The Personalities and Stars that Put Rwandan Sports on the Map

Sport is hugely popular in Rwanda. Indeed, through the Rwandan government’s Sports Development Policy, sport is used as a strong avenue for developing and promoting peace and assisting education. Rwandan sports tend not to be broadcast globally, but there have been several prominent Rwandan athletes that helped put the country on the sporting map on a global scale.

Salima Mukansanga

Although the Rwanda national football team has never qualified for the FIFA World Cup and is rarely listed on the best sportsbooks in Vegas, the country has had someone at the world-famous World Cup finals, someone that captured the hearts and imaginations of the football-loving community. That person was none other than Salima Mukansanga.

Mukansanga was initially interested in a basketball career but eventually switched to football. She approached the Rwanda Football Association about taking a refereeing course after finishing secondary school, but they declined based on her age. Mukansanga was determined to follow her dreams and began studying the laws of “the beautiful game” in her spare time. The Rwanda Football Association eventually allowed her to enroll in the refereeing course.

Female referees are becoming increasingly common, and many look up to and admire Mukansanga. Not only has she been listed as an international-level referee for FIF since 2012, she became the first-ever female referee in charge of a game at the Africa Cup of Nations in 2022. Later that year, Mukansanga became the first African woman to officiate a FIFA World Cup fixture when she was named as the fourth official in a game where defending champions France defeated Australia 4-1.

Mukansanga’s achievements have not gone unnoticed, with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) naming her as one of the 100 Women in the 2022 edition.

Adrien Niyonshuti

Cycling is a popular form of transport in Rwanda, so it is unsurprising to learn that some prominent Rwandan cyclists compete professionally. Adrien Niyonshuti is one such rider. Niyonshuti lost six of his brothers during the Rwandan genocide of 1994; he was only seven years old. His tragic, painful loss served to spur him on to make a name for himself, and he discovered he had a penchant for cycling in his late teens after his uncle gifted him a bicycle.

Jacques Boyer, the first American cyclist to compete in the Tour de France, was working on a project in Rwanda that involved importing bicycles for coffee farmers. Boyer also worked as a coach for the Rwandan national cycling team, and he recruited Niyoshuti to race for them. Niyonshuti finished in the top ten of the Tour of Rwanda five years in a row and won the race in 2006 and again in 2008.

Before retiring, Niyonshuti rode professionally for South Africa’s Team Dimension Data from 2009 to 2017, qualified for the cross-country mountain bike race during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, and the men’s road race at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Niyonshuti was Rwanda’s flagbearer at both games.

Other notable Rwandan cyclists include Valens Ndayisenga and Moise Mugisha.

Cathia Uwamahoro

Cathia Uwamahoro loved playing basketball as a child, yet she is world-famous for playing cricket. In fact, Uwamhoro is one of two Rwandan cricketers that hold Guinness world records.

Uwamahoro began playing cricket in 2008 when she was 15. A talented batswoman, selectors chose Uwamahoro to represent the Rwanda U19 National Women’s cricket team at the ICC Africa Women’s T-20 tournament in Nairobi, Kenya. Her continued stellar performances eventually saw her selected for the senior women’s team in 2019.

Between 2019 and 2022, Uwamahoro played 35 T-20 International games, in which she scored 362 runs, including an international career best of 44 not out. However, her exploits away from a matchday saw Uwamahoro achieve global fame.

In February 2017, the 22-year-old Uwamahoro set a new Guinness World Record for the longest continuous net session in women’s cricket history. Uwamahoro batted in the nets for 26 hours straight at the Amahoro Stadium in Remera, Rwanda. She even had England Women’s captain Heather Knight cheering her one at one stage.

Eric Dusingizimana

A year before Uwamahoro set the world record for the longest continuous net batting in the women’s game, Eric Dusingizimana broke the world record in the men’s game. Dusingizimana was passionate about cricket from an early age and considered India’s MS Dhoni and South Africa’s AB de Villiers as his sporting heroes.

Dusingizimana represented Rwanda at an international level, but it is his marathon betting session that he is known for. On May 11, 2016, Dusingizimana started facing deliveries in the nets at the Amaharo Stadium. He allowed himself a five-minute break every hour and eventually completed his challenge on May 13, some 51 hours later, breaking the previous record by one hour.

Dusingizimana completed the remarkable feat in an attempt to raise funds for Rwanda’s first-ever national cricket ground, the Gahanga International Cricket Stadium. Dusingizimana was hailed a national hero, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees approached Dusingizimana to discuss launching cricket training programs for refugees in Rwanda.

Olivier Karekezi

Olivier Karekezi‘s love of football began when he was a student at the Ste Famille primary school in Kigali, Rwanda. By the age of 19, Karekezi had put pen to paper on his first professional contract when he signed for APR, Rwanda’s most successful football team.

Karekezi transferred to the Swedish top-flight team Helsingborgs in 2005 and became the first Rwandan to play professional football in Sweden. He scored 18 goals in 60 games and was the team’s top scorer during the 2006 season when he finished with 11 goals to his name. Karekezi played alongside Swedish legend Henrik Larsson in those days.

Karekezi is still the Rwanda national team’s top goalscorer, with 24 international goals, despite retiring from international duty in 2013. He originally planned to withdraw from the game in 2015 entirely, but he can still be found playing, aged 40, for Raa IF in Sweden; his love for football is still strong!