This is part two of a series discussing diversifying whitewater paddlesports. Read part one Here.
Before a career in whitewater paddlesports, 28-year-old Sadat Kawawa grew up in a small town in Jinja, Uganda, near the “River Nile.” The Nile is the world’s largest river, according to the Guinness World Records . And the river holds spiritual significance to local Ugandans.
Jinja is called the river’s source, and it spans Egypt, Sudan, and Uganda. Impressively, the Nile River boasts Class five rapids. And Jinja is Uganda’s fourth-largest city.
From the age of 15, Kawawa lived on his own. As a young student, Kawawa watched international kayakers paddle the Nile River while visiting a local resort. He saw the tourists going down the river in small boats of different colors and wanted to do the same. Growing up near the river, Kawawa was already a good swimmer. And he did not fear the water like many in his town.
Without a doubt, Kawawa became determined to learn how to kayak, although he did not speak a lot of English at the time. And he did not have a way to buy the necessary gear for whitewater kayaking.
Getting started in Whitewater Kayaking
According to the “Kayak Love blog,” a kayak and safety gear can cost as much as $1,200. And Kawawa says buying kayaking equipment is difficult because there are no kayaking retailers or distributors in Uganda, to his knowledge.
A kayaker requires additional protective gear in a cold climate where the runoff from melting snow feeds river swells. Moreover, cold weather protective gear could add $1,200 to a kayaker’s start-up costs.
Learning to paddle whitewater in Uganda
First, Kawawa devised a clever idea for gaining the needed skills for kayaking the “White Nile.” He offered kayak carrying services in exchange for 10-minutes of time paddling around in the tourist’s boat. And with a little whitewater paddlesports training thrown in. Over time, the visiting kayakers spent more time instructing Kawawa. And on his first attempt at kayaking rougher water, Kawawa impressively rolled up on his own after the kayak went upside-down.
“You might find this hard to believe, but there are over 100 different types of rolls being put to practice today. The vast majority of these rolls were developed by Inuit kayak hunters who relied on them for survival in the arctic waters.”Ken Whiting — 1997-98 World Whitewater Freestyle Champion
Kayakers of color breaking into the industry
Next, Kawawa showed raw talent right away. And he spent all of his free time kayaking. Finally, by the time Kawawa completed high school, he had approached local professional guides about a career in whitewater. Kawawa became a freelance kayaker and safety boating for a rafting company. He was responsible for retrieving any gear rafters or kayakers lost while coming through the Nile River’s massive rapids.
“ I already had a dream of travel, but I [didn’t] see how this could be possible.”Professional Kayaker — Sadat Kawawa
Careers in whitewater paddlesports a viable option for athletes of color
Clearly, what Kawawa did know was that kayaking was an excellent non-traditional career option. Soon after becoming a professional kayaker and safety boating on the Nile, he competed for a position on the Ugandan freestyle kayaking team.
Kawawa finished in the top five and joined the national team. On a trip to Canada in 2015, Kawawa’s dream of traveling came to fruition. He made many connections and gained a wealth of experience at this competitive event. In his first competition of 85 competitors with very little professional training, and only four days to get used to the borrowed kayak and the frigid Canadian river, Kawawa placed 56th.
However, the Ugandan team nearly missed the opportunity to compete.
According to CBC News — “Canada’s publicly owned news and information service.” It took three attempts, with three application fees, before the Canadian government approved the team’s travel.
Why Canada rejected the Ugandan team
“They [Canadian officials] thought we would over-stay [our] visa and that we didn’t have enough family ties to go back to our home country.”Professional Kayaker — Sadat Kawawa
The CBC reported in 2015, “23-year-old Yusuf Basalirwa and his three teammates — 23-year-old Sadat Kawawa, 23-year-old Amina Tayona, and 40-year-old David Egesa — had their visa applications rejected twice; before they were allowed into Canada on their third try.”
Kawawa said his team provided the supporting documents required on the second attempt. And the Canadian response was they have the right to say no, said Kawawa.
