With an aim to topple India, Rwanda lay the base for a bright future
“Cricket in Rwanda is only 20 years old,” Martin Suji, Technical Director of the Rwanda Cricket Association, tells Women’s CricZone over a video call. “But I can say ladies’ cricket is really growing here. There is a real passion and interest in the game. I think, in a few years, we can really be a force to reckon with – maybe even topple India!”
While made in jest, Suji’s remarks don’t seem too off the mark. Rwanda currently have three age-group competitions (Under-15, Under-17 and Under-19) and also have two representative teams at the national level – an ‘Emerging’ or ‘A’-side and the national team itself. This, is in stark contrast to how things were only eight years ago, when a young Sarah Uwera was taking her first steps in the game.
“When I started playing in 2012, there were not many girls involved in the game, and we didn’t have enough coaches,” Uwera, who is currently serving as skipper of Rwanda, says. “I remember when I started to play cricket, we only had one coach. We used to go there every Friday to train and we could train with only one coach, and he was training everyone.”
When Uwera says everyone, she literally means everyone – age-group boys and girls, the men’s national team, female players, and all the club players. Unsurprisingly, there was little the trainees could learn in such an environment. Uwera says the structure meant a whole host of players fell through the cracks, losing interest in the game fairly quickly.
Added to this, there was little for the women to look forward to with only an Under-19 competition in place. No senior national team meant older players had no reason to continue playing once they finished school, moving on with their lives, pushing cricket to the far corners of their mind.
“I was 16 when I started playing, and at the time women’s cricket wasn’t very evolved. It was actually for the people in school, and those under 19. So that’s why [many players] used to leave the game and couldn’t come back,” Uwera explains.
“If you see other countries like in the neighbour countries, you will see that the players who started cricket before us, they are still playing. They are still in the game because they had the chance to play even after playing for their Under-19 team – they used to have club games or something like that. But we didn’t have such things in Rwanda. So, when players finished school, they would see that they have nothing, they were not involved in the game, so they would decide to quit.”
Uwera, however, kept at it, falling in love with what was a “foreign sport”. Having played football in her early years, one of her first dreams was to represent the Rwanda women’s football team. But once cricket caught her fancy in 2012, there was no turning back.
“I used to like sports a lot – that’s what made me actually join cricket,” she reminisces. “I was going to the new school where I was doing these technical courses, and those courses don’t have many girls – there were 35 students [in my class] and we were only three girls. That school didn’t have enough girls to play the school games, so they would tell the new girls to join the game. Each time they would find new students, they would tell the new girls to join. I was the only one who went in my class.”
“I’ve liked sports since I was a kid, and when I joined cricket, I liked the game, it is so gentle,” she smiles.
In her very first year, Uwera was selected for Rwanda’s Under-19 team that competed in the ICC Africa Women’s Under-19 Championship in Kampala. The tournament saw the likes of Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda, compete with Rwanda in a 20-over contest. Uwera continued to represent the national Under-19 side for the next two years, even being elevated to captain in 2014. She finished that year’s competition as Rwanda’s highest run-getter, opening the batting for her side through the tournament.
Incidentally, 2014 was also the year that saw the revival of the Rwanda senior team. The Kwibuka Twenty20 tournament was introduced by the RCA to commemorate those affected by the atrocities of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. It saw Rwanda’s neighbouring countries come together to compete in a T20 tournament in Kigali. This became an annual fixture – something that kept players in the game.
For Uwera, it was a blessing in disguise – she was at the end of her teenage years and desperate to stay in the game. It seemed the stars were aligning.
“The Kwibuka tournament was a good way of bringing back the women’s national team. It has extremely helped, because after that there was a rise in participation in Rwanda cricket,” she beams. “Now we have games to play as a national team and also leagues to play in the provinces, so there are many opportunities for women to participate in cricket.”
In 2018, when the ICC awarded all member nations T20I status, Uwera was elevated to the position of captain of the senior team. At 22 she was one of the most experienced players in the side with six years of cricket under her belt. It was a period that saw a great deal of change in Rwanda cricket, with interest in the game rising exponentially and the RCA beginning to see the potential in the women’s game.
