How competitive and tournament scrabble commenced in Uganda

A personal odyssey by Richard Geria (aka The Lion From Arua)

In 1987, I joined a group of elite students who were juggling tiles and fishing out some, place them on the rack and shuffled. Very slowly, they shifted the tiles, then making words on a square board. It was my first encounter with scrabble. These boys were senior students at St. Joseph College Ombaci in Arua and it was not easy to join their group unless you had a respectable command of the English language. The environment was incredible. A board, letter/numbered tiles, pen, notebook and quiet. Complete discipline, complete order. Admirable!!!!

That Saturday morning, I could not play as I was awed by the aura of importance and invincibility these boys exuded. So, I would join to watch the boys on weekends, public holidays and sometimes, evenings. I was told you needed word power, so I descended on the school library and sought every book on offer. I also acquainted with the rules and watched the method of play.

The African writer’s series, Things fall Apart, Mission to Kala, The river between, No longer at Ease etc. Then there was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckberry Finn. Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare. And, many, many more novels and books. I devoured them all. On top of that, I had a dictionary at hand, Webster and even reading through encyclopedias.

It happened then that one afternoon, I strolled to the prefects centre and found the headboy, rather bored. I challenged him to a game of scrabble and thankfully, he agreed. My introduction to scrabble was not much of a baptism of fire, like some people have come to learn (while on the opposite side). It was more of careless, tactless play. Of course I lost but as they say, you must slay a lion to wear its skin. One day, now an accepted member of the club, I landed a memorable word JOCUNDLY and scored 116 points. I had matured and could now take on anyone. The only Senior 2 Kid who had access to the school elites and celebrities.

During holidays, I strolled in the evenings, through the canopied road to Muni NTC at Mr. Avinya’s house, seek out his son Victor and engage him in the game of scrabble. I remember the wooden tiles, the beautifully kept board and grey bag. Victor was my class mate at Ombaci College, and we were recently graduated njukas, a derisive term for S1 kids. It was amazing playing words and, winning felt good, but most importantly, the ability to play a seven letter felt even better. I quite agree to this extent with Paul Kizza that a game without a bonus is like bread without butter.

After O-level, I came to Kampala for HSC. We lived I learnt of a club in Kisementi that played in the evenings. So I sought this club and found it. I do not remember anyone by name as the age-divide was too much, for me to fraternize with these guys. It was a drinking club and scrabble was a way out of the monotony. It was sweeter to engage with words; on the board. The monologue must have been in the Bugoloobi club at the time. Anyway, it was difficult joining this group too. You needed a beer on one hand and pushing your mind to the limit to put a word on the board.

Two years later in 1992, I was at Mitchell hall, where I remember Charles Magezi, Dr. Bagenda Fred, Apollo Kakaire, the surgeon and others, meeting in block E to play scrabble. I joined them one MUFA and engaged them. With 4x4, it was easy. Playing took out the boredom from the long days of the weekends and, during MUFA, flukers could fraternize easily, share intel on the activities of Mr. Kirunda the warden, and puzzle our wits.

When I was finished with Campus, I retired to Makerere West to start life in the field. But occasionally, I could sojourn to Katego rd and while there, we would trudge to Owen road and camp at a nurse’s home. There, yours truly , Dennis Aciko would meet Kits, Jose, Osbert and play scrabble. My first double timer, a 9x9 was played here, the word ENMITIES. Oh what a thrill, I have never felt good. Guys sought me for authentic scrabble. I obliged.

When I moved to Nakulabye, at Terrace zone, I played with Leila. But this was not to last as I soon moved to Senkatunka zone. Here I found Mike Mukembo and Dr. Kirunda who were very good. So we could meet in the evenings and play. Mzee Birunga, otherwise, George Mpimbaza, a player in his own right welcomed our request to play at his bar. Dennis Aciko came occasionally so that we could engage in the game.

