Paralympic history was made on 7 September 2012, the ninth day of the Paralympic Summer Games in London Thousands of spectators had packed into the arena to witness a watershed moment in the history of sitting volleyball. It was not the final game to decide the gold medal but a classification game to decide on the ninth and the tenth places which usually do not attract much attention.
The eyes of the spectators were firmly fixed on the members of the Rwandan team, who had overcome the differences that once existed between the country's two main ethnic groups – and which led to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 – to become the first Sub-Saharan African team to qualify for the men's sitting volleyball competition.
Later, the official website of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), stated, “The Paralympic Movement is filled with inspirational and compelling stories of triumph over adversity, but there are few stories as awe-inspiring as the Rwandan sitting volleyball team's formation and qualification for London 2012”.
The fiercely contested match lasted almost two hours with 3-1 score for Rwanda against Morocco to record their first ever win as a team sport at the Paralympic Games. The IPC reported that the huge crowd cheered widely and gave the victorious team a rousing ovation. It was almost as though Rwanda had actually won the gold medal.
Team captain Emile Vuningabo told the media what the appearance meant to his team and country, “If the world knows Rwanda it is as a country of conflict. Maybe through us they will see that we have moved on to become a country that is united.”
Nzeyimana Celestin, executive secretary of the National Paralympic Committee (NPC) of Rwanda was present at the historic victory and has been contributing to the development of the Paralympic Movement in Rwanda for more than a decade as an athlete and an official. We interviewed Nzeyimana during his participation in Tokyo 2020's second batch of open days for NPCs on how Rwanda had overcome the wounds of genocide to become the leading nation for the Paralympic Movement in Africa.
Could you explain how Rwanda managed to become the first Sub-Saharan African country to achieve such impressive results?
Nzeyimana, Executive Secretary of the National Paralympic Committee of Rwanda
“First of all, as most people are aware, Rwanda experienced a tragic civil war in 1994. Apart from the appalling loss of life, many people lost limbs, many lost hope, and many felt they would never get the chance to enjoy sports. Then five years later, with the establishment of the Paralympic Movement in Rwanda in 2000, we started to think about how those people who lost limbs in the conflict could take up sports once again. Actually, the Paralympic Movement in Rwanda was started by the people themselves. By that I mean that people who wanted to do sports developed the movement. I was lucky that I was there from the beginning as a young player. We wanted to have a stronger movement, and we learnt from others by participating in sports events hosted by different organisations such as the IPC and other countries.
Rwanda is a small country and not financially stable country, but we wanted to show that we could compete at a high level. Of course, our government also understood the importance of the Paralympic Movement and set up a policy to promote it. But again, it was us, the Rwandan people, who had a goodwill of changing the society and grabbing an opportunity for it. If there weren't a will, no one was pushing for it, it would never have changed. We wanted to see the change. The Paralympic Movement in Rwanda has been very active. We know our right and we try to advocate and make awareness of our rights and that gives people more information on what the benefits for promoting it means. That makes things running.”
Were you actively involved in the development of the sitting volleyball team for the London 2012 Paralympic Games?
“Yes. The first achievement was to qualify as the first African nation in Sub saharan zone for the London 2012 Games. Four years before that in Beijing, I had a certain mission as we sent just one athlete and didn't win the medal there. We wanted to increase the number of participants. we needed more visibility and the presence. That is why we focused on the sitting volleyball to increase the number of participants. It went successful. We ended up with having a total of 14 participants for the London Games in Athletics, powerlifting and sitting volleyball, in total of three sports.”
After being the darlings of London 2012 and basking in the attention of the world's media, Rwanda's men's sitting volleyball team lost to Egypt 3-0 in the final of the 2015 Africa Sitting Volleyball Championship, which wrecked their chances of qualifying for the Rio 2016 Games. However, Rwanda reached another milestone at the Rio Games by becoming the first Sub-Saharan African nation to qualify for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in the women's sitting volleyball competition.
Tell us more about the women's sitting volleyball team.
“After our achievement at the London 2012 Games, we set ourselves a new mission: to take a women's team to the Paralympic Games as well. Because Rwanda is proud of its gender equality, currently ranked the number one in gender equality in Africa (and fourth in the world according to the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum). That should not be left in politics and the sport should be the same. I came up with a programme after London as I was elected to be the president of the Rwanda Paralympic Committee. My goal was to bring women's team for the first time from Africa to the Rio Games. Initially it was not necessarily Rwanda, but at least Sub-Saharan African team. Then I came up with a programme toward Rio including all other sports but our focus was especially on women. That was how we had achieved to qualify our women's team.
The popularity of Paralympic sports in Rwanda has risen to the level comparable to football, basketball and volleyball - the most popular sports in Rwanda thanks partly to its incessant accomplishments by Para athletes. Together with the sitting volleyball teams, an athlete in Paralympic athletics, Hermas Cliff Muvunyi, won the first gold medal for Rwanda at the sixth Athletics World Championships in Lyon France in 2013 and Rwanda won a total of six medals, finishing as the overall best team, in 2017 African Para-Taekwondo Open to name a few. And now the number of participants in Paralympic Games has outnumbered that of Olympics since the London Games.”
