By Ciaran O’Mahony
Grace Nyinawumuntu lost her parents at just 11 years of age.
It was 1994 and they were among 800,000 people slaughtered when Rwanda’s ethnic Hutus attempted to wipe out the Tutsi minority.
She spent those vicious ‘100 days of slaughter’ in hiding, along with her younger brother and sister.
They knew what would happen if they were found. No men, women or children were spared, until the extremist Government was overthrown by the Rwandan Patriotic Front.
But even when the killings stopped, life was not easy.
“I grew up in the orphanage centre because I lost my parents during the genocide,” Nyinawumunutu says.
“We lost my brother during that time.”
She prefers not to dwell too much on the pain of the past, but she will never forget.
“It was not easy to survive.”
“But I tried my best just to be who I am today.”
For most of her teenage years, Nyinawumuntu grieved in isolation. Distancing herself from the outside world seemed like the safest means of coping with grave trauma and loss.
“Every time, I needed to stay alone. To be alone.”
She may never have dug herself out of this emotional abyss if it wasn’t for her greatest passion – sport.
“Sport gave me happiness,” Nyinawumuntu says.
“After that period of genocide, if there is no sport, I cannot be alive at that time.”
Grace Nyinawumuntu. Photo: Bogarts via Getty Images.
Nyinawumuntu was drawn to football, in particular, from a young age. There was something about it that captivated her, even though her parents discouraged her from playing.
“I was very interested in playing football, something [which] of course my mother never approved, even support[ed].”
“It was forbidden to see a girl or a woman who played.”
“Football was regarded as a boy’s game in our society and a girl was never supported to play.”
At the time, Rwandans believed it was inappropriate for girls to play football, because they were uncomfortable with the idea of them wearing shorts and lifting their legs to kick the ball.
Throughout her childhood, Nyinawumuntu was forbidden from kicking a single ball. Even at school.
She had to settle for more ‘appropriate’ sports such as handball and volleyball. They weren’t football, but they were a welcome distraction from her private sadness.
“I had to participate in the other sports like handball or like volleyball. Because in my life, I didn’t survive without doing sport.”
“It was my blood, it was my life, it was my breath.”
Women’s football finally arrives in Rwanda
One year after Nyinawumuntu finished school, she finally got her chance to play the sport she craved.
An ambitious entrepreneur named Felicite Rwemarika had just established Rwanda’s first football program for girls and women.
Rwemarika created the Association of Kigali Women in Sports (AKWOS) in 2003, to provide an outlet for women to work through their trauma and heal together.
“With the culture [in Rwanda], they could not believe that women can play sports,” says Rwemarika, who is now a member of the International Olympic Committee and President of the Rwanda Women and Sports Commission.
“They would say ‘this woman is crazy, maybe she’s traumatised because of genocide.’”
“I said ‘no, sport is for everyone. Everyone can play sports, everyone can join sports for a creation. For unity, for talking [about] our issues.’”
A group of girls take to the field in Rwanda. Photo: AKWOS Facebook page
Word spread across the country of this group of women playing football. When the news reached Nyinawumuntu, she set off without hesitatation, to chase her dream.
“It was a time I finally managed to found [sic] a way I can play.”
“We had only one team [at the time] created by Rwemarika Felicite,” says Nyinawumuntu. “I tried to attend her first team, where I have been selected on my first time to be in the national women’s team.”
Finally getting the chance to play, and cultivate her talent as a Centre-Back, Nyinawumuntu began healing from old wounds.
“Sport helped me so much because I have [been] in the bad situation of losing my parents. [The] bad situation of losing my brother.”
“But after joining the team of Felicite, [that] is the time I started to [be] having happiness from the team.”
UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for the Social and Human Sciences, Gabriela Ramos, has seen first-hand, the positive effect sport can have on women like Nyinawumuntu.
Ramos says sport provides an escape that helps women overcome hardship and increase their sense of self-worth.
“Early positive experiences with sport, especially in school and community settings, are critical to address three intersecting global crises that girls face disproportionally: physical inactivity, mental health conditions and inequality,” she says.
“Girls’ lack of self-confidence and negative stereotypes hinder their perspective to succeed in life.”
“Programmes delivering quality Physical Education have therefore a real power to provide meaningful change to women’s lives.”
