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Cricket has contributed to social integration in Africa, can it do more?

Training session at Ndera Cricket Hub. Photo credit: Ndera Cricket hub

Training session at Ndera Cricket Hub. Photo credit: Ndera Cricket hub

By Ijeoma Okigbo, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)

It is two hours to the scheduled time and young cricketers, numbering no fewer than 30 from Ndera Cricket Hub in Gasabo District, Rwanda, are already seated in the living room of their coach, Eric Dusabemungu, to watch their compatriots play against Tanzania.

It is Rwanda’s best chance to secure their first ever Cricket World Cup ticket and the kids have arrived well in time eager to witness history amidst anxiety.

After six days of action with nine teams participating at the U-19 Women’s Cricket World Cup Qualifiers in Botswana, the Tanzania versus Rwanda tie becomes the climax of the competition.

The tie will determine who secures Africa’s remaining lone slot for participating in the maiden 2023 U-19 World Cup in South Africa.

At the final whistle, Rwanda triumph over Tanzania by six wickets to earn the country’s first ever world cup berth, for both male and female, in any cricket format.

The victory in Botswana elicited screams and excitement amongst the youngsters. It reverberated across Ndera community in far away Rwanda.

Rwanda celebrates victory at the U-19 Cricket World Cup Qualifiers in Botswana. Photo credit: Rwanda Cricket Association
Rwanda celebrates victory at the U-19 Cricket World Cup Qualifiers in Botswana. Photo credit: Rwanda Cricket Association

The U-19 team have made the country proud, more so, are the four players from the rural community of Ndera who made the Rwanda squad. Ndera stood still on Sept. 12, 2022, a day every member of the community will ever remember with relish.

Cricket was introduced to Rwanda after the 1994 Genocide. It was reportedly brought into the country by returning exiled Rwandans who took refuge in neighbouring Uganda and Kenya.

The returnees formed the Rwanda Cricket Association (RCA) in 1999 and since then, the game has grown impressively, not just on the pitch but as a tool for social good and healing the wounds of the past.

Since 2014, Rwanda organised Kwibuka T20 Women’s Cricket tournament in commemoration of the genocide, the most recent held in June 2022, with eight participating countries.

Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania,  Botswana, Brasil, Germany, Kenya and Uganda participated in the last edition.

To ensure the growth of the game at grassroots, the RCA, in 2018 introduced cricket hubs.

“The aim is to unite cricketers from diverse schools and communities to a common space,” Emmanuel Byiringiro, General Manager of RCA told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reporter who covered the tournament.

According to him, at the hub, the players can improve on the skills learnt from various developmental programmes and access quality facilities.

“These hubs, numbering seven nationwide, have produced lots of success stories for the game. One of such is the present national U-19 Women’s team’s qualification for the World Cup.

“All players who represented Rwanda in Botswana are talents groomed from the hubs and most of our national U-19 men’s team. So, it’s a testament of how far we have come,” Byiringiro said.

Captain Gisele Ishimwe and all-rounder Henriette Ishimwe were outstanding for the U-19 Women’s team. Both Ishimwes’, though not siblings, are from the Ndera hub.

In their six matches played at the tournament, both earned two ‘Player of the Match’ awards each, contributed 468 runs in total, their partnership got the tournament’s first and second century against Mozambique.

“Right now, we see ourselves as role models in our community. We are thankful to the Ndera hub and we know that more talents from the hub will do exploits,” Ishimwe, the captain of the team, said.

As in Rwanda, cricket has also played a major role in social integration in Nigeria where the sport is gradually gaining popularity.

In 2021, Nigeria won the International Cricket Council (ICC) 100 per cent Female Initiative of the Year Award for Africa. The award was in recognition of Nigeria’s effort in using cricket as a tool for girls’ empowerment and socio-cultural change.

The Nigerian Cricket Federation (NCF) and Girls Aspire Sports Initiative—a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO)—based in Nigeria’s North Central region, were lauded for the initiative which mentored and empowered kids of school-age through cricket.

Players from Girls Aspire Sports Initiative pose with their makeshift bats. Photo credit: Girls Aspire
Players from Girls Aspire Sports Initiative pose with their makeshift bats. Photo credit: Girls Aspire

The efforts produced a cricket-playing environment in a small community in Niger state, where players use makeshift bats and balls for training.

“We are hoping that in the nearest future this town of Gauraka will become a cricket hub where kids will grow up to see cricket as part of life,’’ Emeka Igwilo, General Manager, NCF, once said when he visited the community.

Going a step further, in June 2022, Nigeria won the ‘ICC Cricket 4 Good Social Impact Initiative of the Year’ Award.

The award was in recognition of the NCF’s impact in positively affecting the lives of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who were escaping from  insurgency in the North Eastern Nigeria where several thousands have been killed and no fewer than  2.1 million people internally displaced.

As part of efforts to provide humanitarian support, an NGO, Promoting Ethics through Sports (PETS) Foundation, in partnership with the NCF launched a special intervention programme.

The programme has seen the deployment of coaches to over 2,000 persons, ranging from three to 17 years in Home for the Needy IDPs camp in Benin, Edo State, Nigeria.

Here, cricket is used as it was in Rwanda, to provide hope to the IDPs by teaching them important life skills and providing them support systems. This is paying off.

“Since this initiative started in 2019, it has been a massive success,’’ Cyril Musa, the coach in charge of cricket activities in the camp, said.

“Some of the cricketers will represent Edo State in the National Youth Games (NYG) scheduled to hold later this year. They are hopeful that this giant step  will help in lifting their families out of poverty in the future.

“This camp is growing to become a cricket hub. Literally, everybody here plays cricket. Going by the progress they have made, I am optimistic that in the next two years, some of the players from the camp will be playing for the country,’’ Musa said.

Some cricketers in the IDP camp in Benin pose for a photograph after a training session. Photo credit: Cyril Musa
Some cricketers in the IDP camp in Benin pose for a photograph after a training session. Photo credit: Cyril Musa

The history of Cricket in Nigeria is over 100 years old.

Nigeria’s first international cricket match was against the Gold Coast British Colony (Now Ghana) in 1904.

In spite of this history, Cricket fan base in Nigeria is relatively low as it continues to be under the shadows of other sports such as football, athletics and basketball.

A sport like football thrives in Nigeria because of academies where young people from different ethnic backgrounds meet, interact and compete. Their talents are exported abroad with attendant economic gains.

Rwanda and Nigeria experiences demonstrate the potential of cricket to re-enact the football experience if not surpass it as an agent of poverty alleviation and social integration.

Observers say the managers of cricket in Africa should leverage on opportunities in cricket to achieve the above goal.

The cricket hubs should mirror the football academies. This will see the sport develop and have similar economic impact on players’ life as football has on academy products.

Furthermore, its fan base will grow steadily, albeit over time, with more young people coming in contact with the sport.

The onus therefore lies in Africa to take a cue from the success stories of cricket hubs in Rwanda and Nigeria.

They should make deliberate attempts to make it not just a tool for social reintegration but a pathway to get the game to the front burner of sporting business in the continent.

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