Uganda: Family of Uganda's Only Gold Medalist Faces Own Hurdles

Kampala — Since his death in 1997, Ugandans have cherished the memory of Olympic hurdler John Akii-bua. No other Ugandan has ever brought back a gold medal from the Games. But what many fail to realize is that Akii-bua left more than a legacy. He left behind 11 orphaned children who, as daughter Maureen Akii-bua recently told RNW, "have no one to turn to".

To date, no sports achievement from the past 50 years can beat that of John Akii-bua. At the 1972 Games in Munich, he literally raced to victory, winning the 400-metre hurdle in a world-record 47.82 seconds. In fact, Akii-bua is one of the very few Africans recognized among the world's 100 best athletes of all time.

Wining gold at the Games can sometimes come with a huge package for individual athletes as well as their families. But Uganda has no policy on rewarding Olympic gold medalists. And for the country's only Olympic hero since national independence, Akii-bua has won little for his progeny.

A hero's family

"We have never enjoyed life as people would expect of a hero's family," says Ms. Akii-bua. "As far as I can remember, life for us has been a living hell - right from the time when Dad was alive. But it only worsened in 1997 when he passed on and left the eleven of us to fend on our own."

The now 26-year-old says she was 14 when forced to leave home. Because their mother had passed on earlier, she and her siblings all had to take care of themselves.

Their education was also spotty. "Even when Dad was alive he could not afford to pay school fees for all of us...and, as a result, several dropped out of school and got married," Ms. Akii-bua explains. "I, for one, dropped out of Nkumba University in the second year because I could not afford to raise tuition on my own."

At one point she says she was led to believe returning to university would be possible thanks to a scholarship offered by the German Olympics Committee. But later, the Uganda Olympics Committee told her the funds were no longer being sent.

"Nyangweso [former president of the Uganda Olympics Committee] called me and gave me 700,000 [Ugandan] shillings," Ms. Akii-bua recalls. In view of the German committee's reneging on the funds, Nyangweso requested that the young woman put the money towards one semester's worth of tuition or to start up an income-generating activity. She chose to invest it in a fashion business.

Surviving

Maureen Akii-bua's fashion business helps her make ends meet.

Ms. Akii-bua says she and her siblings hope to resume schooling one day, though suggests that a Good Samaritan would have to come to their rescue first. Nowadays, she survives by working as a fashion designer and a musician.

"We feel our dad's contribution was not recognized because the only gift which he got from government was a house in Bukoto in the outskirts of Kampala, but someone recently grabbed it and forced us out of the house," says Ms. Akii-bua.

She explains how the house that the late dictator Iddi Amin Dada gave her father in 1972 was illegally allocated to a private developer. According to her, all the children now rent separate places and "have no place to call home".

"What pains me is that when I meet friends - say, from outside countries, like Nigeria - and I introduce myself as Maureen Akii-bua, they are quick to recognize me as a daughter to 'Akii-bua the Hero' and I sign their autographs," she says. "But in Uganda we are treated just like any other ordinary kids and, in case of a problem, we have no one to turn to."

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