Once upon a time, I was, like many Rwandans, not based in my country. In that other land, I picked up a sport called rugby.
When I came to Rwanda, permanently, in 2005, I knew there was rugby in the country. I had played against the Rwandan side during the Whitespoon rugby tournament hosted by Zambia in 2003. Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and hosts Zambia took part.
I however didn’t know the game had existed pre-1994 in Rwanda.
In 2005, Rugby still seemed raw to Rwandans. Little did I know that the game was actually played in the country as far back as 1980. Compared to the other rugby playing East African countries, this was still relatively young.
According to Rwanda rugby federation’s Secretary General, Janvier Ugeziwe, the idea of starting Rugby in Rwanda is dated around 1980. It was by some individuals from France working in the country.
“In 1987 there were three teams; two in Kigali at Cercle Sportif de Kigali and one in Groupe Scolaire Saint André. Another was created at the National University of Rwanda initiated by staff from a project called LOIRET,” Ugeziwe said in an email.
Just like the rest of the country, rugby was also dealt a mighty blow by the bad politics that culminated into the Genocide against the Tutsi.
“From 1994 to 2000 there are no registered rugby activities in Rwanda,” Ugeziwe highlights.
However, like everything in the country, Rugby also rose again. It is now flourishing and spirits among players and fans are ever so high.
According to Emma Reese who was working as a volunteer with VSO in Rwanda, in 2001, a former French national rugby star, Pierre Hoffer and herself reintroduced the sport.
“In 2001, Pierre Hofer was working with the Red Cross in Kigali and started men’s rugby, training at Cercle Sportif. I started rugby at Shoygwe Secondary school and also supported Apred Ndera,” Reese narrates in an email.
“I met Hoffer in June 2002 and in September started sharing ideas with Philip Gakirage and Alexis Kamanzi on how to make the game permanent.
There was a meeting with the Olympic Committee at the end of 2002 where we shared our plans for club and school development. This is when the Federation was formed,” Emma reveals.
According to Alphonse Umugire who was among the pioneer players and currently coaching the UNR Grizzlies of which he was a co-founder, another French man, Yves Rigal, a Portuguese whom he could only recall as Julien, Alexis Kamanzi and Dr.Nyirinkwaya played a vital role in the revival of the sport.
“Some of the players who eventually made the national side were Ngongo, Jean Paul a.k.a Mwisho, Janvier Bonane, Lucien Bikamba, Eric Mbarushimana, among others,” Umugire said.
Bikamba and Mbarushimana are still on the national 7s, 10s and 15s sides.
Reese learnt that rugby existed in the country pre-1994 from Paul Nyibanda who used to be the prefet des etude and Headmaster of Shoygwe.
“I don’t think he actually played. It was a long time ago but it was something about them (Rwandans) playing at Butare University,” Reese recollects.
Rwandan rugby has since had many expatriates coming in and helping it out. One cannot go without mentioning Brendan Stanbury who got the national side and clubs in 2004 jerseys and also played for Remera Buffaloes.
The Friends of Rwanda Rugby charity based in the UK founded by Reese and Deena Aiken is also doing a great job promoting tag and schools rugby annually in the country. It also collects and donates mountains of jerseys for Rwandan players.
Recently, Hong Kong born Englishman Dave Hughes came on board. He is now the Honorary Director of the rugby federation. He is the brain child of the Hong Kong tours the Rwandan team is taking part in.
The federation has also evolved in terms of leadership. At its helm it has had Alexis Kamanzi (two terms), Solange Uwingabiye and currently Otto Vianney Muhinda.
The federation has, since 2007, had its offices at the National Amahoro Stadium. Its biggest challenge is acquiring a home rugby ground but the number of players and fans is growing at a very encouraging and steady pace. There are over eight clubs countrywide and over twenty active rugby playing schools.
The author is a rugby player and trainer.