Athletics is one of the relatively popular sports in Rwanda but the sport has produced some good athletes, who have carried high the national flag at different regional, continental and international competitions over the years.
The likes of Mathias Ntawulikuri, Dieudonne Disi, Marciana Mukamurenzi, Epiphanie Nyirabarame and Claudette Mukasakindi are some of the high profile names that have taken raised the country’s flag high in athletics.
With three of the four aforementioned individuals retired and the other (Mukasakindi) coming into the evening of her career, there are a few youngsters that have proved that they are ready take up the mantle—they include Salome Nyirarunkundo and Felicien Muhitira.
In this issue, Saturday Sports traces the journey of Muhitira who has worked his way up against all odds. And for the athlete it is just the beginning. “This is just the beginning. I aspire to do more and get better every day.”
The 22-year-old is fast becoming one of Rwanda’s top names in athletics-at least for the last three years. He has already represented the country in more than 30 international competitions, in Africa and beyond.
The middle and long distance runner was nicknamed ‘Magare’ which is derived from his background as a bicycle taxi rider. When still in school, he used to transport people on a bicycle to take care of his needs and support his family.
Fresh from winning the 14th Brazzaville International Half-marathon earlier this week, Muhitira narrated his journey from a bicycle taxi operator one of the country’s top athletes.
Who is Muhitira?
Born on November 4, 1994 in Gashora, Bugesera district, Eastern Province, Muhitira is the 2nd born child of Vincent Muganirizi and Donatha Mukabandora. He comes from a family of 4, including two boys and two girls.
The soft-spoken Muhitira attended Ecole Primaire Dihiro in his home village of Gashora before going to Groupe Scolaire Nkanga, also based in Bugesera, for ordinary level studies.
After two years, he moved to Espoir Kabarondo for one term in senior three before switching to ES Nyamugari where he sat for his Ordinary Level leaving examinations.
After taking up athletics as a profession in 2012 and excelling, Muhitira was in a dilemma to choose to stay in school or concentrate on developing his budding athletics career.
This happened when he was in senior four at ASPEK Ngoma where he was majoring in languages; English, French and Kinyarwanda (EFK)—his dream was to become a journalist.
In his own words, Muhitira says, “I think I was born with a gift to run but I didn’t realize it until 2012 when my games’ master at school (Leon Mutangana) noticed it and advised me to give it a try.”
“Before that, I used to play football and I even featured for all my former schools in national inter-schools championships,” he revealed.
Early days in athletics
When Muhitira decided to fully take up athletics five years ago, it was not a smooth beginning.
His first competition as a rookie in athletics was the 2012 national inter-schools championship, competing in the 5000 metres. Despite being a debutant, it did not take him long to adapt and actually beat those he found there.
He finished 2nd at the district level in Ngoma and won the Provincial competition representing Eastern Province before winning silver medal at the national championship staged in Nyanza district.
By finishing second at the national level, he automatically qualified to represent the country at the 2012 FEASSSA Games in Bujumbura, Burundi.
He travelled with the Rwandan delegation for the 12th edition of the annual competitions but never competed because he was busy supporting other Rwandan teams and by the time he got to the athletics venue, he found the race had already begun.
As an athlete, Muhitira’s dream was to be like legendary Disi, probably the best runner the country has ever known to date.
Fast forward and today, Disi is Muhitira’s mentor and uses his own networks to support him to compete in different international competitions such as the recent International Brazzaville half-marathon in the Republic of Congo.
One year of hard work into his athletics career, Muhitira started to impress officials of the local athletics governing body, RAF.
In June, 2013, he attended national qualifiers for the team to represent Rwanda at the 2013 IAAF African Junior championships in Mauritius and recorded the required minima in 10,000 metres.
It was his first time to compete in the 10,000 metres. He had been competing in 5000 metres but it took real courage to take up a new challenge at a longer distance.
“I don’t like settling for less than the best in what I do, that is what compelled me to compete in 10,000 metres even though I had not done it before. To achieve something you have never achieved, you have to do something that you have never done,” Muhitira told Saturday Sport.
At the 2013 IAAF African Junior Championship in Mauritius, Muhitira finished in a respectable 5th place and that was his last competition at the junior level.
Muhitira’s first senior international competition was the 2014 IAAF World Half-Marathon Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark where he posted his personal best of 1:02:31 despite finishing 41st.
Less than two months later, he made his debut at the annual Kigali International Peace Marathon on May 18, where he raced in the half marathon and finished in 7th place after using 1:05:39.
The youngster wound up his first year as a senior athlete and represented the country in the Men’s 10,000 metres at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, finishing 10th after clocking 28 minutes and 17 seconds.
He notes that, “I had a good first year in professional athletics. The results I got from all international competitions were good enough for a beginner. 2014 signaled a bright future and kept me pushing to work harder.”
The following year, Muhitira participated in six international competitions, namely; the East African Championships where he finished 7th in the men’s half-marathon, Kigali International Peace Marathon finishing 4th also in half-marathon, All Africa Games in Congo Brazzaville where he came 9th using 29 minutes in 10,000 metres.
He also represented Rwanda at the 2015 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Beijing, China coming 34th and the IAAF World Athletics Championships also hosted in Beijing where he finished 13th in the semi-finals of the 5000 metres but didn’t qualify for the final.
Muhitira also represented Rwanda Defense Forces (RDF) in the 2015 EAC Military Games held in Zanzibar and won a bronze medal in the 12km Cross Country race.
2016, a year for new horizons
After four years in professional athletics, the former Nyamasheke Athletics Club runner, Muhitira finally signed for a professional club, joining Italian team Potenza Picena in July 2017 thanks to his manager, Enrico Dionise.
Since joining the Siena-based team, Muhitira has featured in nine high profile competitions in Italy, winning three races and two first-runner up spots—he is looking forward to winning more silverware before his initial contract runs out on December 31.
He disclosed: “I am enjoying my career at Potenza. Being there has really helped me to grow professionally since we have regular competitions. I’m looking forward to renew my contract when the current one expires.”
Muhitira says he has had a lot of good moments in his athletics career and one of them is the friends he has made while competing in different parts of the world.
“But the top three best moments are; winning the bronze medal from the 2014 EAC Military Games, the gold medal from last month’s Semi Marathonde Marvejols-Mende in France and the gold medal from 14th Brazzaville International Half-marathon this week,” he noted.
He says, “My worst moment was in 2015 when I invested a lot of my time in training, preparing for the 2015 IAAF World Half-Marathon Championships in Cardiff, United Kingdom but I failed to travel due to financial constraints.”
What others say about him
APR Athletics Club’s John Hakizimana, a fellow long distance runner and his longtime friend, says, “Muhitira is a man of big ambitions. He always sets crazy goals and works really hard to achieve them. As a person, he is very friendly, funny and generous.”
The two represented the country at this year’s Brazzaville International Half-Marathon where Muhitira won gold, while compatriot Hakizimana settled for the bronze medal.