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Feature: Hadijah Nandago, the little ghetto girl breaking barriers

Athletes world over are almost cut from the same cloth. Majority share a common storyline of coming from poor backgrounds but eventually turn around fortunes with their talents. Malaysian author and Inspirational speaker, Vishen Lakhiani once said, “Epic things start with small humble steps. Pay respect to your beginnings. And if you’re just starting out, know that it’s OK to be sucky. To be small, to be messy and chaotic. Just make sure to never ever stop dreaming.”

Hadijah Nandago during training

For Uganda U20 Women’s National Football Team forward, Hadijah Nandago, the journey has not been smooth and had to break several barriers to reach the level she is at currently. At just 16, the little crafty player has turned out to be a key figure on the team and as Uganda sets sights at featuring at this year’s FIFA U20 Women’s World Cup in Costa Rica, one of the key players to look at is Nandago.

Hadijah Nandago playing for Uganda against South Africa.

But who is Hadija Nandago?

Born to Abdallah Kitengejja and Mariam Namakula on 15th February 2005, in Lungujja (Zone8) Rubaga division, a suburb of Kampala Nandago is a Senior Five student at Kawempe Muslim SS where she also plays for Kawempe Muslim Ladies FC in the FUFA Women Super League.

Picking interest in football

Like any footballer, the interest to play football comes at a tender age either through personal effort or support from the people around. Nandago developed the desire to play the beautiful game in Primary Four at Mirembe Infant Primary School in Nateete.

“We lived near a small pitch and I used to see people playing football especially in the evening and I started to pick interest. Sometimes mum would send me to the shop but I would first go to the pitch and try playing with the boys in my age bracket and I was the only girl,” Nandago reminisces.

At the pitch (Kasaawe Ka Young), coach Benard Ssenoga saw potential in Nandago and always invited her to come and train with the boys.

Resistance from the parents

Nandago recalls that there was a lot of resistance from her parents, especially from the father who always stopped her from playing football.

Coach Ssenoga, however, made personal effort and talked to Nandago’s mother, coaxing her into letting the little girl continue with football, a thing she would later accept but without the knowledge of the father who had maintained his ground.

“The coach supported me by buying soccer boots and jerseys and also managed to convince my mother to allow me to continue with my talent. He would pick me at home and take me to the pitch to play.” she recalls.

Up to 2017, Nandago’s father had no clue that her daughter was still playing football and the mother always rendered a protective hand.

“There were a lot of challenges in the beginning and up to about 2017, my father had not bought into the idea of a girl playing football. But the biggest challenge was going to football camps because he would not allow me to leave home and mum always had to lie that I was going to visit my elder sisters.”

Hadijah Nandago stretching during U20 training

Whereas they got away in some occasions, the father got to know about the schemes and was very bitter both to the player and the mother.

How then did the father have change of heart?

After completing her Primary Leaving Examinations in 2016, coach Ssenoga talked to Nandago’s mother about the possibility of her daughter earning a scholarship.

“The coach took me for trials at Rines Secondary School and they were impressed. My mother was really excited that I was going to study at no cost. It was there that I studied my Senior One.” Nandago states.

However, because of limited playing time, the player sought for change of school and moved to Pride College, Mpigi for her Senior Two. It is from here that Kawempe Muslim SS saw her thus eventually getting closer to realizing her dream.

“I remember there was Airtel Rising Stars in 2018 and we played against Kawempe Muslim. I think my performance was good and coach Ayub Khalifa approached me after the game and that is how I eventually moved to Kawempe Muslim.”

“This was the first time I saw my dad happy. When I told him I was joining Kawempe Muslim, he was extremely delighted and even started talking to coach Benard Ssenoga because, in the past, there was a big rift between the two. My father always wanted me to go to a Muslim School and Kawempe is one of the best in Uganda.” Says a teary Nandago.

Hadijah Nandago chasing the ball

Making her mark at Kawempe Muslim

Nandago states that it was not easy to break through at Kawempe Muslim given the number of immensely talented players.

“I was extremely nervous at the start because Kawempe Muslim had over 50 players. I could not make it to the Senior Team and therefore, I started in Team B. We played the Kampala Regional League and this exposed me to competitive football. I eventually finished both as the top scorer and MVP that season.”

She would then get promoted to the senior school team but playing time was still limited and she would only make the bench.

At the start of the 2019/20 FUFA Women Elite League, Nandago and several other young players were loaned out to Isra Soccer Academy where she performed well, helping the team to get promoted to the FUFA Women Super League.

She would return to her parent club (Kawempe Muslim Ladies FC) at the start of the new season (2021) that was played at FUFA Technical Centre Njeru where they got eliminated at the semifinal stage.

Hadijah Nandago (L) singing the National Anthem with teammates

National Team Call

In 2019, FUFA confirmed that Uganda would feature in the 2020 FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup Qualifiers and consequently, Ayub Khalifa was appointed the head coach.

With Airtel Rising Stars, being the bedrock for many youngsters, the tournament held in Kampala that year offered a good hunting ground for the National Team coaches.

Nandago was part of the team that represented Kampala Region and was one of the players summoned on the provisional squad to go and camp at FUFA Technical Centre, Njeru

“The first game, I did not start and that got me disappointed. The second game, I came on as a substitute in the final ten minutes and I made an assist. The final group game was against West Nile region, this time I started and thanks be to Allah we won 3-0 and I scored all the three goals.”