Soon after that, in 2001, The Monitor started to run a small piece of news on the letters pages looking for Scrabblers. The man was Joash Manyasa from KASA who was looking for Ugandan scrabbles. When Henry Lubega, then of Capital Radio got wind of this news, he mobilized scrabblers who in April assembled at the Subway restaurant at Crested towers, and the item on the agenda, formation of a steering committee to launch a scrabble association in Uganda.

So yours truly, Dr. Muganzi, Mildred Nsereko, Peter Mukembo, Abdu Mukembo, Dr. Allan Mpairwe, Henry Lubega, Julepa aka Lebo Julius congregated. Henry was kind as to foot the entertainment bill, as if to honour his effort to get the association off the ground, he was elected the chairman of the interim executive, Dr. Mpairwe Vice, Yours truly National co-ordinator, Dr. Muganzi as Secretary while Mildred Nsereko became the vice.

In the next meeting, which we held at National Council of Sports where Mr. Masembe as Director and board games in-charge was absolutely helpful, taking us through the requirements to join NSC and offering to help as much as he could. Later, we moved to the terraces behind NSC offices where Chris, Sennoga, Kayondo Davie and Paul Kizza had arrived to monitor proceedings. We had come with boards so, a scrabble game was eminent. While playing, DAVIE could easily land words. He played LIBRATED on the triple lane. This amazed me. I was, confident that I was probably the best Ugandan Scrabbler. But this guy seems to have a way with words.

Finally, we broke off and headed to our respective clubs. On the way to the park, the Bakuli crew where speaking a scrabble language unknown to us. They talked about syndromes, stems, hooks, anagrams. Till now, I thought a syndrome was a medical term. But these guys used it in the sense of scrabble strategy. Very, very strange indeed. Another word they spoke of was – anagram. Okay, I understood anagram in the English linguistic sense of the word. But the Bakuli fellows spoke of it as another scrabble strategy. Then there were hooks and blockers. Suddenly scrabble began to sound like a boxing game. What with left hooks and then right hooks. For someone with a boxing background, I could not understand this better. Forgive me for this rigmarole, but I will find another time to relate my experience of our very first tournament. Nah, on second thought, I should tell this now.

After establishing the association, the next task was to organize a tournament. With no experience of organizing a scrabble tourney, we needed KASA. Anyway, it was the egging from KASA that kept the momentum. Lugoogo indoor stadium was not available for us, so we had to find another venue. We could not go to a hotel as the cost was simply prohibitive. Finally, we settled for YMCA, who needed us to pay membership to use their facilities. So we paid the sum of UGX 40K to the treasurer of YMCA at Wandegeya branch. Henry helped with mobilization of players, using capital Radio, the mellow voice of Christine Mawadri called onto players for the inaugural tournament. When Saturday 16th June 2001 came, I and Dr. Mpairwe converged on YMCA early in the morning.

We waited for the Kenyan team, we were eager to see this audacious Manyasa guy. People started to converge, including Prof. Kawuma, businessmen, lecturers, students, etc., When a group of tall men, wearing blaziers, carrying bags arrived at YMCA Wandegeya at 11.45 am, we beheld the Kenyan team lead by Matayo Bwire (then chairman of Scrabble Association in Kenya) and Joash Manyasa have arrived. In the entourage; Bernard Amuke, Kassim, Paul Bosita and Peter Lumumba. For lack of boards, Binyomo Wellborn of Namuwongo club saved the day by bringing five deluxe boards. One of the highlights of that tournament was when Prof. Kawuma was humbled by a Senior five student, the late Kiggundu (RIP).

Kiggundu was from Bakuli, and could played u less Q - words: QI, TALAQ, QANAT. I later learnt of TSADDIQ, TZADDIQ, MBAQANGA, QIGONG, QIBLA, QWERTY, INQILAB, QASIDA, QAWWAL, QAWWALI, QAID, QADI etc. KAINGA will be thrilled. So when Prof. Kawauma would challenge, it was returned as good. The good Prof. started playing any word conceivable, which of course Kiggundu challenged off. Prof. Kawuma did not play the second day, and has never appeared on the scrabble scene again.

