discovering anything they are good at. People who are afraid to try, she adds, are condemned to a life of mediocrity. To her, there is no life as sad as that.
With her influence, student participation in the sport at UCU has significantly increased. This is a drive she intends to carry to the national level to drum for popularity and support for the game.
It is a vision that Vincent Kisenyi, the secretary for the Uganda Woodball Federation, shares. He told The Observer that the media and the ministry of Education and Sports must take deliberate steps to popularize the game across the country to increase participation and recruitment especially at secondary school level.
But like any other new game, woodball’s challenges are not just the lack of popularity. It is also the lack of better funding that hinders talent development.
Mpambara is now considering a vigorous campaign to persuade corporate companies to fund woodball at regional levels to create a stronger and competitive national team.
“Woodball is not a very expensive sport. Its equipment can even be locally manufactured. Also, it does not require a specialized field to be played,” she says. “If every region had a team, why wouldn’t Uganda win medals in international tournaments?”
AWAY FROM THE FIELD
Mpambara is an aspiring accountant. She is finalizing her Bachelor of Science in Accounting and Finance at UCU. As a side hustle, she sells jewellery and skirts mostly to fellow students.
She advises fellow youth, especially females, to develop entrepreneurial minds for a better future.
“I believe we live in a world of fair opportunities, but females tend to think that by being softer, they gain an advantage,” she says. “I don’t subscribe to this thinking. I believe with practice and commitment, I can do anything men do – or even better.”
The fourth born of five girls of Justus and Jacqueline Mpambara was born on June 28, 1995 at Rugarama hill in Kabale district. She attended Kabale Preparatory School, Bweranyangi Girls’ SS for O-level and Trinity College Kabale for her A-level.