Resty Ntabadde and her son Dan Birikwalira Credit: George Katongole

“No fun without fans,” a well-thought maxim by former SC Villa president Immanuel Ben Misagga captures the essence of football fans not as merely the ‘twelfth man’ but as participants.

As the atmosphere is building up for the game and, as players feel the pressure just before kickoff fans are involved in some banter so typical of football matches, a key part of the experience.

Phwwwwwhht the referee signals the start of the game. For 90 minutes, players contest for every ball while the fans anxiously stop to debate the calls made by the ref. There can be no other word to describe the emotions, the expression, the raw outpouring of feeling for any goals or win. If it is a loss,

Po-faced faces sneak out of the ground.

“When the match has gone well for our team and the excitement builds I have always avoided running to the pitch immediately on the sound of the final whistle to avoid any trouble. I wait until the excitement dies down,” says Nalongo Resty Ntabadde commonly known as Kapiriisi, probably the oldest surviving fan of Kyetume.

Kyetume returned to the top flight last season after 35 years when it boomed as a corporate social responsibility arm of the booming abattoir in the area during the 1970s.

During these early days, Ntabadde used to attend games to keep up with sports. A sprinter and netball shooter during her school days at Namakwa Primary School in Nakisunga, she tried netball with women in the village to no great success.

“I liked sports from the young age but I could not go far,” Ntabadde recalls.

She quit playing in 1979 before dropping out of school in senior one the following year.

Renowned for cheering her team in a gomesi, a traditional wear in most parts of Uganda, she has been nick-named ‘Owakagomesi’, she rooted for stars like Ronald Vvubya at Lufula before it transformed into Kyetume.

For a dedicated football fan like Ntabadde, everything else is secondary to attending her team games.

The single mother of eight including a set of twins, does not remember missing a football game for Kyetume in more than 30 years since she was a girl living in the neighbouring Ntulumuko Village, a stone throw from the former Kyetume grounds in the trading centre.

Resty Ntabadde, mother to Vipers left back Dan Birikwalira Credit: George Katongole

Into the groove

The grind of the season is not just that way for the coaches and players, though. It can be just as much work for the fans. For the 54-year-old Ntabadde who makes a living as a roadside matooke vendor in Kyetume Trading Centre, football is her life. “It does not matter which division we are in. I only have to know when Kyetume is playing,” she says.

When George William Kaggwa, a native doctor in the area, took up the team renaming it Kyetume Black Stars following their relegation at the end of the 1984 season, a youthful Ntabadde got involved fully as a fan.

For lack of proper administration, the team was characterised by fan violence, something that shaped Ntabadde’s approach to avoid getting caught on the wrong side of the law. She followed them to the underbelly of football when the team were lost in non-league anonymity in the late 90s volunteering as an administrator until when Reuben Kaggwa Mubiru, through the Kyetume Community-Based Health Care Programme, an organisation fighting HIV in Mukono, took over in the early 2000s. But it was not until 2017 when they made their major attempt to return to the big time. Kaggwa’s arrival relegated her to the supporting cast.

“Still, I am happy. This team is in my blood. I have been there all the time,” she says.

Resty Ntabadde, mother to Vipers left back Dan Birikwalira Credit: George Katongole

What keeps them coming back?

Most fans never see their team win a trophy. And Kyetume has only won promotion while maintaining their place in the Premier League this season.

“It does not matter. I want to join up with people I like every week. Part of the fun is feeling the pain. One good win is so good that it outweighs months of terrible pain,” she says.

Nine wins ensured Kyetume retained their premier league status this season. But 13 losses stung especially the 7-1 drubbing by Onduparaka, their biggest loss in November last year in Arua.

“After the fourth goal, I was among those fans that walked out. By the time I reached the bus, two others had gone in. It was the longest journey ever as we travelled in silence. We could have lost but not by seven goals,” she recalls.

While for many, such a loss is just another week of despair. To her, she kept looking to the next game.

The Onduparaka loss opened a series of seven consecutive losses until the 1-0 win to Proline in February.

“I knew the losses were taking us down to the Big League but I kept watching each and every game hoping we win again. When we beat Proline at Lugogo, I was so excited. It is one of the best wins I have celebrated. The last time I celebrated as much was when we were promoted at Lugogo,” she says.

Away day

Attending away games is an important habit for fans involving a number of psychological but especially logistical challenges.

Ntabadde marks all away games in advance and keeps listening to radio to know if any games have been rescheduled.

During the Big League days, she was allocated a permanent seat in the team bus. With an increasing number of travelling fans, she now travels in a separate car, a Toyota Noah with select fans.

“I am now old. Some of us no longer relate with some of the younger fans,” she said. “Yet how can I miss a game?”

Football fandom involves years of dedication and of demonstrating knowledge. Ntabadde was once the team treasurer and up to now, she is aware of the goings around the club including injuries and missed payments to players.

Despite everything, it is all worth it to football fans but she feels fans are treated as third-class citizens.

We are sometimes treated with hostility by team leaders. No one buys into your idea when you are just a fan. The game is about the supporters. Kyetume needs to find a way to make games accessible to more fans. First, they are not opening up to new fans because only one player, Lule, comes from the community.

Resty Ntabadde, Kyetume Fan

The experience

The majority of football fans across the world are men as the sport is organised around typically male-oriented social spaces — pubs and bars. Some younger girls are normally accepted just the wives, girlfriends, or daughters of male fans or players. In the company of her peers, she chants and keeps an eye on the ball sometimes shadow kicking the ball in the heat of the moment.

“Our presence motivates the team and perhaps even influences referees’ decisions. I attend the games to help my team to win, not just to observe what is going on.”

Of her seven living children, only the fourth, Dan Birikwalira has played to an elite level.

“Football makes my life more fun. I am happy that my son plays for Vipers but Kyetume is my team.” Ntabadde spends more of her time with the family, but she’s never too far away from the team.

“As the elders we try to make the players feel at home. That’s important for us to see our team in the right condition to win.”

Resty Ntabadde, mother to Vipers left back Dan Birikwalira Credit: George Katongole

Football is big in her household but she has found a way to save and be ready for travels. Ntabadde said her emotions can sometimes get the best of her when she’s cheering on the Slaughters, as the team identifies itself.

“I’m the crazy lady up in the stands,” she joked.

George Katongole is a leading Ugandan sports journalist.

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