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Margaret Nankabirwa

Badminton is the happy place for Ugandan refugee

Competing at her second Commonwealth Games in Glasgow three years ago, Margaret Nankabirwa had no idea she would soon be back on British shores – but this time, in very, very different circumstances where the joy of representing her country was overshadowed by fear for my life.

Margaret Nankabirwa credit Liverpool EchoInspired by her cousin, Margaret first represented her native Uganda on a badminton court in 2008, becoming Africa’s number four just two years later.

That same year, the women’s doubles specialist travelled to India for the Commonwealth Games, and, four years later, came to Britain to play for her country once more as Glasgow hosted the Games.

But after returning home to Africa following the Games, Margaret’s life changed forever.

From the age of 14 and at a devout christian school, she had known she was gay, but homosexuality is considered immoral and seen as a sin in Uganda.  She was forced to hide who she really was for many years – in fear of her safety and that of her family.

"I wouldn't tell no one, not my friends not my family, not anyone." Margaret said. "If you were found to be a homosexual, your family is banished. Our families treasure preserving respect, identity, so they'd rather send you away, or call the police about you. People would beat you and then ask questions."

After celebrating her badminton experience in Glasgow with her country’s ministers and President in a state presentation, Margaret's worst fears unfolded: she was discovered in bed, in her own home, with her partner, Lydia.

Both feared for their lives as they were chased through the streets.

Thankfully, because of her standing as one of Africa’s top badminton players, she had some money in her pocket and a valid travel visa from the Glasgow Games, she was able to board a plane to Heathrow that very same day.  

For three months, Margaret lived on the streets of London alone before Lydia was able to join her.

"I managed to find the Ugandan community in north London, but I don't tell them who I am" Margaret said.

Several months later, they were split by the Home Office – Lydia was sent to Manchester, Margaret to Liverpool.  

But through all the life’s upheaval, turmoil and dark hours, Margaret admits her passion for badminton has never faltered.  Being on court was her happy place and one she found solice in.

Margaret beams when she talks about her best tournament result – in the All Africa Senior Championships – where she won bronze, but its about giving something back to the sport, despite her plight that brings the biggest smile.

“I love coaching children” Margaret said. “I’m so passionate about it and it helps me build my confidence. Through badminton, I can support other people who need help.  

Margaret quickly found herself a club and now plays three times a week for Kensington CF – something she admits has given her a new lease of life.

“The first thing I did when I came to England was Google where to play badminton near me,” she said. “I found out it was only ten minutes walk from my house which was amazing.

“I showed them how interested I was; I told them I wanted to play so they gave me a racket to borrow because I didn’t have anything to play with.

“They were very nice and they called me and said they really wanted me to play for the team.”  

Margaret is now reunited with Lydia and they currently live on less than £40 a week.

That has to cover phone, travel costs, feeding, clothing. I have started to play badminton here so I have to buy racquets, I have to buy shoes. It's just chicken change really" Margaret says. 

"But I have Lydia and she has me. I'm establishing my life again".

If I sit back and visualize it … from a sports star, to this. After the Glasgow games I was supposed to go for the All Africa games in Congo, and then the Open in America. But this is what I am today.

Unfortunately, Margaret’s own story may not have the same happy ending as some of the results she has enjoyed on court for club and country.  

Last year, Margaret and Lydia’s application for asylum was rejected, and they are currently in the midst of a second appeal against the decision.  But they have each other – and badminton.

“I love badminton. It has been part of me and a big part of my life,” Margaret said. ““We have club nights but they’re more like social nights. Through that I have managed to make many friends.

“ I can’t just let it go just like that” she added.  "If I sit back and visualize it … from a sports star, to this. After the Glasgow games I was supposed to go for the All Africa games in Congo, and then the Open in America.

"But this is what I am today"


 Photo credits: BadmintonPhoto (top, main) ; Liverpool Echo (insert)

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