There are more than 700 known Ludo clubs only in Mukono, Kampala Central and Kawempe. The popularity of Ludo can only be matched by Football. Most people in Uganda play the game as a pastime activity at homes or shop verandas. Yet the sport continues to crawl more than 100 years since the Indian Coolies introduced it in Uganda during the construction of the Uganda Railway.

“If Ludo is a sport then so is passing gas and chewing gum.” Such was the brutal analysis of biographer and athletics coach Kevin O’Connor in June 2007.

In 2001, Ludo got a nod from the National Council of Sports (NCS) being recognised among the more than 50 national sports associations but it took six years to hold the first official national league.

Ludo had been used as an outreach tool for YMCA community activities in Kampala. When the YMCA opened in Uganda, it was aimed at reaching the youth through interactive sports, most of which are until today headquartered at Wandegeya.

“Our mandate now is to professionalise Ludo as a sport,” George Ssebanenya, the spokesman of the Uganda Ludo Federation (ULF), says.

In Every Corner

Every day, a group of middle-aged men gather in the scruffy backroom of rental shops at Wantoni in Mukono District, in rented space of Wantoni-Kitega Club to play Ludo. In the underlit wooden room, there are six uncomfortable desks. Foul-smelling urine odour instantly welcomes you.

On the eastern side, are a 2018 certificate of merit, a white paper outlining the club members and a club registration certificate. They shabbily hang on the dust soot-filled wall.

Moses Muwambi aka Mosh is ever present with a handful of other club members. During the Covid-19 lockdown, the routine has changed breaking up at 6:00pm. On weekdays, they would normally arrive as early as 2pm and depart at 9pm. While on weekends arrival is scheduled at earliest 9am.

Today, a thin brown tattooed but reserved man is the referee as four players take their positions on the standard one square foot board with the wordings of the Uganda Ludo Federation in the centre. They all happily contribute Shs2,500 of which Shs1,000 shall be kept for club activities every round. Under one hour, the game, which they call training, is over with the winner taking the jackpot of Shs8,000 while the other Shs1,000 is retained by the referee. And the routine continues.

Lameck Lukwago, an observer, who was schooling me assured me that stakes is not gambling at all.

“It is how clubs survive,” Lukwago tells me.

This club operates like the hundreds of others across the country.

In Ludo, players roll the dice while moving the matching colour tokens with the winner being the first to bring all their four tokens to the finish.

There is quite some excitement when players land their tokens on a square that is already occupied by a different color which is returned to the starting point. It is frustrating especially when the player is closer to the finish.

“That is what makes the game interesting,” says Lukwago, the secretary of Mukono District Ludo Association, which oversees more than 200 clubs in Mukono, Kayunga, Buvuma and Buikwe districts.

In 2008, ULF inaugurated their logo under the reign of Samuel Kyagulanyi, who had replaced Abubakali Luyombya, the founding president, in 1993. The national league and the individual championship remain the pride of the association. The league was until recently played as a gala at the YMCA Wandegeya.

When an ambitious Hussein Kalule, the incumbent president, replaced Bruhan Muteguya, he attempted to change the face of the sport.

Last season, for instance, league games were hosted from various venues apart from YMCA. It didn’t go well with financially burdened clubs though.

But there was anticipated high competition this season because of three international events that were lined up in South Africa, Dubai and Europe, according to Ssebanenya.

Social Role

Muwambi, like many others I interviewed, said ludo helps them to socialise. “This is like family. If any member here gets a problem, we have to make sure we pay whatever is required to sort it,” he said.

In Mukono, there are some big clubs, some historical – Wantoni-Kitega, The Hommiez, Kirussia, which is behind Mukono Bakery, Ssaza Paradise, Dice Masters, Kavule, Patron, Nabuti, Cornerstone, Mwerodde and Ntaawo Stage.

Only Hommiez is in this year’s national league. Wantoni-Kitega pulled out in 2018 due to financial hardships while Patron, the most elite, remains for social reasons. Each has no fewer than 50 active members most of whom congregate after work.

The Kyaggwe Ssaza headquarters is about 500m away. On the road to the office of the Ssekiboobo (the title of Kyaggwe County chief), in Ggulu, where no Kabaka is allowed to spend a night as Buganda legends say that Kabaka Kintu got lost here, has what the police call, a dark spot.

But this club, which calls itself Ssaza Paradise, defies all the stereotypes of an illegal club. The players are a little glamourous. It is the envy of Wantoni-Kitega as some of the members park cars on the road to spend an evening.

Charles Bemba, one of the members, is a motorcycle mechanic, who joined Ssaza team about two years ago because one of his loyal clients plays from here.

Ssaza has a meeting area locally known as ekitaawuluzi where people would normally meet for games like mweso (a traditional board game) in the past and other community meetings. Owing to commercial needs, the open space is now used for trade exhibitions, another part for cultural activities while the other is fenced off for the convenience of the Buganda Land Board and other administrative roles of the kingdom.

The club, which won the 2018 district league, meets in a wooden structure behind the charcoal selling shacks adjacent the Ssaza offices.

“The people who used to meet from Ssaza grounds found it convenient playing from this place,” said Bemba as he sat in the bleachers to watch a game.

Thin Line between Gambling and the Sport

To an ordinary eye, telling the difference between an illegal club and a legitimate one can be tough.

A licenced club is supposed to levy a certain percentage, normally 10 per cent, on each stake to cater for subscription, rent, utilities, competitions and if mandated, members’ savings.

Lukwago says that previously clubs charged Shs1,000 but the money was too little and today the amount is left to individual clubs. For the several unregistered clubs, forms of gambling are done with stakes of not less than Shs5,000 but some don’t accept not less than Shs200,000.