When the to0urnament started at 1pm, I found myself face to face with the Hawk. I played a tight game against Manyasa, including extending EXPERTING on a loose EX, a nine letter word on triple lane. Sadly for me I missed a phoney play by Manyasa, OURIEST, allowing OG. I could have pulled off an upset. I had not mastered the twos, I had not mastered anything. Bernard Amuke won that tournament the following day becoming the first man to win a scrabble tournament in Uganda, Paul Bosita was second. I finished 18th, with negative spread ahead of Dr. Allan Mpairwe at 19th, Richard Rukwenje at 11, Sennoga Ahmed at 13, followed by his brother Monday Ibrahim, Dr. Meko at 16th. Chris Ntege was 31st – at the bottom percentile. Chris, you have really come a long way.

So guys, do not follow Prof. Kawuma’s example. I wish those upcoming players to understand where they are going and what they have to do to get to the top. So that they will look back in time and marvel at what determination can do. Let me give you an insight of the horror of playing the Bakuli crew in the early stages of scrabble.

Unbeknown to many of us, the people in Bakuli – Dr. Meko Godfrey, Kayondo Hamdan, Sennoga Ahmed, Amnde, PK, Richard Rukwenje and the lake Kiggundu (RIP) were playing scrabble in a different league with superior rules of the game. They had access to reading materials (OSWP). They had a winning strategy and the word power to match it. A man called Muhima Stephen (RIP), of Busia Kenya had chanced on Bakuli Scrabble club sometime earlier, and had infested them with a game plan unknown in Uganda.

In YMCA inaugural tournament, Kiggundu had upset the Kenyans, finally finishing fifth. So when we played our first WSC, which I organized, I was taken apart. We converged at Nakasero Senior in record numbers. Thirty three people attended. I remember that any one from Bakuli had a field day. When a pairing was announced, these guys jubilated as they knew a point was in the bag.

I remember playing Sennoga who definitely took the point. Ditto Kayondo, Davie, Dr.Meko. I remember I would struggle with Chris, Tony. We would finish in the middle of the table. Sometimes out rightly at the bottom of the percentile. And yet I dared believe I was the best of the scrabblers in Uganda. In this WSC qualifier in 2001, I was trounced badly. Visit . Towada won this tournament and together with Davis Kinene, the late Welborn Binyomo and Kayondo Hamdan, they proceeded to round two where Kayondo Hamdan won the play off to become the first Uganda to qualify for world Scrabble Championship. In 2001, the world championship was held at the Venetian Hotel in the idealistic city of Las Vegas, USA. For lack of resources, Kayondo could not travel to America.

Then around 2003, the monologue, Greens Kamugisha burst on the scrabble scene (He is also known as the Behemoth). He believed that he was the very finest player in Uganda. He regaled us with stories of playing NRM bush war heroes in the late Eriya Kategaya, Ivan Koreta and other movement/NRA heavies. Alema and Katungi (now captain of UPDF) had told him of lethal players in Nakulabye. I challenged him. He replied that he would pay UGX 5,000 for every game I won. I won all the 10 games that ensued that evening, harvesting some money to pay the barman at Birunga Bar in Nakulabye.

Greens then understood that he was lower the pecking scrabble order. Nonetheless, I owe my game today to him. He was a formidable opponent. So, he invested in the game; buying boards, reading materials, travelling to scrabble tournaments, learning strategy, improving word power etc. Then he started to win some games. Soon, the monologue was impossible to beat, once winning a one-day, May Day tournament 10/10. A one hundred percent record unmatched. Ssali spoilt my opportunity on Martyr’s day this month. 9/10 was close, but the monologue is safe as his record stands, I think monologue should give kikoffira a round of the frothy stuff. Hmmmm!!!

