Heart of Africa: Keeping the spirit of sports alive

Kabagire (L) with the girls after performing at a game

They wore blue and white outfits. And when they emerged on stage, spectators at a basketball game at the Kigali Arena shouted in excitement. This happened last month at the Patriots vs Rwanda Energy Group (REG) game.

A group of 11 girls make up the cheerleading team — Heart of Africa — that lit up the arena. They danced, jumped and swayed as they hailed the players and the audience as well. They were meant to entertain and cheer, and they did.

Whereas cheerleading is a fairly new and foreign concept in the country, Heart of Africa is playing the part in bringing the idea home.

The girls enjoy what they do because most of them have held this as a dream for such a long time.

Therese de l’enfant Jesus Ikirezi Burere, one of the girls on the cheerleading team, says that their role as cheerleaders is to entertain and make the audience enjoy the game.

Cheerleading is a fairly new and foreign concept in the country. The girls flip, stunt and jump as they sing and chant slogans. /Courtesy photos 

She has always admired cheerleaders right from her childhood, that’s why when this opportunity came; she didn’t think twice about embracing it.

“When I was invited to be a part of this, I knew in that moment that my time had come, it was my turn to shine,” she says.

Burere is a basketball player and has so far learnt that for one to be a good cheerleader, they have to love it first, and also understand the physical abilities required by the game.

“It requires one to have enough physical exercise. You have to do a lot of sports for your body to be flexible.”

Her favourite memory as a cheerleader was the first time she cheered. She recalls the experience as exciting but scary, because of the crowd. “The people were many I almost fainted but I made it.”

Albina Sydney Kirenga, the team’s captain, explains that on a normal game day, they are expected to cheer for players and afterwards, during half-time, they dance to a particular music mix.

The girls flip, stunt and jump as they sing and chant slogans.

“Personally, I am a contemporary dancer, that’s why I don’t train much but just do my random dancing routine. Cheerleading used to be my teenage dream and when the opportunity came I surely seized it,” she says.

Dressing up as a cheerleader for the first time in Rwanda and entering while smiling and dancing in front of a full Kigali Arena stands out in her memories of cheerleading.

As much as Kirenga enjoys what she does, she holds fears of possible mishaps during a performance.

“I sometimes fear that I will do moves in a non-appropriate way ‘culture wise’ or lose concentration on stage including the vibe or force.”

She has, hence, mastered the art of flexibility and being a go-getter, noting that this is what it takes to be good at cheerleading.

Cheerleading also demands that one maintains good looks (small sized body and nice facials) to be confident, be a naturally fun person and mostly, a dance/music lover, she says.

A promising future

Elsie Nina Murigo believes that cheerleading has a bright future, and this she attributes to the potential held by the sport.

She understands that being a cheerleader doesn’t require that much, apart from being passionate about dancing and all other things that come with keeping one’s body in shape.

She also believes that her role as a cheerleader is to first of all be herself, smile, be confident and courageous.

Cheerleading excites her, it enables her to find herself and express what she feels, this is why she joined the sport, she says.

The team cheers for players and afterwards dance to a particular music mix.

“Normal game day for me is always exciting, except for the first day, I couldn’t believe that I was about to dance in front of all those people, I was also curious about how they would react when they first saw us. But it all went well and now all I feel when I’m about to cheer is excitement. My biggest fear is to stop cheerleading because I’m living my dream and I don’t to want to wake up,” she explains.

Just like her peers, her workout regimen is to always eat healthy and exercise. She mostly does morning jogs before work.

How it all started

Christelle Kabagire, the manager and brains behind Heart of Africa cheerleaders, had gone for a basketball game when she realised that something was missing to spice up such games.

Yes, there were musicians that would hop in to entertain the crowd during half-time; however, she believed that something more could be done to make the games more fun.

“The first time I went to the arena, I felt like that place wasn’t fully utilised because it was huge and people would need other people to raise their morale and that of the players,” she says.

She subsequently went through with her plans, reaching out to those in charge of the arena and thereafter creating a team.

“It was more like taking a risk, you know doing something but you don’t know what’s going to come out of it, because this whole idea is something new in Rwanda,” she says.

Kabagire says a number of factors have come into play for this idea to turn into reality, noting that the girls’ vigour has had such a big role in this.

Christelle  Kabagire,  Heart of Africa’s initiator. 

“The girls were ready and I love the fact that they all have team spirit. At one point, I failed to get a choreographer while preparing for a game but they were all willing to come up with something, and in the end, it was all beautiful,” she says.

“The first performance, we got our outfits, pompoms, shoes and we went and performed. It was something really amazing, we were trending on twitter and people were appreciating,” she narrates.

Kabagire is proud of her work and the entire team’s efforts, saying that with the reception they’ve had so far, she believes that they will take cheerleading places.

Because cheerleading is more of a western concept, Kabagire made it a point to customise it with an emphasis to preserve decency.

“Our culture is crucial this is why I mind about what the girls are going to wear. Decency is key for me, I have to make sure they have body stockings, and underneath the body stockings they are wearing something as well.”

The girls are mostly between the ages of 20 and 23, and this platform, Kabagire believes, will serve as a stepping stone in developing their lives all together.

“This means a lot for the girls because again they gain a lot. They gain self-discipline and develop self-confidence, not forgetting the physical benefits of being fit.”

For those who disregard the sport all together for being foreign, Kabagire says it all zeroes down to adaption.

“Even basketball is a western culture; it’s not ours because we never introduced it. We just need to adapt, but how do we perfect this and not make it look so foreign? That’s when decency comes in; we have to be decent in that even when the President is comes watch the match, it won’t be inappropriate.” 

So far the girls are 11 but in total she plans on having 15 girls and 5 boys.

Right now her team is mostly performing for basketball games but she says she is ready to perform for other games as well.

editor@newtimesrwanda.com