Preparations started at breakfast, you could see us closely eyeing the sack where the polythene bags were dumped. Polythene bags were currency and in those days, we used paper wrapping more than polythene bags which made them scarce, we were the eco-warriors before the NGO brigade. 

We used to receive our share of porridge just outside the dining hall at dawn. The morning chill no longer a nuisance but rather an ally we embraced. A round huge saucepan would be placed behind an old three-foot-tall concrete screen facing the Dining hall. We never used the Hall for breakfast as it would be water-soaked. The ancient oak doors wide open, as smaller saucepans were ferried and the contents tipped into the larger lake pan. Piping hot white porridge, we knew it was hot for the only person who ever dared go close had a nasty swimming experience and is forever filled with scars. 

The porridge provided little relief to the hunger but our objective was different. With every cup, we received a bun. Or a closer relative who had passed through an oven someplace we weren’t aware. A dozen buns came wrapped in a single polythene bag. That was the real gold. It was a swift operation that required you make the queue a little bit closer to the end, not far to arrive at the serving point when the rations for the day are done but just in time when the polythene is overwhelming the sack to be the one to dispose of the rubbish. By the time you had the sack, you had an entourage of angry boys in hot pursuit but you all had one destination.

The reason for that procurement was simple, to create balls for the greatest game ever played. Many argue that football is the king of sports, we agree. One-touch football is the emperor of all football. Oh, when the bags were procured, a laboured morning period in class would be endured as you and your crew plotted the next course of action. The art of moulding a ball was specialist and specific. Diligence and skill were necessary as the ball had to actually be perfectly spherical. Earnest labour began at breaktime, sometimes you were lucky extra buns were provided and that meant more kaveras were gotten.

By break time, my cousin Otim “miti mito” Arthur would have gotten random papers and crafted them carelessly into a round fist not too heavy as that would affect the bounce and final product. Then the yolk would be blanketed by a layer of polythene bags. The first two and three layers would just bound tight to the fist of papers. Then for some reason, the idiot would put the ball to his ear and grin. Reassuring all of us the first test had been passed. He would hand the ball around and we would approve, the rule is we don’t bounce the ball. We trudged back to class with a fleeting sense of satisfaction. Then after the lunch meal, we would race to the rubbish heap just behind the Dining Hall, skipping the mandatory 40 minutes of “quiet” time. A risk in itself, the sentence for being caught on compound rather than your bed was corporal punishment, but our devious minds were in overdrive.

Every day at 11:30 a.m, the pit would be set alight in a primitive way of incineration of rubbish. It wasn’t only a school heap but the neighbouring community used it too. By 1:00 p.m the flames wouldn’t be smoke-laden but a combination of the midday heat and burning compost produced a furnace. The ball now received its baptism of fire. Polythene burns quick and usually we would mitigate that by prior burying of a metallic surface. The ball would get enough heat to shape the plastic not burn it. You had to ensure the bind is tight. Every single polythene layer that was added was fully inspected. By hand of course, black fingers were never far away but that is a small price to pay. The metallic surface say is some kind of cast and forge. So the ball took shape by hand and steel. 

At that point, the sculptor would look at the ball and we would exchange knowing looks. The size of a Handball had been achieved. Again you never bounce a hot ball as it could lose shape. All this happened before the gong for afternoon classes would be sounded. We joined the rest of the pupils in trekking to class. At the end of classes, we would partake a final inspection, the ball could be bounced, and it was always round. Never bounced high. As the final quality check, we would carry out a juggling contest. Not that two-legged one, this ball isn’t built for that but rather a one-legged repetitive kick and balance the ball behind your toes in quick tap motions. We could count that all evening.

The arenas for one-touch differed according to your class and skill level. The lower boy’s end bathroom is where the masters met. The Colosseum of one touch. Limited to three players a team and many other boys waiting patiently for the chance to go at the masters. The notorious Simbwa Alex reigned supreme in these parts. The rules were unwritten but orally passed down from 1915 when the campus was founded. As it is named, you could only make one-touch, but that touch varied, juggling was considered one touch, if you could move the ball without it touching the ground, that was also one touch. Heading wasn’t considered a valid touch, using your hand was a penal offence akin to wearing shoes to play this beautiful game. 

Of course, since you were three on three, the ball couldn’t “touch” the floor or else it is lost. You could use vectors to help you and you could juggle across the arena with varied tricks, like the kanzu where you flip the ball over the opponent’s head, passing to your mate who had to have swift and perfect control. That is why the design of the ball was key. Since it was reinforced and welded polythene, it tended to have better resistance to gravity, while retaining all the advantages of the usual factory balls. These were the times before synthetic balls took over, it was either plastic or leather. 

The rules varied in lesser arenas, the upper bathroom could only accommodate two players per team and it usually ended in a brawl, many scores were settled by a one-touch game in that space. The old field, the ball could touch the soil, but the single touch policy could be again generously agreed upon. I hear a keeper could use his hands in that plaçe, and you wonder why only kids went there?

Ultimately one touch was about space, finesse and your teammates. Body balance had to be perfect and you actually had to internalise the football basics to stand a chance of playing. A good ball lasted 2 weeks before a new one was manufactured. The game usually ended at dusk when the gong for supper was sounded or more appropriately when the bully, Mr. Bugembe, would be seen charging at you with his endless supply of reed canes, you would gather your slippers and leave him scuttling after you in the dirt as you scampered away to avoid an episode with the matron forcing you to take a shower.

Photo – Nze Eve

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Written by Zeno Othieno Owora (1)

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  1. Down the memory lanes.
    That was the best Avenue to establish a lifetime friendship based on honesty, love, care, trust, cooperation, brotherhood, etc

    I really enjoyed reading the article.

Kintu and Nambi; The Second Task #17