These results are having a tremendous impact on the lives of Rwandan people.
“We have a lot of stories to tell about young Paralympians on how they have changed the community and themselves. Some young athletes were not feeling well with their family and did not interact with them, as their family treated them as useless. But after participating in Paralympic sports, they become interactive. There are many examples of such cases. Their parents used to think they were useless because they had an impairment. But what if they can fly to Europe or Asia when their parents have never seen a plane? They wonder “what's going on?” as most of them even have never been to the capital city. They begin to feel “wow, this is amazing!” and they finally realise that their kids can do something. Yes. We saw many examples of people with an impairment showed their family that they could do something through the sports. In addition, through interacting with many other people, they can also learn some development projects through which they can earn some money and help their family financially. As for the national team, they receive some money from the government so that some athletes could renovate their family houses with their own money. They contribute a lot to the family and to the community and they can feel more respected, confident than before. That is one example of how the sports especially the Paralympic Movement has contributed so much in social inclusion.”
In February 2018, Rwanda took a big step towards developing Paralympic Sports in the East African region by co-hosting the first meeting of the Agitos Foundation Organisational Capacity Programme in the Rwandan capital Kigali. During the two-day event, Rwanda and its neighbouring nations, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania and Uganda deepened their knowledge and understanding of the Paralympic Movement and discussed a wide range of related topics including governance, membership structure, marketing and athlete development. Nzeyimana also participated as an educator and shared his knowledge with other delegates from African nations to assist them to establish clear structures for their own organisations. He says that he is motivated in helping other nations to further develop and enhance the Paralympic Movement in their countries.
“Neighboring countries are also taking part in the Paralympic Movement. Rwanda plays a key role to introduce some sports such as Boccia, Goalball and the other sports to the region. We are hosting various sports events, so that they can come and learn how they are managed and in return we are participating in their events too. I can say that the East African region has been very active and Rwanda has been contributing much to it.”
Nzeyimana is currently based in Japan and studying the Olympic and Paralympic movements and sports management at the Tsukuba International Academy for Sport Studies. He says there are a lot of things that Rwanda can learn from Japan, but at the same time there are also many things that Japan can learn from Rwanda.
What are you hoping to learn through your studies in Japan?
“I learn a lot from Japan personally. Most of people with an impairment are taken care of and generally, at least most of the areas are accessible. However understanding it and implementing it are two different thing. We can't simply compare Japan and Rwanda as there are so many differences between them. But I think there is a standard that we should aim for. I rather focus more on the way of planning especially in sports education because Japan is advanced in physical education. if you look at our curriculum in sport we really need to improve like Japan did so we can reach a certain standard.
It is difficult to expect a high-level performance from Para athletes unless people in the whole country improve the same way because if general people doesn't excel in sports, how come the Para athletes can be great. With the Tsukubai University, we are linking Rwanda and Japan so that we can have some collaborations and exchange programmes to boost the sports in both countries. I think Japan can also learn from us. For example, there are plenty of facilities but still some missing opportunities for person with an impairment in japan. People in Rwanda tries hard to find a job or to create their own jobs to survive. But the most of the people with an impairment here are supported easily and they do not have such courage of finding job as they have everything on the table. So maybe we will have an exchange programme even after the Game to raise the issue.”
Rwanda's preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Games have already begun. Both Rwanda's men's and women's sitting volleyball teams participated in the 2018 Sitting Volleyball World Championships as the African champions. Nzeyimana believes that continuing to take part in major tournaments is the best way to further raise performance levels.
After raising your presence at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Games, what are your targets for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and beyond?
“As we have shown that we can participate in the Paralympic Games, we want medals. We only have a medal in Athene that is a bronze, Though Rwanda doesn't have an Olympic medal yet, we have one Paralympic medal. Winning a medal is no easy thing to achieve. It needs professionals, planning and investments which is difficult for Rwanda to do. Starting preparation just one year or few months before the game used to be a norm in the past. But Rwanda Paralympic Committee has changed that. We now have a plan like in July, both male and female sitting Volleyball teams were in Netherland to participate in the World Championships and we were lucky to play against Japan. Though Japan had won, to keep practicing and participating in those major events also are kind of Tokyo 2020 preparation for us. We need more coaches, referees and different programmes on glass root and national levels. Sometimes we do not have partners to help us achieve that, but we are doing what we can. I can say in the sitting volleyball, we will be able to reach a podium in such a short period. In the last Paralympic Games, we were ranked at the number eight, so we want to increase the ranking to be, maybe, number six. In the past World Championship we were number eleventh. Considering our development, I think it is possible. I want to see a change beyond Tokyo 2020. I have a vision for LA 2028 for that we have 10 additional years. I want to use that time to create the programme for developing a grass root movement in Rwanda toward 2028.”