Saturday, October 16

Idi Amin challenged my father to a wrestling match and then cowered | Global development

My father, Samson “Sunlight” Okiror, lived an extraordinary life. He was a soldier, a rebel and one of the most famous athletes in Uganda.

A heavyweight fighter and lifter, he could lift a car off the ground. You could tie a rope to a Land Rover and prevent it from moving when the engine starts. He could stretch chains and steel springs. He traveled through East Africa and Europe to train and perform.

It was not a profession that his family had considered. Samson was born into a farming family in the Serere district of eastern Uganda. They told me he had only one bone in his forearms. But at 16 he was offered a job that changed the course of his life. He became the manager of the store of the 4th British King’s African Rifle Battalion.

Even as a child, he was strong and his strength showed in the military. In 1965, the army intervened on his right hand, damaged by burns suffered as a child. To strengthen his arm after the operation, Dad started lifting weights.

Samson 'Sunlight' Okiror during a training session with children, in Uganda in the 1970s.

Samson ‘Sunlight’ Okiror during a training session with children, in Uganda in the 1970s. Photo: Brochure

By 1970, he was a second lieutenant in the Ugandan army and had become a renowned professional heavyweight lifter and wrestler.

They called it the “golden rock of Africa”, known for its stunts to draw in a crowd; earned mythical status in April 1975 when he anchored a helicopter, restraining it with chains as it flew overhead. Two months later, he managed to get a ferry on Lake Nalubaale 100 meters to the docking area.

In 1977, the Voice of Uganda newspaper named “Sunlight” Okiror the best athlete in the country.

His skills caught the attention of Idi Amin, then president, who challenged my father to a wrestling match. The long-awaited fight was scheduled for July 28, 1975 in Kampala, during a summit of what is now the African Union. Amin canceled the match, claiming he was too busy, but, according to the whispers, he really feared humiliation in the face of African leaders.

“You see my [honourable] son of the earth, I have not had a good time to practice. Visitors must come, we, the people of Uganda, must prepare to receive them. We don’t need to fight now, ”Amin told my dad at a meeting at State House.

'Sunlight' Okiror is shown lifting several men up in an image chosen from his photo album by his son, Samuel.

‘Sunlight’ Okiror is shown lifting several men up in an image chosen from his photo album by his son, Samuel. Photograph: Courtesy of Samuel Okiror

Later, Amin would charter a plane to take Dad to Germany to train and perform. “Our country lacks foreign exchange. While you’re there, collect as much [as you can] and ship to your country. OK? “Amin instructed him.

I was born in 1979 and grew up listening to the stories: the man the most brutal military dictator was afraid to fight. He was a great father. Very tough, but loving.

He loved us, his children and his wives so much. He used to take us in his minibus and land cruiser. At that time, we lived in both Serere and Kampala. Our house was the only one in town with a tile roof.

People used to stop him on the street. Some people called him “Power Mike,” in reference to Michael Okpara, the Nigerian wrestler of the 1970s and former African heavyweight champion.

When Yoweri Museveni took office in 1986, Dad was the Ugandan army’s director of sports. But he grew increasingly frustrated with what he saw as Museveni’s misrule and, in May 1987, he joined Teso’s sons in launching the Ugandan People’s Army (UPA) rebellion. He was commander of the brigade at UPA headquarters when he was assassinated in March 1991, at age 44.

I was at school when I heard the news and joined a group of children who were running towards the village, where hundreds of people had already gathered, to see if the strong man was really dead. Seeing my dad’s body riddled with bullets and thrown in a pool of blood, I broke down and cried: “God be with you, Dad, until we meet again.”

Samuel Okiror reviews his late father's photo album

Samuel Okiror reviews his late father’s photo album at his home in Namugongo. Photograph: Katumba Badru Sultan / The Guardian

His death was a rude awakening for a 12-year-old boy whose mother had already left the family, and who until then had lived a privileged life. Our powerful family disintegrated. I had to leave home, since my grandmother could not support me. I did odd jobs at people’s houses to make ends meet. Sometimes he slept without eating.

The family has struggled ever since. My dad’s army pension has never been paid nor have we received any compensation for the property and livestock lost during the insurgency in the north of the country.

I recently started thinking about my dad’s legacy and his contribution to the sport. I posted some pictures of him on Facebook and Twitter and he began to hear, once again, stories about the “golden rock.”

“I actually saw one of their shows in the city of Lira during Idi Amin’s time,” commented one person, Djegeti Omara, in one of my Facebook posts. “It was very entertaining. I saw him hold a vehicle and he couldn’t move. I still remember that episode, ”he said.

'Sunlight' Okiror is seen lifting a car, one of the feats for which he was famous in Uganda during the 1970s.

‘Sunlight’ Okiror is seen lifting a car, one of the feats for which he was famous in Uganda during the 1970s. Photo: Courtesy of Samuel Okiror

“Yes, he was a great man,” wrote Lawrence Okae, national chairman of the opposition party, Uganda People’s Congress. “While parking [his vehicle] … An imposing man came out, well formed, apparently tough and confident, ”he said. “It is at this moment that we learned that it belongs to ‘Power Mike’, Okiror, a man who could shoot down a plane.”

People still remember my father fondly. It is perhaps no surprise that the Ugandan government has never considered his legacy. On the 30th anniversary of his death next year, I wish that would change. I would like my father’s achievements to be honored, a sports stadium or an annual tournament to be named after him.

“Sunlight” Okiror raised the country’s flag through his sport. So I think it now deserves some recognition.

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