“After the game, coach Ayub together with coach Hadijah Namuyanja came and asked for my details. This really excited me because at the end of the tournament, they read out 27 players and my name came last. I called my mum and told her I had been summoned to play for Uganda and she was equally excited and prayed for me.”

Nadago recalls that at the time of going to the camp, her dad was not at home and heard her name being read on radio.

“At that time, my dad was not at home but he always listens to radio and when the team was summoned, he heard my name announced among the players that were going to represent Uganda. He was happy and called mummy.”

Hadijah Nandago training with U17 National Team for the very first time

Making final squad to Mauritius

Uganda was invited to the 2019 COSAFA U17 Girls’ Championship and this was supposed to be a precursor for the upcoming FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup Qualifiers.

Nandago recalls there were tense moments in camp, given the fact that the squad had to be trimmed to confirm the final list that was going to travel to Mauritius.

“It was really tense and was always praying to make the final team. The squad was supposed to be comprised of 20 players and indeed my name came last. I had never travelled out of the country and more so by plane. I requested coach Ayub for a phone to call my mum and told her I was going to travel. I told her to watch TV and indeed she was glued to the screen. When she saw my name, she was extremely happy and proud of me.”

Hadijah Nandago (blue) in one of the trainings in Mauritius during COSAFA U17 IN 2019

First game at COSAFA

“I was not a starter back then and would only come on as a substitute. In our first game against Zambia, the coach brought me on in added time, with one minute left on the clock. Unfortunately, I did not touch the ball and at fulltime, I cried. My teammates made fun of me.”

In the second game, Uganda played hosts Mauritius and Nandago this time played more minutes, coming on in the final ten minutes. Uganda would eventually go on to lift the trophy.

Nandago indicates that because she did not get enough playing time, she made personal efforts to get better and improve.

After COSAFA U17 Girls’ Championship, the focus was shifted to CECAFA U17 Girls’ Championship that Uganda also won.

“I was still coming off the bench but my mark came in the game against Djibouti that we won 9-0. I came on as a substitute and scored twice. This was my first time to score for the National team and I was really happy. This eventually gave me the confidence going forward.” She stated.

To win the trophy, Uganda had to pick a point off Kenya in the final game and Nandago recounts that this time, she was named on the starting team.

“After last training, the coach named the team that was going to start against Kenya and I was surprised to hear my name read out. At first, I feared but in the same breath, I was happy that I was going to make my first start.” She indicated.

FIFA U17 Women World Cup Qualifiers

Uganda played against Ethiopia at the first stage and Nandago was on the starting team. This time, her parents were in attendance at Lugogo.

“When we walked out of the dressing room, the first people I saw in the crowd were my parents and my sisters. I was extremely happy that they were seeing their daughter representing the country and doing something they had initially denied me the chance.”

“I scored and went into celebration. I saw my dad also up and happy but unfortunately, the goal was ruled for offside. I felt bad but thank God we eventually won.”

The team would go on to eliminate Ethiopia, Tanzania and were supposed to play Cameroon in the final qualifying phase only for the tournament to be cancelled due to COVID-19.

Graduating to U20 Women’s National Team

When the opportunity for U17 Squad fell flat, Uganda looked at the next door that opened and that was the 2022 FIFA U20 Women’s World Cup Qualifiers.

When the team to prepare for Kenya was summoned, the majority of the team that had featured at U17 was promoted, Nandago inclusive.

The team is still in contention for a slot at this year’s edition in Costa Rica having eliminated Kenya and South Africa and now preparing to face Ghana at the penultimate qualifying round.

Hadijah Nandago in U20 training at Lugogo

Shinning bright at CECAFA U20 Women’s Championship

Nandago took the tournament by storm, scoring five goals in as many games. In the five games that Uganda played, Nandago would score the opening goal in four games.

“It really gave me the belief that I can score. At the start, I asked Allah for six goals and in the end I scored five which I really appreciate. I’m really happy for the performance I had on a personal level.” She noted.

Given her performance, Nandago was named among the Airtel FUFA Best XI of 2021.

She scored the solitary goal as Uganda eliminated South Africa 1-0 on aggregate and was also named the best footballer in the month of December 2021 by Real Star Awards.

Hadijah Nandago (L) with Foward Zaina Nandede during National Team engagement

Future Ambitions

Nandago believes football can turn around fortunes not only for her but the entire family as well and therefore, she wants to play professional football to earn off her talent.

“Football can turn around fortunes and I believe this can be the opportunity to change our family. I love my mum a lot and therefore, I want to make her happy because she supported me a lot even when there were challenges of me playing football. If I go for professional stints, then I will get money and make my family happy.” She indicates

Nandago at a glance

· Name: Hadijah Nandago

· Date of Birth: 15th, February 2005

· Place of Birth: Lungujja, Rubaga

· Father’s Name: Abdallah Kitengejja

· Mother’s Name: Mariam Namakula

· Schools Attended:

· Primary: Mpereza Primary School, Khalid Primary School, Mirembe Infant School (P.3-P.7)

· Secondary: Rines SS – Senior 1, Pride College – Senior 2 and Kawempe Muslim SS- S.3-Up to now.

Clubs – Isra Soccer Academy 2019/20 and Kawempe Muslim Ladies -2021 to date.

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