Felicite Rwemarika can attest to this, having given Nyinawumuntu and many other Rwandan women a sporting platform.
“After the genocide, women were the most vulnerable,” she says. “They were worried [and in fear] of [their] life and they are waiting just to die tomorrow.”
Playing football with other women who’d experienced similar trauma helped them to overcome this fear, according to Rwemarika.
Nyinawumuntu did just that. When she was out on the pitch, there was only one thing on her mind.
“When you go to do sport, even if you have different problem[s], you live on the pitch where you practice the sport,” she says.
“That’s why I can say that sport is a good medicine.”
Turning her passion into a career
Huge growth in Nyinawumuntu’s skills and wellbeing fuelled dreams of a career in sport.
But her friends and extended family scoffed at the idea. They told her sports would make her ugly and her legs would become beefy and masculine.
“[They were] telling me you will not get a job, you will be like a man, you can’t give birth, you can’t have a husband.”
While there were many doubters, she still had Felicite Rwemarika in her corner. Rwemarika recognised her talent and urged her to follow her heart.
“After she qualified to go to university, she wanted to do sports and people said how can you go to university to do sports? Sports will do nothing to you. It will not help you in any way,” says Rwemarika.
“She came back to me and I said ‘this is your passion, you need to do sports.’”
Grace Nyinawumuntu (Centre Left) with Felicite Rwemarika (Centre Right). Photo: AKWOS Facebook page
Nyinawumuntu went for it, becoming Rwanda’s first woman to complete a Bachelor’s degree in Physical Education in 2004. But just when things were finally coming together, a cruel twist of fate changed everything.
She seriously injured her knee, and it was immediately apparent that she may never play football again.
“It was something I can’t understand in my heart,” she laments.
She wasn’t sure where to go from there, feeling so strongly that she could “never survive without doing sport, especially football.”
The voices that told her to give up on sport grew louder after the injury, but she continued to tune them out – until she found an answer.
“I didn’t see a woman who is [a] referee,” she thought. So why not break new ground?
She decided to become the country’s first female football referee “to show the men and the women, the Rwandan society, even the girl[s], even the woman, can do the same as the men.”
Soon after, she learned of a training program for referees – one that only men attended.
While some may have been too intimidated to approach the organisers, Nyinawumuntu did so with confidence and a determination to go where no Rwandan woman had gone before.
“I don’t fear anything, I am confident of everything I do.”
“I went to the [people] responsible for that training and I request[ed] to be the one of the trainees in the referee training.”
“The first question he asked me, ‘Grace are you ready to be a referee? The first [woman] referee in Rwanda?’”
“I said, ‘I’m ready, very ready.’”
She passed the course with flying colours and was officially employed as a professional referee.
While she’d clinched employment in the sports industry, she didn’t feel like she’d made it yet. She still had a point to prove – that she was even better than the male referees.
It didn’t take her long to prove it, as she explains.
“I did better refereeing than the men because I started in the junior teams [and] women teams. But after 6 months, only 6 months, they promote[d] me in[to] the second division for men.”
“After 2 years they promoted me in the first division [for] men.”
Back to the drawing board
Nyinawumuntu’s rapid rise came to a devastating halt, however, when her knee flared up again. It became particularly bad in 2007 and she knew it was only a matter of time before she’d be forced to stop refereeing.
Once again, she found herself fighting to keep her sporting dreams alive, so she turned to the Rwandan Football Federation for help.
She requested a transition from refereeing to coaching, which they granted.
Nyinawumuntu soon found herself attending football coaching development courses run by the German Football Association (GFA) across Rwanda.
She was among a group of 25 coaches, three of which would be selected for specialist training in Germany.
But in order to be considered for that trip to Germany, Nyinawumuntu would need to run practical demonstrations, training sessions and football matches.
In other words, she needed a team to coach, and fast.
With Felicite Rwemarika’s help, she appealed to the mayor of Kigali city to create Rwanda’s first professional women’s football team.
He accepted their pitch with great excitement and thus, Rwanda’s first professional women’s football team, AS Kigali, was formed in 2008.
Being the head coach of an exciting new team came with weighty expectations, but Nyinawumuntu thrived in her new role, selecting AS Kigali’s first squad, and moulding it into a formidable team.
