To basketball fanatics, he is the new kid on the block. 17-year-old Armel Sangwe sent shockwaves in the basketball league after posting a career high 35 points in Espoir’s 100-77 defeat of defending champions Rwanda Energy Group (REG) last weekend. The 17-year-old is a refugee who fled political unrest in Burundi with his family in 2015. Little did he know, three years later, he would be making headlines in a country in another country.
“I feel at home in Rwanda, a country that warmly welcomed me, and is now educating me and shaping my basketball dream. To be honest, I’m still a raw talent with so much to learn, but I would say everything is unfolding well so far,” Sangwe said on Thursday in an exclusive interview.
Asked what would be his view if he was scouted to play for the Rwanda national team, Sangwe replied without hesitation, “I would absolutely grab the opportunity real quick, no question about that.”
Who is Sangwe?
The last born from a family of four (three boys and one girl), Sangwe was born to Bernard Kagwire and Christine Sabiyumva on April 15, 2000 in Jabe, Bujumbura - Burundi.
He attended Saint Gabriel Primary School in Rohero, another suburb in Bujumbura before going to CPBU Buyenzi for O’level studies.
However, after senior one, his family was forced to flee to Rwanda due to the unrest in Burundi. In Rwanda, he continued his ordinary level studies at College Marie Raine in Muhanga district.
After two years at Saint Marie Raine, Sangwe moved to APE Rugunga in early 2017 for his A’level studies, majoring in Mathematics, Economics and Geography (MEG).
Sangwe revealed that his love affair with basketball started when he was about six years, mostly fuelled by his elder brother Derrick Irakoze, who was a basketball player.
“I was born in a neighbourhood where the only sport I knew was basketball, we lived next to basketball facilities and all the country’s elites played from there. That’s how I and my brother found ourselves there,” he says.
Jabe is famously known for producing Burundi’s best basketball players, some of which Sangwe grew up aspiring to emulate—they include; Urunani Basketball Club and Burundi internationals Elvis Hakizimana and Blaise Nikobahoze.
After starting school at Saint Gabriel, Sangwe realised the primary school only had football grounds and his home neighborhood only had a basketball court, this forced him to try out both games until secondary school level when he decided to solely focus on basketball where he felt he had a competitive advantage.
At the age of 14, in 2014, Sangwe was scouted and recruited by Gymkhana Basketball Club where he helped the club to finish second in the second division basketball league, behind champions Mutanga United, who got promoted to topflight league.
In 2015, when he moved to Rwanda, his talent was quickly noticed at Marie Raine and immediately joined the school’s basketball team and the following year, he led the team to the semi-finals of the national inter-schools championship.
2017, a year of success
In 2017, Sangwe won three titles with APE Rugunga, one with Espoir, reached one final and won a bronze medal in play-off games and finished fourth in the national basketball championship.
Sangwa was named the best young player of the season by Rwanda Basketball Federation and claimed the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in FEASSSA Games held last August in Gulu, Uganda.
In his first year at APE Rugunga, Sangwe helped the school to win three competitions including the national inter-schools championship after beating ETENI Gisenyi in the final, defeated Lycée de Kigali to win Sebamed tourney and won the FEASSSA title after overcoming Budo SS of Uganda in the final.
Sangwe also made his debut in the national basketball league after signing a two-year contract with former champions, Espoir.
In the 2016/2017 season, Sangwe helped the Nyamirambo-based side to win the local edition of Gisembe Genocide Memorial tournament after beating Rwanda Energy Group in the final. However, REG returned the favour a week later to win the regional edition.
Sangwe also helped Espoir to finish third in the play-off after beating Albert Buhake’s IPRC-Kigali in the best-of-three series.
Historic performance against REG
Sangwe might have had a great display of talent in 2017, but everything went almost unnoticed.
However, the 17-year-old dominated headlines last week when he led the demolishing of reigning league champions REG at Amahoro Indoor Stadium, scoring a career high 35 points for Maxime Mwiseneza’s Espoir.
He admits that, “It was a crazy night; I could not believe we beat REG and I scored 35 points. But for sure, the victory was out of hard work.”
“Despite the team (Espoir) having a shaky start to the season, I personally feel I’m in better shape than last season and I can only hope to keep getting better with more experience.”
Dream before retirement
Very analytical and thoughtful in conversations, very few people would disagree Sangwe is too mature for his age.
When asked what he wishes to achieve before his retirement, he said “I would love to play professional basketball, preferably in the United States, but if it doesn’t work out, France would be the second option. I believe that with discipline and hard work, I can achieve my dream.”
Sangwe, whose contract with Espoir expires at the end of the ongoing 2017/2018 season, is open to discussing renewal with the club management or else he will be left with no choice but to accept offers from elsewhere.
Sangwe’s best five
Tasked to name his best five players currently playing in the national league, the teenager, without adding his name, picked: point-guard Gilbert Ijimbere (IPRC-Kigali), shooting-guard Sedar Sagamba (Patriots), small forward Pascal Niyonkuru (Espoir), power-forward Ally Ruzigande (APR) and REG’s center Kami Kabange.