Sports for people with physical disabilities may not be very popular in the country but that has not stopped sitting volleyball to be successful at home and beyond the Rwandan borders.
Rwanda participated at the Summer Paralympics Games—in 2012 (men) and the women team will carry the flag at the 2016 Rio Games, next month.
In 2011, Rwanda became the first African country from the Sub-Saharan zone to qualify for the 2012 London Paralympics, four years after the sport was introduced in the country.
Four years later, Rwanda women sitting volleyball team made history at the Para Volley Africa Sitting Volleyball Championships by qualifying for 2016 Rio Paralympics after coming from behind to beat favourites Egypt 3-2 in the gold-medal match in Kigali.
As the team gears up for their remarkable debut at the Summer Games set for September 7-18, Saturday Sport profiles the team captain Liliane Mukobwankawe, who has been at the forefront of the hard fought journey since 2012.
Born an able bodied child, Mukobwankawe says she grew up with “too much passion for sports.”
In her childhood her family shifted from Kamonyi to leave in Kigali and settled at Gisimenti near the famous hotel ‘Chez Lando.’
“Because I was born normal, I grew up playing basketball and I still like it very much, besides by then I had never seen or heard of a sport called sitting volleyball,” she told Saturday Sport in interview.
At the age of seven, Mukobwankawe was knocked down by a speeding car that left her with broken right thigh borne (femur), an incident she says was the turning point of her life.
“My parents had sent me to buy milk from Ndoli Supermarket and as I crossed the road, I got knocked down by a car that broke my leg. I did not get proper medication and as I was recovering, the bone got deformed but I never realized it was serious because I could walk freely and played basketball,” she says.
However, she says, things changed for the worst when, while in senior two (2005) and playing for her school during inter-school basketball competition, she collided with an opponent again knocking the same injured right leg and since then she has never been able to walk without help of clutches.
Narrating her touching story, Mukobwankawe noted, “At first I believed that I would recover fully and but as much as my family tried all possible means to have my leg reconstructed, nothing changed, so I had to accept my new way of life.”
In 2007 while in senior four, she met a man at school she only recalls as Venuste, who first told her of sitball that had just been introduced in Rwanda, and advised her to join them—that is when she met Dominic Bizimana, the then president of NPC-Rwanda.
As fate would have it, there was a sitball championship that had been organized in Kigali at NPC Gymnasium and she was immediately recruited by a team called Imena.
“It was my first time to see the game but I integrated very quickly that each player was passing me the ball to make a goal and I liked it mainly because I found people that share the same life challenges like mine,” she explains.
After one year, she left Imena and joined Nyarugenge-based Troupe Handicapee Tuzuzanye (THT) Club where he played for one year before crossing to Intwari in Kicukiro where she was appointed captain and later the club vice president, roles she holds to date.
In the same year, she captained the national women’s team that made a debut at the Sitball World Championships that took place in Kampala.
Sitting volleyball career
After London 2012, NPC-Rwanda’s plan was to start focusing on creating a women’s team to reach another qualification for Rio 2016.
The programme was initiated that year and started with 30 players from different parts of the country and was conducted by head coach Peter Karreman, working alongside Elie Manirarora.
Finally, they managed to have 12 players on the national team and Mukobwankawe was appointed the captain.
She recalls that: “The earlier days were really tough because it was a bit challenging to shift from sitball to sitting volleyball but I was very determined to make the final 12-player squad.”
The coaches worked out a four-year training plan, and a programme dubbed “Towards Rio 2016 Women Sitting Volleyball Team” was implemented.
In August 2014, Rwanda sitting volleyball team won the East African Championship title after beating Kenya 3-2 in Nairobi, after which the Ministry of Sports and Culture approved to fund the team’s training camp ahead of the African Championship.
The following year (2015), the Rwandan women achieved their biggest milestone thus far by winning the Africa Paravolley Championship held in Kigali hence qualifying for the 2016 Rio Paralympics Games.
Mukobwankawe and her colleagues came back from a 2-1 set deficit to defeat Egypt 3-2 in the gold-medal match. The win secured a qualification slot for Rwanda at Rio 2016, the first time an African women’s sitting volleyball team has qualified for the Summer Paralympics.
“It was a golden moment, the one you can’t believe that has happened because honestly Egypt were stronger, more experienced and everyone’s favourites but we made it due to sheer determination and team spirit,” Mukobwankawe noted.
Born on January 6, 1989 in Kamonyi District, Southern Province to Emmanuel Karangwa (RIP) and Agnes Uwiregye, Mukobwankawe is the last born in the family of seven — three girls and four boys.
Mukobwankawe, who is married with two children currently lives in Remera, Gasbao District, and City of Kigali with her husband Eric Karasira, the secretary general of the National Paralympic Committee (NPC).
She attended Remera Catholic School for her primary education before joining ASPAD Ngororero for Ordinary level and completed her Advanced level in 2009 at Saint Bernadette in Kamonyi District.
Despite being a mother, the national team captain, is a businesswoman. She runs a costume shop in Remera, and also plans to further her education at University next year, if everything goes according to plan.
Best and worst moments
She says, “Like I mentioned earlier, to qualify for Rio Paralympics Games ranks up there as my best moment in my career so far and the worst moment was the period when I first started to play sitting volleyball.”
Future plans and ambitions
“My target is going to Tokyo in 2020 again; Rio is like a stepping stone to give us the experience and then the real appetite to start working for Tokyo 2020.”
“I have three people in my life I feel grateful to, they include my mum, who has been so supportive all my life, my husband Karasira, we met in NPC and we loved each other and later got married and lastly Dominic Bizimana, who encouraged me since the day I met him at NPC until today.”
What others say about her
The sitting volleyball team assistant coach, Jean Marie Nsengiyumva says of her, “She is very useful to the team, not just as a leader, but also socially.”