“It was also the first time I was confronted with the fact that getting a visa was a hardship for [an] Ugandan sportsman. It was a [struggle] in which we were repeatedly denied. We persevered and eventually were granted a visa. And so we went, to Canada, four Ugandan people strong. We loved the entire experience, did quite well at the competition, and grew our international fame.”Professional Kayaker — Sadat Kawawa
The Ugandan team received their approval notification and then had just one hour to pack and catch an international flight. The last-minute flight reservation and paying multiple application fees exhausted the team’s financial resources. But the kayaking community pulled together and raised the necessary funds for the Ugandan team.
Nearly six years later, the worldwide kayaking community still debates if ethnicity, national origin, classism, or racism affected the Ugandan Team’s ability to compete in paddlesports equitably. We attempt to answer this question in part-five of this series.
Representation matters in paddlesports
By now, Kawawa began safety boating, raft guiding, and competing in freestyle kayaking worldwide.
He traveled to Zambia, Iceland, Kenya, and Spain for whitewater paddlesports. And he encouraged his friends in Uganda to join the sport. Some within his community embraced kayaking as a natural connection to their local river.
Meanwhile, others thought he had a death wish — kayaking the “White Nile” River. And some community and family members said, “that’s for the white tourists,” not for black Africans. This sort of race shaming is not unique to Africa. African-American, Asian, Latinx and Hispanic Americans hear similar comments within their communities too.
Still, Kawawa embraced the adventure sports lifestyle. Then, Red Bull’s documentary crew noticed him.
While in Iceland, a freelance writer at Red Bull emailed Kawawa. They were looking to tell the whitewater paddlesports story of a kayaker that is not part of the Red Bull team. It would be the fourth installment in the Red Bull docuseries. Red Bull came to Uganda to film at the “Unleashed” competition.
“UNLEASHEDxUganda, presented by SEND. The goal of UNLEASHED has always, and will always be the same: to create a competitive environment for the best whitewater athletes in the world to push themselves, and the sport of kayaking to new levels.”Kalob Grady — Kokatat Elite Kayak Ambassador
Athletes can only compete at “UNLEASHEDx” through an invitation. And Kawawa received an invite.
UNLEASHEDxUganda — Mens results
- Dane Jackson
- Yusuf Basalirwa
- Kalob Grady
- Quim Fontana
- Sadat Kawawa
Two American whitewater enthusiasts who do not wish to be named in this article wondered if, “Sadat Kawawa might be the next Dane Jackson,” after his finish at “UNLEASHEDxUganda.”
Dane Jackson and Sadat Kawawa
“[Dane Jackson is] arguably the best all-around whitewater kayaker in the world. [Jackson] holds multiple Freestyle World Championship Titles [and] North Fork Championship crowns. And [he has] a display of over 80 first-place medals from competitions around the world.”Kokatat Inc.
Making the team
However, despite finishing fifth in the “UnleashedxUganda” competition and a feature in the Red Bull documentary — The way of the Wildcard: against the odds achievements, Kawawa was not picked up by a team. Nor was he offered a brand ambassadorship nearly two years later at the time of this interview. Sponsored, professional paddling teams and ambassadorships are important to a professional athlete’s career.
Many in the sport wanted to know why paddlesports and adventure sports companies overlooked an athlete with Kawawa’s talent and charisma? Our panel of experts answer this question in part-five of our series.
After a feature on WhitewaterTV, one company took notice of Kawawa’s talents. He had been on the organization’s radar in the past. And in February 2021, Sadat Kawawa joined the Kokatat Team as a “Global Ambassador.”
Disclosure: The author of this article produces WhitewaterTV.
Sadat Kawawa joins the Kokatat team
“Sadat is a great addition to our team as he inspires other young paddlers to follow their dreams through his accomplishments.”Lisa Kincaid — Promotional Marketing Manager — Kokatat, Inc.
Kawawa, like so many other Black, Indigenous, People of Color in adventure sports hopes to normalize people of color in extreme sports.
“I hope this will bring out to all the … people of color that every extreme sport is also possible for them.”Professional Kayaker — Kokatat Global Brand Ambassador — Sadat Kawawa
We will unpack why representation in whitewater paddlesports matters. And how the industry makes sponsorship and paddling team decisions in part-five of this series.
In the series’ next installment, we travel to Chilean Patagonia with Professional kayaker — Jaime Enrique Lancaster Rial in Part III —Whitewater Destination Chilean Patagonia.