April 2019 marks 25 years since the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, during which over one million lives were lost in a span of only 100 days.
For the individual victims, traumatic memories cannot be escaped, whereas for the Rwandan society, the Genocide has had – and still has – profound effects.
However, the country – and survivors in particular – have since made a choice not to be held back or defined by the tragic history. The once-called a ‘failed state’ is now a beacon of hope.
Born in Muhanga District of Southern Province, Tharcisse Kamanda, the president of Rwanda Rugby Federation (RRF), says he stared death in the eye together with his mother and family two decades and a half ago.
Kamanda lost his father and two brothers among the estimated one million Rwandans who were massacred during the one hundred days. Miraculously, he says, he was able to survive with his mother.
He says the Genocide commemoration period is always a heavy period for him and his family, but, through rugby, Kamanda found a new family and friends who have been around him throughout hardships. The sport has played a huge role in the last 25 years of his life.
He attributes it to Emma Rees, a Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), who introduced the game to students in Rwanda in 2001 with two balls and sand filled socks to mark out the pitch and later played a role in the formation of the national team, the Silverbacks.
After two years, Friends of Rwandan Rugby (FoRR) charity was founded, and at that time, it was estimated that at least 90 per cent of the child population had witnessed the bloodshed firsthand. Rees believed that rugby could play a big role in healing the nation.
The game attracted the attention of many young men, including Kamanda, who immediately devoted his time to rugby, and went on to feature for Kigali Sharks club and the national team.
Today, Kamanda is a pioneer in the sport. He is president of the rugby federation, a former player, referee and trainer. He is still a member of FoRR, offering the same services he was introduced to as a young man. He also previously served two terms as secretary-general of the local rugby body.
Tharcisse Kamanda standing next to his mother with whom they narrowly survived death during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, in which his father and two brothers were killed. File
In its mission, FoRR states that rugby is a powerful sport for building trust and fostering shared experience. As a member, Kamanda believes that “rugby has been a social-fabric building tool.”
“The contact sport has played a part in building very strong relationships and friendships, not only among players but the fans as well. Players need to be friends with their teammates so they take care of each other on the pitch.”
Since 2011, Kamanda serves as the Schools Commissioner on the FoRR committee.
“Through this programme, we provide the opportunity to coordinate our work in schools with that of the federation in an effort to grow the game,” he explains.
“Playing rugby has helped me forge valuable friendship with many people. The sport has offered me the passion, honour and discipline on top of helping me to forget about the past and focus on the future,” says Kamanda.
Kamanda recalls when the sport was first introduced in Rwanda 18 years ago, the wounds of genocide were still fresh and many Rwandans struggled with trauma.
The sport is played even in the remotest areas of the country today; the federation regularly organises different tournaments, including the national championship and the Genocide Memorial Tournament, and the federation has created links with international charities in Britain, Australia and Scotland. It is a member of International Rugby Association.
Kamanda officially retired from competitive rugby in 2016, and immediately ventured into the sport’s administration.
RRF is a full associate member of the International Rugby Board (IRB), while the national team ‘Silverbacks’, which played its first international match against Zambia in 2003, features in various competitions on the continent and beyond.
Currently, there are 12 clubs and over 700 rugby players in the country.