Jimy Mugabo has a dream. A dream about rugby in Rwanda. In this dream, he envisions Rwandan kids growing up to play what he believes is the most honourable team sport in the world and represent their country in international tournaments. “And our President Kagame will be there to cheer them on!”, he adds with a big smile.

It is a hot afternoon in Kigali and we are at Don Bosco Technical School in Gatenga, Kicukiro District. The large sports grounds on its premises are used by kids and teens from the wider area. It is bustling with youngsters: some are playing soccer, others occupy the volleyball and basketball courts and tucked away in a corner, but very audible, is a group of Burundi drummers rehearsing their beats and dance routine.

“Kids sometimes walk for miles to come here and play sports”, says Mugabo. “That is how important it is to them. And so it is also important to us”.

Although rugby has existed for more than fifteen years in Rwanda, it wasn’t until 2012 that people started to take notice, when the Rwandan team under 19 had a successful run at the Safaricom Sevens in Kenya, making it all the way to the finals. In the slipstream of this success, Rwandan rugby players decided their sports needed a better organised structure.

“Now there are 74 schools involved in rugby and eight senior teams playing in the national league, four in Kigali and four in rural areas”, says Serge Shema, one of the players from that ‘golden generation’. The current number one team in the league is Thousand Hills Rugby from Kigali and Serge is in charge of managing the club.

Building self-esteem

Head coach, and former captain of the Rwandan national team, Mugabo, can barely contain his enthusiasm for the club that he helped initiate.  “We have about a hundred players at the club, a third of which are senior players and the rest are kids, some of whom are girls. Sometimes they start as young as 9 or 10 so we play touch-and-tag rugby, which is more playful.”

“We teach kids the rules and the values of rugby: discipline, respect, integrity, passion and solidarity. This builds dignity and self-esteem. The kids bring these values into their daily lives and learn to treat other people well. Thousand Hills Rugby is a family. We take care of each other and we do umuganda (community work) together.”

Mugabo continues: “Most of these kids come from humble families. They don’t have much, yet they are so excited to play rugby they show up at every training, even if perhaps they have not eaten a proper meal or had to walk for an hour.”

A few years ago, the Don Bosco grassy field was reserved exclusively for soccer and the small group of rugby fanatics were told they could only practice on the small strip behind the goals posts.  Then one day, when the field was empty they ventured onto the big field but were chased away by the supervisor.

Mugabo recalls, “I was so frustrated, I literally had tears in my eyes. This was the moment the supervisor realised how passionate we are about rugby and he changed his mind”.  Today, the field has designated ‘soccer practice days’ and ‘rugby practice days’, and sometimes they split the field.  “This is how it is for us,” says Mugabo proudly. “We fight our way in by showing our dedication and values and in the end, that pays off.”

1000 Hills Rugby
Jimy Mugabo (middle), Serge Shema (left) and Jean d’Amour Nsengimana (right)

Rugby Sevens Event

Mugabo, Shema, and Jean d’Amour Nsengimana, another rugby player who is the treasurer of the club, form the heart of Thousand Hills Rugby. Together, they run the club, organise the practice and coaching, run the website, create press material and try to find sponsors.

On September 1, the club will organise their annual Sevens event. The top four teams from Rwanda will be invited, as will teams from neighbouring countries like Burundi, Uganda and DR Congo. “We are always looking for sponsors and gain press attention to get rugby more in the public eye,” Mugabo continues. “It is not easy because we all have fulltime jobs but given a choice we would dedicate all our time to rugby. There is so much to improve on still.“

What are the barriers for rugby in Rwanda?

“The main thing that is holding back Rwandan rugby is lack of facilities, lack of grass pitches, lack of trained coaches and lack of understanding of rugby.  We don’t even have bibs for training and we dream of having our own jersey with our Thousand Hills logo on it.

It would especially mean a lot to the kids, to actually see a club jersey and feel validated as a member of a club. And we also like to have the rugby rules translated in Kinyarwanda, so the kids can read through them after practice.”

Practice has started. There are no changing rooms, so everyone changes into sports gear on the side of the field. Kids show up wearing the familiar green slippers, the ones kids from villages all over the country wear. The field is split in two, one part for the senior team’s practice and the other half for the kids. A couple of girls also join.  A few soccer kids stay and watch.

“Sports is a powerful, unifying tool for development and social inclusion in Rwanda,” says Mugabo.  “I hope that all sports can find a place in Rwanda: soccer, cricket, cycling,” before adding, with a smile, “but I am most passionate about rugby.”

This article was published in New Times Rwanda, 17 August 2018