We are in the Rwanda team bus coming from dinner at the Harare Sports Club, the ladies are in high spirits after picking up a one wicket win over fellow newcomers Mozambique; a real nail biter which went down to the last over. It was quite a scrappy affair but as they say, “a win is a win“. Team manager Victoria Gahonzire is leading the celebrations on the bus, interspersed with some jokes about the game, especially at the expense of team coach Joshua Mwanja who was particularly feeling the pressure before the win came.
Joshua Mwanja, a Ugandan national, is as much a Rwandan as any other in the squad having been part of the set up since 2010. He dropped by our room to console Uganda after a heart breaking loss to Namibia that ultimately ended our hopes for a World Cup. I am sharing a room with Head Coach Michael Ndiko, who is a former teammate of Joshua during their national team days, there were also teammates at Wanderers CC before I joined.
While we lick our wounds, the Rwandans are in raptures on the bus, the girls sing songs together with team management, even RCA CEO Emmanuel Birigirino gets sucked into the mood. Together they live in the moment. This is a proud moment for them as a cricketing nation, and a measure of how far the team – and their country – has come.
This is a memorable time for the squad; the first time a Rwandan Women’s team has participated in an ICC event, and I chat with Joshua Mwanja – who balances his roles as development manager with coaching the development sides – on how far they have come.
“Part of the criteria for us to take part in this tournament was that we should have a ladies league and currently we have ten clubs competing in two divisions, as well as some schools that are promoting girls’ cricket. This experience has been a learning one for us since it’s the first time we get to compete against a Test playing nation and teams that have been here more than us”
Rwanda was able to pick up two wins out of their four group games. They pushed aside fellow newcomers Mozambique and Nigeria, only falling to Tanzania and hosts Zimbabwe. Joshua tells me that participation in ICC Events was a long time coming.
“We host an annual tournament called the Kwibuka Peace Tournament” where we invite Kenya, Uganda and this has definitely helped us prepare our ladies for tournaments like these. We have been hosting the tournament since 2014 and the ladies have been learning from their more skillful neighbours during the Kwibuka. I am certain that is why we looked better prepared than the other new comers,” Joshua opined.
With the path of the Men’s Cricket World Cup seemingly impossible for most Associates, and alongside some other emerging nations, Rwanda has recognised better opportunity exist for women’s teams to to break through to global events, under the current structures.
“Like other Associates we know the pathway to the Women’s World Cup is more direct than that for the men. Our men’s side is not even in the Cricket World Cup Leagues and therefore we are hopeful that we can get rewards once we invest in the ladies”
It’s impossible to talk about Rwanda without reference to what happened in 1994, a 100-day genocide claimed 800,000 lives, but cricket is at the forefront of healing society.
“We have a couple of programs that promote social change through sports. We have a partnership with a local NGO called Edutrust that supports local victims. We also have our own CSR initiative as Rwanda Cricket that actually won us the ‘Spirit of Cricket Award’ from the ICC. Every year we visit the village that accommodates victims of the genocide, we spend a day with them playing cricket sharing the positive change can bring in their lives. We also collect a lot of items, household and otherwise, that we donate them. As the slogan of the nation “NEVER AGAIN” goes, we, as cricket, want to be at the forefront of leading this campaign that NEVER AGAIN should our people have to go through what happened 25 years ago”
A small nation compared its neighbours, Rwanda is already making strides in not only developing the sport but also in governance of the game. They were awarded the governance award at the ICC annual awards earlier this year, something their big brothers Uganda and Kenya who have governance issues can learn from. Joshua credits the country’s leadership for this.
“Rwanda has a visionary leader and this has not been lost on the leadership of Rwanda Cricket, our Ministry of Sports is very interested in what we are doing and this ensures that our leaders are accountable not only to the fraternity but even to the nation as a whole”
Ambition flows through the veins of cricket in Rwanda. With the support of the charity Cricket Builds Hope, they now have a world class facility in the famous Gahanga Cricket Stadium. This facility now allows the country to host ICC Events, which they already have in the recent men’s ICC T20 World Cup Africa B qualifiers.
Joshua talks about their high performance program, and how it has to be measured on the quality it produces.
“We are creating hubs in the country and these should be able to produce talent that feeds our U15, U17 and U19 pathways. We genetically have well-built girls and boys and once looked after well we know we can produce some fine talent. Once we have a proper conveyor belt we can then start dreaming”
For Joshua, Rwanda is closer to home than his native Uganda, and he speaks the local language comfortably. Using his established networks in Uganda, he occasionally hosts club sides in Rwanda for match practice against his teams. Rwanda Cricket has taken time to observe what has worked in the past for for their African neighbours, adapted programs for their own conditions, and are now running with them. Besides most of the forebearers of cricket in Rwanda went to cricket-playing schools in Uganda, former President Charles Haba went to the famous Busoga College Mwiri, while current President Eddie Mugarura went to Kings College Budo.
Cricket is very alive in Rwanda and the partnership with organisations such as Cricket Builds Hope that has linkages to Surrey Cricket Club in the UK, and Yorkshire Tea are all playing a part in helping Rwanda Cricket Association grow the game in the land of a thousand hills.