British Professional Squash Player Tom Ford on His Ugandan Experience

Introduction by George Kasekende: I am the Squash Captain at Kampala Club which is the de facto headquarters for squash in Uganda for the time being. But we are also governed by the Uganda Squash Rackets Association which is affiliated to the National Council of Sports. Squash is a fairly unknown sport in Uganda but surprisingly has lots of competitors. We have several clubs like Makerere University, Kampala Club, Divine Providence in Ntinda, Kabira Club, Muyenga Club…

As such, we are on a mission to create awareness and promote this sport. This time around we partnered with Rock Classic Hotel in Tororo. From their own pockets, they were able to build two state of the art squash courts, for Uganda standards. As a way of launching them, they decided to have an international squash tournament and among the people we invited and who honored our invite is the great Tom Ford who is on the international circuit, has been seeded up to 60th in the world and is part of the International Squash Association. We also had players from Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa, Tanzania, Egypt, Nigeria and out of the about 60 competitors, Tom emerged the winner.

What usually happens when you invite seeded players is you are supposed to pay them a fee but Tom was kind enough to forego his fee and he said all he wanted to see was the mountain gorillas. In partnership with UTB, Fernando Tours, and Rock Classic Hotel, we were able to put together a quick gate away to the windy Buhoma to make this wish come true. We are very thankful and are hoping that we can partner more with the likes of UTB because we need to promote the sport.

Tom Ford, tell us a bit about your squash journey?

I have played squash professionally since I was about 18 and in 5 years, I reached as high as 60th seed in the world. Squash has been a huge part of my life since I was about 6 years old. I was traveling around the country from as young as maybe 10 and already had opportunities to travel around Europe. I even went to places like Saudi Arabia when I was about 14. I think it’s really marked quite an important part of my life in sort of providing an incredible opportunity it is to visit different countries and experience different cultures.

That travel combined with the dedication towards something you love has really shaped me into the person that I am today and I think that’s one of the enormous benefits and gifts that the sport can offer to younger people and even the older ones. It’s an incredible vehicle to not only learn about yourself but also work on your discipline and an opportunity to breed character. That’s something that’s invaluable in this world and no doubt in Uganda as well because even if people don’t choose to pursue the sport as a main career, these are important character traits to possess.

How did an internationally seeded player end up playing in Uganda?

Fast forward to the present moment, I haven’t been playing the professional tour for a little while due to fatigue so that’s my little lesson to learn which comes with the sport as well. My desire to travel, to play, is still very much there but I don’t want to do it quite as intensely as you have to as a professional player. One of the reasons why it was a little too much for me is because I wanted to have the balance of competing and playing the sport that I love but also experiencing the country that I am in. This isn’t always a possibility when you are traveling so intensely as a professional player. So when the opportunity came and I was offered to come here to not only compete but also do something that very few people from the England/West are fortunate to do, it was a bit of a no brainer for me. I think it’s important to note that the opportunity to compete was there but also a very generous offer to include the tourism side of the trip was a huge bonus and huge contributing factor to me wanting to come here and I’m very glad I did.

What were your thoughts on how squash is played here vs. the other places you’ve played from? Any tips for improving the sport here?

The athleticism here is very good. Squash in Africa is quite a physical game but squash is a very multidimensional game. It has a very huge physical component but there is also a very tactical element to it. Obviously, the huge mental thing interacts with the physical but it’s certainly a tactical game. In one way, match experience plays a huge role in the standard of play here. In the various different places I’ve played in in Africa, the one factor that I’ve been able to rely on is my match experience. The exposure I’ve heard to different styles of playing and also just different training methods have engaged me to be able to look at the game beyond just the physical aspect.

One of the things that are already happening to improve the sport is having tournaments like these that bring in players from other countries so players from Uganda and Africa can experience styles of the game from beyond the continent. That ability to look at the game in a different way in itself is thought-provoking and potentially inspiring. It’d also be great to provide coaching clinics alongside or separate to the tournaments. You can have an in-depth experience of players outside of the continent sharing their ideas and helping the players here improve. Those would be the two main ideas I have to help develop the sport here and both are equally valuable. One is a more detailed approach where you are laying out a path for the players here and then the tournament is where you are inspiring players with exposure to different ways of playing. Inspiration is a pretty powerful thing. People will find what they need to find if they are inspired and I think that’s what this tournament has done.

