During the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Tharcisse Kamanda was only 13 years old. But he recalls the terror and killings which saw them flee their home to seek refuge in a camp along with his mother, sister and brothers.
As a young boy, he is one of those who lost their beloved ones—his father and brothers were among the estimated over one million Rwandans who were massacred in a space of just 100 days.
Born in Muhanga district, Southern Province, Kamanda along with his mother, sister and brother stared death in the eye but with the grace of God, survived by seeking refuge in an internally displaced people’s camp called COFORWA.
Twenty-three years down the road, Kamanda has been able to progressively heal his emotional wounds thanks to the sport of rugby.
The 36-year-old is currently the secretary general of the Rwanda Rugby Federation (RRF), whose role is to promote and develop the sport in the country.
“Playing rugby has helped me forge friendship with many people. Rugby has given me the passion, integrity and discipline on top of helping me to forget about the past and focus on the future,” Kamanda told Saturday Sport in an exclusive interview.
He added that, “As one of the pioneers on national team, the sport has given me the future I never thought I would have, it makes me feel alive today. I have travelled to different countries including United Kingdom, Hong Kong and many African countries.”
As RRF general secretary, his responsibilities include running the daily work of the federation as well as working closely with the federation technical director to detect young talent especially in schools.
Before 2001, rugby was barely known in Rwanda and Kamanda recalls when the sport was first introduced, the wounds of genocide were still fresh and many Rwandans were still struggling to overcome the trauma.
“Rugby, just like football, basketball, volleyball and many others, has brought about unity and reconciliation among Rwandans, who had been divided by the genocide—it started with the players, who play together on the same teams without any discrimination and then the fans,” he stated.
Today the sport is played even in the remote areas of the country; the federation organizes different tournaments including the national championship, and has created links with international charities in Britain, Australia and Scotland.
History of rugby in Rwanda
In 2001, a British worker called Emma Rees introduced the game to select schools in the City of Kigali. A year later, the Ministry of Sports and Culture (MINISPOC) approved the formation of the national rugby federation and two years later, Friends of Rwandan Rugby charity was founded.
Kamanda was one of Ree’s first students, while playing for Muhanga-based Groupe Scolaire Shyogwe. He played for the national team before retiring in 2016.
“As a small, innovative charity, it teaches the joys of rugby to boys and girls in some of the most impoverished regions of Rwanda,” says Kamanda, one of its members.
The charity’s mission is to promote reconciliation through sport, using rugby to build trust, friendships and fostering shared experiences on and off the rugby field. Sport plays a big role in healing wounds caused by the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi.
Kamanda notes that rugby is a powerful sport for building trust and fostering shared experience, “We believe that it can be used as a social-fabric building tool, especially in a country such as Rwanda which has been working to build the unity destroyed by the events of the past.”
“Rugby being a contact sport, helps build very strong relationships and friendships because players need to be friends with their teammates so that they take care of each other on and off the field. As a survivor, I have witnessed this first hand, first as a player and now as an administrator,” he noted.
Today, Rwanda Rugby Federation is a full associate member of the International Rugby Board (IRB). The national team (Silverbacks) made its international debut in 2003 against Zambia in the African Rugby Cup Division 2.
The Silverbacks are ranked 96th out of 103 nations in the World Ruby rankings. Last year, the team played in the fourth tier of the 2016 African Cup, but lost to DR Congo in the East Division final at Amahoro National Stadium.
Currently, there are nine rugby clubs and over 600 senior players featuring in the national championship.
In 2014, the local rugby body formed a partnership with Scottish Rugby Union through which Rwanda would get assistance in terms of training coaches and equipment.
Last year in September, Scotland 7s team captain, Scott Wight was in Kigali and worked with local coaches and the national team to help Rwanda qualify for future seven-a-side competitions.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to be in Rwanda, a country that was troubled by genocide, to pass on my rugby knowledge to the young players. The enthusiasm by the kids to learn the sport is huge. There is talent and really a bright future in this country,” Wright said.
Kamanda is the Rwandan Friends of Rugby Program Manager and his team has introduced the sport in over 74 primary and 56 secondary schools.