Remembering Charles Kayemba: A beast on the pitch, gentleman off it

Yesterday marked 16 years since the death of former SC Villa and Uganda Cranes striker, Charles Kayemba. Some of his friends called him CK.

He is believed to have taken his life by poisoning. Many reasons have been put forward for that, but I will ignore that and choose to mourn the kind, good-hearted man that I knew.

A hard man on the pitch but ‘easy’ off it, Kayemba caught my eye in 1999. I was a young lad trying to forge a career in football so I used to hang around Villa Park. Being a Jogoo fan from the first time my eyes opened up to Ugandan football, Villa Park became more of a second home to me.

The training sessions at Villa Park would start a bit early, with coach Paul Hasule (RIP), a disciplinarian, taking charge. The picture of him in the Liverpool Carlsberg jersey, whistle and timer around his neck, is one I can’t forget.

Many kids of my age would be tasked with ball-boy duties for a small fee. I used to refuse the money because I was from a fairly good background and besides, to me, being at Villa Park, mingling with the best players in the country at that time, was invaluable.

It meant everything, no amount of money could buy it, I wasn’t looking for survival.

Kayemba was an animal on the pitch. He meant business and was a nightmare to many defenders. One particular moment reminds me of his discipline; During an 11-a-side training session, CK came in hard for a 50-50 ball and his studs dug deep into a senior defender’s (name withheld) leg.

What followed was a punch-up. The defender punched CK in the face but he didn’t fight back. His teammates fought for him. I heard him say “sigenderedde” (I didn’t intend to hurt him).

Hasule stopped the session. He asked the defender to apologize to CK and the whole team. He did, but what followed was an act of sportsmanship that’s very rare to see. CK also apologized to the defender “Nsonyiwa, sigenderedde (Forgive me, I didn’t intend to).”

CK was a hard worker, running all over the forward zone to either pick the ball or pull away from a defender for Hassan Mubiru, who was his strike partner most of the training sessions.

He was a charging rhino whenever Phillip Ssozi brought in those crosses, he’d jump and tear defenders into pieces, mid-air. The older version of Didier Drogba. A striker who will ram into a defender, but within the rules of the game.

CK used to sweat like he had been battered by a hailstorm. In the middle of those training sessions, he’d sometimes pull off his jersey and squeeze it tight – sweat would pour down like he was doing some laundry.

During the 1999 CECAFA Club tournament at Nakivubo, I was a Villa ball-boy, I had become known to many Villa players and officials and of course that brought me closer to the team. On some days I managed to hitch a ride with the team to Nakivubo.

Sharing a bus ride with those guys was (and still is) one of my all-time highs.

That tournament was good for Villa and Kayemba in particular. Apart from losing the final to Tanzania’s Yanga, Villa was a team on fire, winning games with high margins and Kayemba was a man on fire.

He finished the tournament as joint top scorer on four goals, alongside Hakim Magumba. Mubiru finished with three.

Against Ethiopia’s Electricity FC in the quarterfinals, I was behind the goal, doing my ball-boy duties. Kayemba aimed a hard shot at goal, but it missed the target. I tried to stop it but it hit me hard I fell down (hahaha).

After the game, which Villa won 4-1, he looked for me and asked if I was fine. I told him I was fine. He said: “Omupiira gubadde muzito mbadde manyi omenyese okugulu naye oli kasajja kagumu (It was a hard shot, I thought of had broken your leg, but you’re a hard man).”

The final was a bad game for Villa. Somehow, the players looked nervous way before kickoff, the bus ride wasn’t lively everyone looked timid, the pressure was too much for some players.

Mubiru opened the scoring, I think in the first 10 minutes but Villa missed a number of chances. Kayemba was off-colour that day, he wasted one chance that must have haunted him for the rest of his life.

Magumba dribbled past three Yanga players, put in a pass that left the Yanga defenders flat-footed. Kayemba broke through and should have scored, but he chose to look for Mubiru. Unfortunately, Mubiru didn’t read the script. Kayemba played a cut-back which Mubiru failed to deal with as Yanga cleared their lines.

He buried his head in his hands as fans rained boos and insults on him. Towards the end of the first half, Edibilly Lunyamila scored the equalizer. Villa huffed and puffed till the end of the game and lost 4-1 on penalties.

I hang around for long after the game. It was almost 2000hrs when the Villa players started to come out of the dressing room. All of them were dejected, Kayemba was walking to the exits, alongside Magumba and there I was standing alone waiting for one of my uncles to drive me home.

Kayemba saw me and stopped and asked “Toto okyakolaki wano essaawa eno? (What are you still doing here at this time).” I told him I was waiting for my uncle. He picked shs1000 and told me to leave immediately, use the money for taxi back home. I think the taxi fare was shs200.

That is how kind the man was. A few weeks later, I joined boarding school and my appearances at Villa Park dwindled a day at a time. Kayemba had also lost his place to a certain Andrew ‘Fimbo’ Mukasa and he left for the Far East.

I never got to meet him often again. Over the years, I have interacted with many Ugandan footballers and Kayemba, in my books, is one of the best human beings in football that I ever met.

May Allah grant him a perfect rest. Rest In Peace, always, CK.

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