What of Uganda have you been able to see and experience during your stay?

 I have experienced quite a lot of the place while I have been here. I spent two days in Kampala and Michael Kawooya who I received the formal invitation from showed me around. I went on a boda-boda which was quite an experience and one which took me a bit of time to build up the courage to do. But I am glad I did. We went to the Kings (Kabakas) lake and I saw the old bus park which was incredible. I don’t think I have seen anywhere quite like that. So even being in Kampala was an incredibly rich and unique experience for me, one that I will certainly remember.

We then moved on to Tororo which is where the tournament was at the Rock Classic hotel which is a high-class facility. We all dined together…there was a gym, a health club…nothing was too much to ask really. We were provided a wonderful venue and experience for a tournament. There are things that can be improved but the real foundations are in place to grow the sport, to grow the tournament and to grow the visibility of squash in Uganda. I think I am more than happy to provide the feedback for that but I have no doubt that that right people are in place and doing the right things to continue to develop the sport here compared to my experience from all the other countries I have visited in terms of how they approach promoting and organizing tournaments.

The following day after the tournament we went to Sipi falls which was a highlight for me. I was pretty exhausted after the tournament and was contemplating staying in bed for a bit longer but I am certainly glad I didn’t. It was beautiful and along with even just driving to the different places, I was amazed at what a beautiful place Uganda is, and quite surprisingly as well. I kind of expected it to be beautiful and I have always been amazed at the vastness of the places in Africa I have been but, just the greenery and the landscapes are really beyond anywhere I have been.  We also went to the top of Mount Elgon where we took some photos and it was a lovely thing to experience.

We drove back to Kampala and then to Bwindi which is one of the predominant reasons why I wanted to come here. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience for someone like myself. I have been to safaris in the Masai Mara, to the Kruger Park…I feel privileged to have seen a lot of these things and this was by the most incredible thing I have seen. One of the things I don’t quite like, if I had to complain, about a safari is you seat in the car for quite a long time so you don’t get to see a lot and it’s quite easy to take for granted when you actually get there because someone is driving you and they know what’s going on.  This, on the hand, was a raw and authentic experience to be trekking through the rain forest to truly meeting these animals in their natural habitat and to be that close to an endangered species. It’s almost beyond words and I feel incredibly grateful to everybody that made that possible. That truly was a very big cherry on top of this experience.

I want to thank Fernando tours for the things he organized. The place where we stayed was beautiful. We were in the tracker’s lodge which I believe is a new facility. It’s sort of a wooden cabin right at the edge of the forest and I really felt like I was treated like a special person. So, thank you very much for creating such a wonderful experience for me.

What is your take home from Bwindi in regards to tourism? One thing you will tell your friends back home to get them to also come and visit.

Just that it’s an unforgettable experience. Like I said, it’s something that’s difficult to put into words. I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve been privileged to experience a lot of spectacular things and this is probably at the top of the list. I don’t think I can explain it any other way. You’d not regret coming.

Seeing as this was your first time in Uganda, did it match your expectations or did you have your preconceived notions of the place challenged?

I try to go to places with few expectations or preconceived ideas. We get fed a lot of stuff that’s potentially not true and I personally don’t watch the news or read the paper mainly because of all the places that I’ve been to that I’ve heard the worst things about are some of the places I’ve enjoyed the most. So I’ve realized the sources I was hearing from weren’t necessarily the truest. Now, wherever I travel, I try to go with an open mind.

I was aware of the potential poverty and I was aware of the potential vastness and beauty. But as I said that was exceeded. I couldn’t have imagined picking fruit from a tree and eating it. I want to take some mangoes home but I don’t think I have enough room in my luggage so I’ll just keep it as a memory. There was also the richness of the people, the welcome that I’ve had and the willingness to show me around and make me feel comfortable in the country which has been very special as well.

Any constructive feedback from your experience here?

Timekeeping! I have experienced varying spectrums of this in the different places I’ve been to so I was somewhat prepared but even still, that would be my main issue. It’s something I mentioned about the tournament but it’s something that needs to be reiterated. I understand time here is different but I barely even paid attention to what time was agreed. That’s the extent that it got to. It’s a simple thing to change and it comes back to discipline and prioritization and I think this can be developed through the sportsmanship of squash and the character traits they are trying to develop in the youth throughout the country using the game.

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