She had also unlocked another historic achievement in Rwandan women’s sport. She was the country’s first woman to become a professional football coach.
“I started to train that team in order to show the leader[s] of the federation that I am able to be a good coach even if I am a girl,” says Nyinawumuntu.
She was acutely aware that her story could be “a powerful tool to help other women, even out[side] of the country of Rwanda.”
Her efforts were quickly noticed by Rwanda’s Technical Director of Football. After just 4 months of observing her coaching, the Rwandan FA not only named her amongst the top 3 performers in the coaching course, they told Nyinawumuntu to coach a new women’s national team.
She took this team to Germany for a series of friendlies against junior/3rd division women’s teams.
Across six matches, they won 3 and lost 3. It an extremely successful showing given how new women’s football was to Rwanda.
This campaign also demonstrated how rapidly Nyinawumuntu’s coaching skills were growing and the GFA invited her back for further managerial training a month later.
She was there for just 8 months before she was awarded a UEFA B Licence for coaching in Europe and a C-Licence for CAF.
When she returned to Rwanda, it didn’t take Nyinawumuntu long to show the fruits of all this training and experience. From 2009 to 2017, she guided AS Kigali to 9 consecutive national league titles. All of this whilst coaching the national women’s team from 2014-2017.
Her rapid and incredible success was truly inspiring for girls and women across the country, according to Felicite Rwemarika.
“They have realised that women have some potential, women can do it,” says Rwemarika.
“We are having women coaches, we’re having a national women’s coach.”
“At least there has been I can say about 80% of mindsets changed.”
Sharing her success with other women
In 2018, Nyinawumuntu spent some time away from the pitch, working as an Administrator and Financial Manager for AKWOS.
She also trained 100 women to become football coaches, to build on the increasing recognition for women’s sports in Rwanda.
She felt it was important to use her success to create opportunities for other women too.
“I try to be a good role model of other women as a support I need to give our country.”
“Sport is a great tool to help the girls and the women to become confident.”
Ultimately, she hopes to tackle negative stereotypes about women’s presence in sport. Not just in men’s minds, but in women’s.
“My wish is to help other women to be like me, or more like me.”
“I think everything I do, I just need to show the society that even women have ability to do the same as the men.”
“Many women were motivated to be like Grace.”
When a European football giant came calling
The latest chapter in Nyinawumuntu’s coaching career began in 2019, when representatives from the mighty Paris St Germain (PSG) arrived in Rwanda to establish a new football academy.
Nyinawumuntu was invited as one of 22 coaching finalists, to a 3-day workshop run by PSG’s Head of Coaching, Benjamin Houri.
Nyinawumuntu may have been the only female coach there, but that wasn’t the only reason she stood out. She excelled in both the theoretical and practical sessions, beating out all of the competition to become PSG Rwanda’s Technical Director.
It was another incredible triumph not only for Nyinawumuntu, but all Rwandan women, says Ms Rwemarika.
“That will be a motivation for people to see,” says Rwemarika.
“This girl was an orphan, but now she’s doing great. She has constructed her own house, she has her own car. She was the national women’s coach, now she’s the technical director [at PSG].”
Grace Nyinawumuntu (Centre) at the PSG Academy, Rwanda. Photo: PSG Academy Rwanda Instagram
Nyinawumuntu and her new staff began scouting Rwanda’s young talent in July this year, with the academy officially launching in September.
She’s pleased that PSG has established an academy in Rwanda and believes it will have a significant impact on the quality of the country’s domestic and international teams.
She beams when she considers everything she’s achieved at just 37 years of age.
So many people told Nyinawumuntu she would never have a career in sport, and yet she’s working for one of football’s biggest powerhouses.
“People who are in the area of sport. I can tell you that 60% even didn’t see my face, but they know my name.”
“Everywhere I go, they know Grace. Everywhere they need to see Grace.”
Her dogged refusal to let any obstacles prevent her from pursuing sport has taken her so far, and Nyinawumuntu says sport has given her so much in return.
“Everything I have. The house I have, the car I have, everything I have – came from sport. And also sport gave me the happiness after that genocide happened in Rwanda.”
“[It] is a good tool that can help everyone to overcome any challenge.”