Eugene Murangwa: How a Genocide survivor is using football as a tool for social development

Eric Eugene Murangwa (with a trophy), who was Rayon Sports goalkeeper at the time of the Genocide, is seen with his UK-based Rwandan Diaspora team after beating their Syrian counterparts in a past charity match in London. Net Photos.

Eric Eugene Murangwa was playing football – as a goalkeeper – for Rayon Sports when the Genocide against the Tutsi started on April 7, 1994.

Earlier, as a young boy of 12 or 13, he had “followed in my father’s footsteps,” and became a fan of the biggest football club in the country, Rayon Sports.

“I enthusiastically attended the club’s training sessions, collecting balls kicked astray and, occasionally being asked to step-in for the goalkeeper when he was late or not available,” the 44-year-old said.

During the Genocide, Rayon Sports’ training ground was at Kaddafi Mosque in his neighbourhood of Nyamirambo.

“My talent was quickly noticed and Toto, as I became to be known, grew to become one of Rayon Sports’ best loved players, a fact that would later save my life.”

When the slaughter of the Tutsi peaked, Murangwa knew he was not safe at home. He fled to a teammate’s house.

While friends and colleagues across the country were being killed “by those who knew them most,” he recalls, his teammates looked beyond and remained supportive throughout the genocide.

“My teammate, Longin Munyurangabo, made sure that I and a number of other people were all looked after by providing protection, supplies and hope.”

Munyurangabo, who was not marked for murder, did not only look for food to feed his friends. He also got and passed on the information that enabled some to escape to safe areas of the city.

Murangwa says that his friend went the extra mile to negotiate with killers when they wanted to attack. “He paid his own money to free me from the Interahamwe militia.”

After the Genocide, Murangwa did humanitarian work in Bugesera for two months, before returning to Kigali.

Despite all the chaos and hardship, he still had one thing on his mind – playing football again. And, straightaway he started organising his former teammates so that they could play football again.

“With some few colleagues we worked hard to put the team together again. Within a very short time we had managed to bring back most of Rayon Sports players from exile and Rayon Sports Football Club was back and winning again!”

The first ever sports gathering after the Genocide was a football match between Rayon Sports and SC Kiyovu that took place just weeks after the Genocide had ended.

This game, he recalls, brought back a sense of life.

For the first time since the Genocide, Rwandans gathered to celebrate the return of peace and manifested hope for the future.

Murangwa would later on represent the country both at club and national level in international competitions. He was appointed the first post-Genocide national team captain.

But despite surviving the Genocide, it turned out that his safety was far from assured. 

“By 1995, there were bands of Interahamwe militia lurking in remote regions of Rwanda coming from neighbouring DR Congo (formerly Zaire). Their desire was to complete their mission; to wipe out the survivors,” he said.

“One of these groups was neutralised in late 1995, and one of the attackers had a list of targets to kill. My name was there.”

Three years after the Genocide, Murangwa left the country and did not return.

When the national football team played Tunisia away during the 1998 France World Cup qualifying games, instead of returning home, he stayed behind.

The risky move was a necessity, he says.

“Rwanda, my home, was no longer safe for me.”

Eric Eugene Murangwa.

Later on, he immigrated to Belgium and then finally to the UK in 1997.

Moving abroad meant he had to sacrifice his footballing career. But, Murangwa never gave up his passion and gratitude for the sport that saved his life.

He then reinvented himself by channelling the love and passion he had for football “into using the power of the ‘beautiful game’ for social impact and peace building.”

Surviving the Genocide itself was one thing, he said, but finding a reason to carry on is even a bigger challenge. According to him, the answer to this big challenge lies in survivors’ unwavering mission to ensure genocide is eradicated once and for all.

“Genocide does not destroy lives and properties only, it destroy people’s feelings, values and dreams.”

In 2017, he created an organisation that brings young people together under one umbrella called ‘Ishami Foundation’. The foundation has programmes that use sports for social development and educational storytelling activities.

He feels that, as a survivor, he has a duty and responsibility to use his experience and voice to help future generations learn from history and stop repeating the mistakes of the past.

“This is why I have dedicated my life to working toward developing critical thinking among young people and hopefully instilling in them the spirit of compassion and empathy to make our world a better place.”

Ishami Foundation brings together two of his old organisations – Survivors Tribune and Football for Hope, Peace and Unity.

‘Ishami’ is a Kinyarwanda word that means, a ‘branch’, symbolizing resilience, recovery and connection.

His foundation, he explains, draws on Genocide survivors’ experiences to “connect us all to our common humanity” through sport and storytelling in Rwanda and the UK.

“Our vision is to promote equality, diversity and lasting peace, and to train young people to be engaged and responsible citizens and, respectful of each other’s differences. Our motto is ‘Changing Lives Through Football and Storytelling’.”

The foundation was co-founded by Murangwa and a fellow survivor, Jo Moys Ingabire and is chaired by Dr Zoe Norridge, a Senior Lecturer at King’s College London.

Many of his teammates survived the 1994 Genocide, he said.

“Having lived through discrimination, social polarisation and violence, we understand the importance of peace and tolerance in our societies.  We are committed to helping communities in Rwanda and the UK learn from our experiences. We currently focus on communicating the lessons of the past through two strands of activity: sport and storytelling.”

They work with survivors, young people and vulnerable communities.  Their activities empower participants by fostering respect, team spirit, critical thinking and resilience.

They use sport, especially football, to empower young people, foster tolerance, teamwork, critical thinking and active citizenship.

“We do this by coaching and convening matches, mostly for young people, drawing on our sport for social change model.  During these activities, we take time to remember the victims of genocide.

“We also use storytelling, especially genocide survival testimonies, to preserve the memory of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda and other modern era genocides.”

When he initiated Football for Hope Peace and Unity (FHPU) in 2010, Murangwa says, his main goal was, and still is, to try and use the power of the ‘beautiful game’ to move on from the catastrophic events of the Genocide and build a better future.

Through FHPU’s work they have contributed to a number of community programmes that delivered tangible results in the area of community cohesion, peace building, community health and wellbeing, and active citizenship, both in UK and Rwanda.

Their football exchange usually includes football training, matches, and workshops in the form of public speaking and film documentary screenings, trying to engage with the general public on issues that matter the most to the community.

Today, Murangwa resides in London where he spends most  of his time working on the foundation activities and has “little time for social life.”

“The only other thing that I use my time for is to spend time with my 14-year-old son. He carries the surname of my young brother who was killed during the Genocide. He is another reason why I do what I do today because I really don’t want him to experience what I experienced.

“He is a big football fan, just like me when I was his age. He supports Chelsea, and I support Arsenal.”

Murangwa’s other main focus is to make sure that Rwandans and the world at large are learning from the history to “make sure that we won’t repeat the mistakes of the past.”

“Through my foundation, our focus during this 25th commemoration is to educate young people and keep raising awareness about the Genocide against the Tutsi, both in the UK and Rwanda.

“We are doing this with our two key tools; Storytelling and Sport.”

Murangwa was last year awarded an MBE award during the Queen’s New Year’s Honours for raising awareness and his educational activities about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in UK schools.

Member of the most excellent order of the British Empire (MBE) award is given for an outstanding achievement or service to the community.