It was around this time that Suji, the former Kenya fast bowler, was roped in by RCA to coach the men’s team in 2018 before becoming technical director the following year. Since then, he has overseen the development of the game in Rwanda – setting up a strong pathway structure for both the men’s and women’s teams while also constantly looking for ways to increase participation and interest among younger players.
A year into his stint, he says cricket has become a “getaway” for young girls all across the country – a chance to “escape from social issues and simply express themselves”.
“We don’t have too many activities that a girl child would be involved with, so we have found that cricket is something they get inclined to. It plays a big role in the community as well,” he explains.
Suji adds that the rising interest has meant there are more players involved in the game, and the competition has led to a steadily rising standard as well.
“Last year we could only have 18 girls at most in a national camp. And out of those 18 girls, the selection would be maybe for two girls – we would sit and actually go through their selection process. But now, even selecting the 20 is a problem… Even selecting the Under-19 [team] now is a problem and I think that is a good problem.”
Since attaining T20I status, Rwanda have played 20 matches, registering eight victories so far – all under Uwera’s captaincy. They won their first series against Nigeria at home last September. It was the last time they took the field as a team.
Suji is encouraged by the growth shown by the national side. He points to the achievements of Marie Bimenyimana who scored an unbeaten 114 and Diana Dusamebungu’s four-fer against Mali in last year’s Kwibuka tournament as huge positive’s in the team’s progress.
“This is all a plus point for our cricket. I think it is a development that I don’t take for granted. I take it for the passion that they’ve had, the hard work that the coaches are doing and the board assisting cricket in Rwanda,” he adds.
While the pandemic forced the 2020 edition of the Kwibuka tournament to be postponed, Suji and RCA made sure that the side didn’t lose too much steam through this period of inactivity. The association was able to arrange training camps for both the senior and Under-19 women’s teams in Kigali. 20 players in each group underwent a few weeks of training under the keen eyes of the development coaches, and Suji himself, working on their skills and also creating a strong base for their fitness.
“We worked with a total of 40 girls across both groups – none of them crossed over,” Suji says animatedly. “We had our Under-19 and Emerging team players, and then we had the national team. We have been training them in a high-performance programme – working on that winning mindset, their technical skills and achieving international standards.”
Uwera adds that the break in the international schedule has allowed the players enough time to build a solid foundation.
“This was the big chance to do things we previously didn’t have time to do,” explains Uwera. “If you see when we have tournaments, we don’t have enough time to work on our weaknesses and see what’s making us not do what we are supposed to do. The focus now is more on technique, fitness and mental skills. We’re doing everything and we don’t have to rush.”
With international cricket slowly returning and several high-profile tournaments on the horizon, Rwanda’s players will soon have an opportunity to showcase their improved skills on a bigger stage. The prospect of returning to the competitive field thrills Uwera, who believes that the more the team plays together ahead of the ICC Women’s T20 Africa Qualifier next year, the better their chances of challenging for a position in the global qualifiers.
“We know we have the ICC qualifiers next year in November, and [before that] we will have the Kwibuka tournament which happens every year in June.”
“The more we keep working and the more we play these friendly and international games, the more we will improve our game. We all want to see Rwanda qualify for the World Cup qualifiers and go out of Africa and play with those teams and reach further than we are right now.”
While they may be a long way off from Suji’s target of “toppling India” just yet, Rwanda are making strides in the right direction – investing in developing a strong pathway in which their women can flourish. What bodes well for them is the fact that their players, led by Uwera, are truly committed to their cause – they are in it for the long run.
“I love cricket – we all do. I even think I’ll keep on playing even when I get married or after getting kids,” she laughs. “Cricket in Rwanda is really growing, and we are looking forward to competing in the ICC tournament next year. We believe we can be better, and if we play to our capability we can challenge anyone.”
“We are starting to put good performances together [at the international level],” says Suji. “If we can put these performances together at a higher [level of] competition, then I am sure the Indian team is in trouble!”