It’s hard to sum up how significant cricket and a historic World Cup berth is for Rwanda.
When the team stride out for their first match in South Africa, there may be tears, though they will be tears of euphoria when for too long Rwandan tears were ones of condolence.
Beyond the boundaries of sport, the game has been a vehicle for transformative change, in a nation determined to form a new identity.
In under 100 days across 1994, around 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda by extremists. Members of the minority Tutsi community were targeted, as well as the Hutus’ political opponents, irrespective of their ethnic origin.
As the nation picked up the pieces after the atrocities, it turned to new friends: they enthroned English as an official language in 1996, moving away from the Francophone sphere of Africa, and in 2009 the former Belgian colony became part of the Commonwealth. By 2008, English was the medium of instruction at all school levels.
Planting English seeds led to cultural roots, including sport, though growth of organised cricket started before the turn of the millennium. As of 2022, the players of the already triumphant U19 squad can’t remember a Rwanda before cricket.
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Today in photos 😍🤩 #ICCU19WomensWorldCup pic.twitter.com/uMwmEZJR4f— Rwanda Cricket Association (@RwandaCricket) January 12, 2023
Even leaning on the perhaps lazy notion that the English language and Commonwealth ties automatically brought cricket would be unfair in describing the game’s roots in the country: cricket played its part earlier in its role of providing positive change, as exiled citizens of the atrocities returned home with knowledge of the game from neighbouring countries.
University students on their way back from Kenya and Uganda delivered a pastime that in turn brought happier days, and ultimately part of a new identity. The former exiles began the Rwandan Cricket Association in 1999. Within four years, they were accepted as ICC Members. The game has no baggage, nor association to the gruesome past, and is instead a vehicle to unite the country.
All this points to a bright future for the country, though it must be reiterated just how trailblazing Rwanda’s women are in qualifying for the U19 Women’s World Cup, for a country so desperate to call heroes of their own.
The nation has never won an Olympic or Commonwealth Games medal, with only one Paralympic medal to their name, Jean de Dieu Nkundabera’s bronze in the Men's 800m T46 at Athens 2004. In team sports, success has also been scarce. The nation has little to report from global tournaments in any sport, outside of a 2011 Men’s FIFA U17 World Cup appearance. The men’s basketball team beating regional giants Angola in the African continental championship in 2021 is one standout, but Rwanda’s regional qualification win for the upcoming cricket tournament is the finest achievement for a women’s team sport in the country.
What makes the achievement all the more remarkable is that it came in a competitive nine-team regional final in Botswana, in a region growing a reputation as one of the most competitive.
Rwanda had to negotiate the larger of the two groups, finishing in the top two, before claiming a semi-final win over the more-fancied Uganda, defending just 97.
In the final, Rwanda then brushed aside Tanzania, who showed their mettle with a semi-final win over Namibia. By contrast, regional qualifiers in the East Asia-Pacific and Europe regions were fought by two teams, and the USA gained automatic qualification through the Americas region.
The achievement was not lost in the eyes of many who welcomed the team back at the airport in Kigali. Met by a mob of family, friends and supporters, the team were driven down the main streets of the capital, standing atop a double-decker bus while parading the trophy.
"Qualification means a lot to Rwanda," Emmanuel Byiringiro, the General Manager of cricket in Rwanda, explained.
"This is a historic moment, (qualifying) in just a few years from when cricket was introduced in the country. It shows how far we have come as a country.
"This was a victory for the whole country, not only for cricketers, and we wanted to share the joy with wider community (at the parade). We were happy with the reception the Rwandans accorded the girls."
The success was no fluke. Between constant competition in the region, and strong ties between African Members, Rwanda also boast the jewel in the crown of African cricket, the Gahanga International Ground, a thirty-minute drive from capital Kigali.
The ground is as picturesque as it is vital for game development for Rwanda and the region, even tying into themes of cultural significance. Dubbed the “Lord’s of East Africa”, the ground is the brainchild of a Rwandan/UK charity project, in partnership with the MCC. It seats roughly 10,000 people with a hill for fans to sit, with three vaults at one end constructed as a nod to the country’s rolling hills. Its facilities are the yardstick of the region, and hosted over 100 T20Is in 2022 across men’s and women’s play, far and away more than any other ground.
"Gahanga Cricket Stadium is important for the growth of cricket in Rwanda.
"We are able to attract teams to come and play in Rwanda and we have hosted a lot of ICC Qualifying events, which has inspired our young players. We also have the Kwibuka Tournament, which propelled women's cricket to a higher level not only in Rwanda but in Africa."
With opportunity and a world-class facility comes match practice. The Kwibuka Tournament, played in remembrance of the 1994 genocide, has pit East African teams together every year since 2014, though opened up to other teams on the continent, as well as Brazil and Germany in 2022. Between the annual tournament, qualifying events and bilateral series, just five international members have played more women’s T20I matches than Rwanda’s 44 since their debut in 2019 (India, England, Uganda, Australia and Thailand), with half of them on the hallowed Gahanga turf. The team also enjoyed 12 victories in just 15 matches in 2022.
A rising tide floats all boats, and African cricket has been a glowing example. Learning from their stronger neighbours, Rwanda, who have flourished under the stewardship of coaches from other parts of the region. Zimbabwe’s Leonard Nhamburo, whose compatriots stand in the way of Rwanda’s U19 challenge, has coached the women’s team, and the Rwanda playing group includes a handful of U19 stars, ready to share their knowledge to their teammates at the upcoming World Cup.
Safe travels & best of luck girls 💪 🇷🇼 #ICCT20WomensWorldCup pic.twitter.com/DZBrUQ0m3w— Rwanda Cricket Association (@RwandaCricket) January 1, 2023
Few players at the upcoming U19 T20 World Cup boast the senior experience of captain Gisele Ishimwe, who has played all but one of her country’s 44 T20Is. On top of 10 wickets at an economy of 5.39, Ishimwe has a century and two fifties to her name.
Namesake Henriette Ishimwe meanwhile has made waves of her own, not missing a single Rwandan T20I, and making an impression at last year’s FairBreak Invitational. She claimed four wickets in as many appearances, including the wicket of Nicola Carey for the Barmy Army side.
Wicket-keeper/batter Merveille Uwase and eighteen-year-old bowler Belise Murekatete round out the quartet with senior international experience, and cites the ground as a key part of her and her teammate’s development.
“This stadium is a special place for us. When we’re here, we’re always happy. We forget about our problems," Murekatete said in a recent television interview.
“But most importantly, coming here has helped me realise my talent as a cricket player. I’ve been working a lot with the coaches, and I keep improving.”
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So how will they do in South Africa? The side have been drawn against three Full Members in Pakistan, England and Zimbabwe, with their meeting against the regional giants perhaps their best chance of a result, but again, the match just adds to the story of an emerging team challenging the region’s best, after building their game against others in the region.
"Our vision is to rally Rwanda into a cricket playing nation, creating a passion for the game, uniting us and inspiring a nation.
"Our future goals are to have our men and women national teams qualifying for major ICC events, and to have cricket as a major sport.
"It is currently the fastest-growing sport and we want to see it played in all corners of the country."
Irrespective of the result, the team will surely exhibit the work, heroism and confidence in the future like the new flag they salute.
Cricket is in Rwanda's future, not just as a pastime, but as part of the nation's cultural fabric.