When Amuke came to Uganda to do some work for Celtel, he impressed upon us a new strategy, game planning, score and score, master the four and five letters words, learn eight letter stems and anagrams, play very regularly, play for a stake. Invest in the game. Top players in the world simply invest time and resources in the game. Any time, any resource is important. Whether it is 10 minutes or registration at tournament, investments have its rewards. A free game may never take you somewhere, but a staked game will increase your competitiveness. We took his word. Today, should I lose to anyone, I swear, I will exact my pound of flesh.

If you have read these recollections up to this point, one thing is clear. We all have stories to tell, the future is in your hands, you need to play to learn to play, and to improve. There is the interesting story of KAINGA who wanted to represent Uganda in PANASA in 2005 (just like that), believing that he was the best thing to happen in scrabble in Uganda. When we gave him the baptism of fire in an independence tournament at Yovani Hotel in Bakuli that October 2005, he finished in negative spread, at the bottom of the pile. He continued to consistently finish below par for sometime.

But KAINGA has picked himself up and dreams now of winning the world championship. He thinks the Ugandan challenge is a prick in the pie. Now that is the mentality. We want 1000 KAINGAS, you can start now.

A pivotal moment for scrabble in Uganda came about 2010. Just before that in 2009, scrabble had welcomed Mukagwa Scrabble Club. Uganda hosted ECASA in Kampala in which the country had placed three players in 10 ten much to the shock of our Migingo neighbours. That say year, Scrabble on the Nile (an annual sports extravaganza) was commenced in Jinja.

following year, at ECASA in Kisumu Kenya, Uganda made a podium finish. The world had to take notice. In 2012, Johnny Ssempebwa (The King) gained the chairmanship of the association in the general election held in Mbarara. His tenure was to embolden the game especially because it brought another bi-nation tournament in Sajeki International Scrabble event and fostered the entry of the current crop of young and energetic players notably Dr. Edgar Odongkara and Ivan Gilbert Sentongo (both Bandores Scrabble Club). Uganda also continued its climb onto the international ratings.

When The King was replaced by Dr. Mark Okwir, the country was truly in ascendance. First PEM (Philip Edwin Mugisha) had followed a first for Uganda, finishing 10th, at the Cape Town International Scrabble tournament. Then he went to Kenya, in Kakamega and won a Kenyan national tournament. He followed that with a visit to Mombasa and won. The consequence of these feats has expanded the titular recognition for Edwin to include: representative of 7 billion humans in our galaxy in this fabled game, the King of Kenya, the Sultan of Mombasa and of course the seminal, the phenomenon.

Building on the path created by Edwin, Uganda now regularly places players in top 10, top 5 and podiums of international tournaments. Dr. Edgar Odongkara (The Dragon), PEM, Lawrence Onyoine, your interlocutor and Ivan Sentongo being candidates for those stellar performances. Noteworthy it must added, PEM and your interlocutor have each won a Sajeki International tournament, breaking the Kenyan stranglehold. Most refreshingly, Uganda gained Bronze at the 2017 edition of World Scrabble Championship held at the Laico Hotel in Nairobi Kenya. It is the highest honour to country enabled by Richard Geria, Philip Edwin Mugisha and a medical student at the time, Edgar Odongkara.

Last year in December, at a general assembly in Jinja, at the Office, Rotarian Nelson Kyagera was returned as the new President of Scrabble Association of Uganda. Already in tenure, a Murungi Godwin of the swashbuckling Gulu Scrabble Club won the Mbarara tournament in May. With Eng. Obura and Don Kagiri (all of Gulu SC) dominating that tournament, it appears we witnessing the emergence of young and hungry players in the country. With Ivan Sentongo of Bandores winning the record shuttering Gulu tournament in April, the future is bright.

National Scrabble Champions in Uganda