“When you find people tossing two or more dices, that is gambling,” Bemba hints.

The other form of gambling is when players don’t move tokens but keep guessing the numbers to be drawn — odd or even.

“In gambling, people want quick money that is why they play short games,” Bemba, a former league player in Masaka, emphasises.

The late Muhammad Kirumira used to conduct operations among Ludo clubs, eateries and film shacks while he tried to crackdown on crime in Kampala and Iganga. Lukwago, like the several ULF officials, works with police to crack down on illegal ludo clubs, to safeguard the integrity of the sport.

Perception

Ludo is a member of the Board Games Association yet the Mind Sports Association of Uganda (MSAU) dismisses it as a game of chance.

Dan Isabirye the President of MSAU said that the other games in the association meet the core values of creativity, time management, integrity, self-control, thinking, perseverance and leadership skills.

“We cater for sports that enable players develop metacognitive skills. Ludo does not teach anyone to concentrate or improve on their ability to make good decisions. It is about chance,” Isabirye says.

The association instead recognises morabaraba, chess, draughts (checkers), monopoly (another chance game), omweso and bridge.

Ssebanenya admits that bad perceptions remain their biggest hurdle.

“Many people still hold Ludo in the past. You imagine if playing cards (matatu) became a sport too. It would not be any different. This is why we registered with the NCS,” says Ssebanenya.

Three years ago, Ludo became a federation to gain nationwide appeal as well as trying to earn sponsors’ confidence. ULF is a member of the African federation with Uganda’s Hussein Kalule, the head.

“We are no longer small as we deal with international correspondence,” says Ssebanenya.

Before the lockdown, Uganda was scheduled to present a team to three international events.

Rules have been made too, instating a time limit of 75 minutes per game.

Lukwago, who has adult children, alluded to the possibility of making Ludo a great sport. He stresses that Ludo is not based on chance but strategy.

“Having a proper strategy in moving tokens is important. This requires training. Discipline and integrity are very key because there are many offences that earn players bookings or red cards,” Lukwago stressed.

Entebbe District, for instance, had been suspended for three years because they could not reign on gamblers apart from Gerenge Club.

Own Enemy

The ULF has 16 clubs playing in the elite league (men and women). The other competition is the individual tournament. To qualify for the national league, teams assemble once a year at districts to play the League One.

This one-day tournament helps select the best two teams to the play-off national finals where four make the mark. Limited competition undermines the sport’s credibility making it ludo’s worst enemy.

“This is why some clubs engage in gambling because there is not enough competition. But we do not have enough money to hold regular competitions at the districts,” Lukwago says.

But Bemba disagrees. He says the lack of motivation is killing competition instead. “When we won the district league, we got a bull and a trophy. Yet when you win the league, you only get a playing board. For a team that can spend more than Shs300,000 for a league outing, that does not add up,” he said.

Officially, Ludo has 16 clubs in the top flight majority are based in Kampala with the farthest being in Mukono and Entebbe. With hundreds of clubs, some undocumented, barely about 50 clubs participate in ULF events but Ssebanenya says that logistically having games upcountry is not yet feasible.

Ssebanenya, the head of department Guidance and Counselling at YMCA, says options are being worked on. “Since last season, we pool resources together and have all teams play from that same venue every matchday,” he says.

While he proudly talks about the growth of the sport, players hardly get what they deserve. There is no professional player in the country. He points out headline transfers of Sarah Namubiru of Katwe to Kanyanya in 2016, last year’s MVP Tom Kasozi’s move from defending champions Kamwokya to Kings.

Optimism

In August 2014, 36-year-old Kalule, a former amateur football player in Wakiso was elected the president of ludo. Last year, he was elected vice president of the Delhi-based international federation (ILF), a responsibility that elevated him to the African chair. These perks have earned Uganda international recognition and it is these developments that make Ssebanenya optimistic.

“When we break through to the international stage, we will have a strong case for children to play Ludo. We thought of starting with schools but many teachers still have poor perceptions,” Ssebanenya said.

While leaders continue to murmur in awe, the centrepiece of the trials is lack of finances. Officials claim that the NCS has funded their activities once although they were hoping of getting at least Shs100m due to international events this year.

Currently, ULF gets its funding from subscriptions, tournament fees, membership and sale boards and dices while Katumwa Sports Centre bankrolled the 2020 season.

Ludo is not staggering alone. There are associations in Uganda which are accused of only helping people travel abroad. Others are based on nepotism or enhance prestige and sometimes to earn money.

Yet there are those whose nationwide appeal is mysterious like zurkhaneh, squash, gymnastics, kayaking, judo, dragon boat, shooting, rowing, sailing and wresting.

Kalule admits the need to be more proactive, creative and committed with emphasis on planning, leadership, funding and professionalism. But for now, just like cycling, another popular sport entangled in leadership challenges, ludo is yet to break free of its shackles.

Former Ludo Presidents

  • 1989-1993: Abubakali Luyombya
  • 1993-2008: Samuel Kyagulanyi
  • 2008-2013: Buruhan Muteguya
  • 2014 to-date: Hussein Kalule

Previous Ludo League Winners

  • 2006 – Kazo Central
  • 2007 – Kazo Central
  • 2008 – Kwagalana – Gayaza Road
  • 2009 – Nateete United
  • 2010 – Katwe United
  • 2011 – Nansana Galaxy
  • 2012 – Dobbi Sports Kawempe
  • 2013 – Did Not Happen
  • 2014 – Mweludde Mukono
  • 2015 – Gerenge Entebbe
  • 2016 – Kwagalana
  • 2017 – Kawanda
  • 2018 – Nansana All Stars
  • 2019 – Kamwokya Corner

George Katongole

George Katongole is a leading Ugandan sports journalist.

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