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Meet Sebatindira, 9-year-old gem that has table tennis in his hands

Joseph Sebatindira

Joseph Sebatindira

It is almost unbelievable that nine-year-old JOSEPH SEBATINDIRA is the top table tennis player in the country, having started to play the game just four years ago.

The primary four pupil of Nakasero primary school comes from a family of several table tennis players and his rise to the top has seen him represent Uganda in several tournaments across the globe. He has a humble beginning under the guidance of his mother Bernitah Nakanwagi. As Ernest Jjingo writes, Sebatindira is inspiring several people and the sky is the limit for the talented gem.

When I went to meet Nakanwagi at Nakasero primary school, I found her going about her work. She is an office attendant and has worked at the school for the past 20 years, and lives in the school past 20 years, and lives in the school quarters. Meanwhile, Sebatindira was still in class and I had to wait until he was done with the day’s class.

In the mid-2000s when Uganda Table Tennis Federation (UTTF) started to use the school’s main hall for league games on weekends, it did not initially occur to Nakanwagi that the move would turn around her fortunes and that of her seven children.

One by one, the children started to take on the sport. They include Shanitah Naamala, Shafick Batanda, Philip Napookoli, Shakur Ssebuliba, Sharif Nsereko. Sebantidira’s other siblings especially Naamala, 19 and Napookoli, 18 have also been very successful in the sport. Naamala (19) plays for the national Under-19 girls team while Napookoli (18) plays in the Under-19 boys for which they have also constantly won, especially the recent Jinja Open.

Sebatindira is the sixth-born while the youngest, Josephine Naamala, has also started playing table tennis. However, it is the arrival of Sebatindira that has changed everything in the family. Sebatindira started playing table tennis during the Covid-19 lockdown. Since there was no school, he would go with his older siblings to play and he would just be around picking up balls for them.

“I couldn’t play at first because I was too short to reach the table,” he says. “But when I clocked six years, I was now a bit taller and I could reach the table; so, I started playing and my siblings indeed saw the potential in me. I have so far participated in five international tournaments.”

Before Sebanditira started going for international tournaments, he started with participating locally in the local ones like Jinja Open which he won. He then went to Nairobi where he won silver and that is when most people started recognizing his talent. He then went to Abidjan, Ivory Coast which he followed up with the Under-11 Boys World Youth Table Tennis Contender in Cairo, Egypt in October last year which he won, making him Uganda’s first table tennis world champion.

Just a few weeks ago, the youngster travelled to Qatar for a World Table Tennis tournament and returned home with two tiles in the Under-13 and Under-11 Boys Singles categories. To Nakanwagi, having a talented child like Sebanditira means a lot to a family because they believe he is going to go far beyond Uganda.

“My prayer already is for my son to be a renowned sports personality all over the world,” she says.

“Every morning, we leave home together and as I am going to my workstation, he is also going to class. I even pass by his class just to make sure he is in class studying. After classes, I ask him how the day’s studies have gone and whether he has any homework to do and then I tell him to go for table tennis practice. I do my best to make sure that he balances the two; books and table tennis.”

The 46-year-old says her children chose table tennis as a sport because it was the one nearest to them.

“Napokooli first picked up basketball but he left because the training was not consistent and yet I had no money to take him somewhere else for daily training. Table tennis being right here at school made it easy for them to practice it every day.

Nakanwagi admits that she does not understand the table tennis sport that much but she is always around to boost the morale of her children at tournaments.

“The coaches believe my voice as their mother can be a very big motivation for them to keep pushing whenever they are playing. They can tell me to tell the children to play the backhand drive or the forehand drive which I do, but honestly I also don’t understand it that much,” she says.

The children’s success, especially Sebatindira, has unburdened the family financially.

“I no longer have to worry about money for scholastic materials. For school fees, the older children who are in secondary school are all on bursaries in schools I would initially be unable to afford.”

“Their father is also equally proud of them because if not for their talent, we don’t know how we would have managed to take all of them to school. He is a boda boda rider and even if you combine the money he makes and my salary, it still wouldn’t be enough to take care of all the children’s needs.”

BALANCING SPORTS AND EDUCATION

Sebatindira admits that he has never brought home a bad report card at the end of a school term and this is because he puts in enough effort to concentrate on his studies.

“When I am in class, I forget about sports for the moment and instead pay attention to what the teachers are teaching. In the evening after classes at 5pm, I go for the table tennis practices. I actually passed Primary Three class very well and yet I did the exams when I had just come back from Qatar,” he says.

“When I have to travel abroad during school days, I ask my teachers and they tell me what textbooks I may need for revision while away. My mother buys them and I go out with them. After playing, I sit down and read the books with the help of my coach.”

CHALLENGES

He admits that he always feels very bad when he plays and get beaten.

“Table tennis is not yet a very much recognized sport in Uganda but we hope we can change that. When we go out there to represent Uganda and win, when we come back, we should also be appreciated just like it is usually done with other athletes,” he says.

To Nakanwagi, raising seven children has also been no easy feat.

“I stay in a one-room staff quarter’s house here at school where we all have to fit in, especially during the holidays; so, accommodation is still a big challenge for us. But I always remind them of their poor background and the struggles we have gone through in life and encourage them to be disciplined and humble,” she says.

“I advise all parents out there with children who have talent to support them and develop their talents. If a child tells you that they want to sing, play a sport or do any other talent, encourage them to do it. However, you still have to remind them to concentrate on their books as well. If my children continue succeeding in this sport, they definitely have a bright future ahead and I also expect my elderly life to be beautiful if God gives me life.”

In all, the family may be struggling at the moment but there is no doubt they have a very bright future ahead if the siblings continue their meteoric rise in the sport.

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