Rugby bringing African communities together

By Matthew Murray
BBC News

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media captionThe Welsh couple who brought rugby to Rwanda

An African country torn apart by a genocide 27 years ago is being brought together through rugby and a couple from south Wales.

Mary and Glyn Watkins from Newport have spent the past seven years providing coaching and kit to children and young adults across Rwanda.

Their charity, Friends of Rwandan Rugby, is credited with helping Rwanda to its first World Cup qualifier game.

The pair have now helped coach rugby to hundreds of pupils.

The teachers had volunteered to work at a school in western Rwanda through the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) scheme, funded by the UK Government.

Glyn said: "I guess, I was a victim of stereotyping, the principal of the college said to me, 'you're Welsh, you won't know anything about football, but you'll know about rugby' and after a couple of beers I agreed to take a training session.

"They had one rugby ball in the school and that was it. I was expecting 15 or so to train but 200 children turned up the next day, so I started teaching them the basics of tag rugby."

image copyrightFriends of Rwandan Rugby
image captionThe Watkins' charity is now helping build the sport in over a hundred schools

The charity trained the national side known as the Silverbacks, named after the country's famous gorillas, ahead of their 2023 World Cup qualifier against Ivory Coast.

Mary said: "We had a week with the national side, but they face many challenges because some of the players work night shifts, so they were working through the night and training all day and then off again to a night shift. We got them in some sort of shape to face the Ivory Coast.

"Unfortunately, they lost, heavily, but it was an amazing opportunity to help prepare them and will lead to an annual players' tour, which will introduce the game to new parts of Rwanda."

image copyrightFriends of Rwandan Rugby
image captionHelping provide kit is one of the aims of the rugby charity

The country was torn apart by the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 - where around 800,000 people killed in 100 days.

Hutu extremists were targeting members of the minority Tutsi community and any political opponents.

Kamanda Tharcisse, who lived through the horror and lost three family members, is now the president of the Rwanda Rugby Federation and said the game has brought people together and is "very popular in schools".

"Rugby is the one game which played a role to unite people after the genocide. When we play, we are smiling, and we are now all Rwandans," he said.

"Now there's no division when people play rugby, we shake hands, we unite after the game, we celebrate together, we drink together. It is the one game that brought unity between people here."

He said the Newport couple were instrumental.

"When rugby started here we had 100 schools with no materials, no balls, no kits, no cones. We just used socks and sand to mark the pitch lines. But we now have kits, cones and balls for schools which helps many people play rugby. So they played a big part in growing the game."

He added that they are "helping grow the men and women's game".

"Although we are in lockdown, so the kids can't play now, but we await the vaccine and hope we'll play again soon, and the game will continue to grow."

image copyrightFriends of Rwandan Rugby
image captionMary Watkins said there is "a lot of love for Wales" in Rwanda, with 50 teams playing in Welsh kit

Prior to coronavirus lockdown restrictions, Friends of Rwandan Rugby was teaching rugby to children and young adults in more than 100 schools and communities in ten out of 30 districts across Rwanda.

Their work has been supported by Welsh clubs including Dragons, Risca, Caldicot, Bonymaen, and Oakdale, who have supplied kits, balls and the charity has supplied coaching.

The charity now employs 10 rugby development officers in Rwanda, as well as supporting the international side.

But it is more than just sport, insisted Glyn: "Because rugby is so much more than kicking and running with a rugby ball.

"It's about the ethos of rugby, it's the principles behind the game of fair play and sportsmanship and respect for others, and that's what we focus on, to get this sport played the way we think it should be played and developed so it's beneficial to Rwandans."

image copyrightFriends of Rwandan Rugby
image captionThe couple said that often they will have "use their imagination" in place of any equipment - such as using bamboo poles on the try line

Funding is still a challenge for this burgeoning sport in Rwanda with a lack of basic facilities to play the game.

The couple said that often they will have "use their imagination" in place of any equipment they do not have.

This includes strapping bamboos together to make posts on the try line, making referee flags out of leaves and sawdust to make out the pitch lines.

Mary said: "I remember a semi-final of a school game being delayed for an hour while we waited for a guy on a bicycle to bring sawdust and the warm up was to lay the sawdust and create the lines".

image copyrightFriends of Rwandan Rugby
image captionDonatien Ufitimfura was one of the couple's pupils - and has since gone on to form his own team

Donatien Ufitimfura from western Rwanda was introduced to rugby by the Watkins in 2014 - he has gone on to form his own team Rusizi Resilience RFC.

It became the eighth side to join the national league, which led to Rwanda's official recognition by World Rugby.

"I started playing rugby in 2014 after being introduced to rugby at my school by the help of Welsh VSO teachers, Mary and Glyn Watkins who introduced it at our school," he said.

"I got into rugby so much, I started a team in my home village called Resilience, which now plays in the national league. I really appreciate the Welsh support. Wales is very supportive to Rwandan rugby; I really appreciate the work especially of Mary and Glyn who detected my talents and I'm now a national player and I really love it."

image copyrightFriends of Rwandan Rugby
image captionJust like Wales, Rwanda has hills, rain - and now rugby, jokes Mary Watkins

Mary was awarded a British Empire Medal for services to international development in the New Year's Honours list, reflecting on her work she said: "Rwanda is a country scarred by the genocide but has a lot of love for Wales. There must be 50 teams playing in Welsh club kit and you'll see lots of Rwandan sides proudly posing with Welsh flags."

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab congratulated her on receiving the honour and thanked her for her "valuable work in Rwanda through VSO and her rugby charity".

"The UK Government is proud to support volunteers from every corner of the UK make a difference in combatting poverty around the world," he added.

UK aid has helped lift two million Rwandans out of poverty since 2005.

Rwanda is a country known as the land of a thousand hills which, Mary said, meant it was hard not to draw comparisons with Wales.

"It's hilly, it rains a lot, it's green, it's beautiful, they have friendly people and now they've got rugby. It's exactly like Wales"

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