What next for women’s rugby in Kenya?

Kenya Lionesses at the 2014 Confederation of African Rugby Women's Africa Cup 7s, which they won

Kenya Lionesses 2014 Confederation of African Rugby Women’s Africa Cup 7s Silver Medalists. Photo by mentalacrobatics

Women’s rugby in Kenya boasts a rich history rising from a handful of ladies who would split their time between learning rugby and playing more familiar sports like football and basketball, to one of the top women’s rugby teams in Africa second only to South Africa in both the sevens and fifteens version of the game.

Some of my proudest moments have been when I served the game of rugby as Team Director for the women’s national teams, Kenya Lionesses, at sevens and fifteens, when as Tournament Director I organised for the women’s team to play on the main pitch during the annual Rugby Super Series and when as Tournament Logistics Manager I helped grow the women’s Safari7s tournament.

Women’s rugby in Kenya began in 2006 and since then the national teams have received several accolades, amongst them:

Fifteens

2009 -Women’s Elgon Cup winner
2010 – Women’s Elgon Cup winner
2011- Women’s Elgon Cup winner
2012 – Women’s Elgon Cup winner
2014- Women’s Elgon Cup winner

Sevens

2012 – Silver Medalist – Dubai Sevens Women’s International Invitational Category
2013 – Bronze Medalist, CAR Women’s Sevens
2013- Semi Finalist, Dubai Sevens Women’s International Invitational Category
2014 – Silver Medalist, CAR Women’s Sevens
2014- Plate Finalist, Dubai Sevens women’s International Invitational Category

This is a great feat by any standards. But what makes their story that much more special, is that the major if not the only driving force that has propelled the team to where they are today, is the sheer determination of the players, fighting against all odds. There was no major corporate backing, no major campaign from the Kenya Rugby Union, just women with a desire to play rugby and to play it well.

Mwamba RFC forms the bulk of the women’s national team. Other women teams have come and gone, but the resilience of Mwamba management has ensured that their women’s side has beaten the odds.

Over the past few years, there have been efforts to increase the number of women’s rugby teams at club level and at secondary level. Rugby clubs have been encouraged to go the way of Mwamba RFC and build women’s teams. But here’s why these efforts will not bare fruit soon.

Increasing the number of women’s teams playing at club level is currently hinged on men’s clubs starting sister teams. Quite frankly, if some club sides playing at the the highest level, the Kenya Cup, are dealing with issues like no playing boots, inability to raise teams or funds to honour fixtures, then I doubt that creating a women’s side would be top of their priority list. Having a women’s team comes with a similar set of demands – kit, technical bench, travel expenses etc.

Several secondary schools are teaching girls to play rugby and this is commendable. To keep morale going and to hone skills, the next logical step is to enable these girls to participate in competitions. A lot of schools, particularly western Kenya based ones, have expressed a frustration in not having opportunities for the girls to compete. Knowing the game and not being able to compete is like a baby learning to walk and not being allowed to explore its surroundings. It’s frustrating. Without any competitions these girls will soon lose interest in the game.

With these challenges the women’s game should expect nothing but the highest level of support from their rugby union. It was, therefore, a great shock to read late last year that the Kenya Rugby Union Director for women’s rugby had decided to take the unprecedented step of disbandment of the national women’s team explaining that the union wanted to start from scratch and have Kenya Cup teams form women’s sides and therefore grow the player base. This decision seemed to have more to do with political upheaval within the board than the performance of the women’s team. How do you disband the Africa Cup Silver medalists?

The success or failure of women’s rugby in Kenya hinges desperately on the Kenya Rugby Union and its ability to think strategically. If recent boardroom shenanigans, culminating in the resignation of the Chairman, are anything to go by rugby in Kenya needs to take a long, hard look at itself. Without vision and strategic leadership women’s rugby in Kenya’s primary and secondary schools will die. The national women’s teams will quickly fall down the ranks, women’s rugby in Kenya will continue to be a satellite event and will never get to the main stage. Then when women’s rugby is dead, this cancer will continue to eat at men’s rugby until finally, rugby in Kenya will face extinction, just like our lions, which our national teams wear proudly on their chests and are named after.

The KRU issues are symptomatic of a wider social problem. Just like the Kenyan electorate, the rugby fraternity will vote in officials on the basis of what perks they offer them leading up to elections and on the basis of promises to return the favour once officials get into office. Some of our players no longer want to listen to manifestos for the advancement of the game. They want to listen to what campaigners have brought them on the day. Kit, boots, beer. Then what? Voting on the basis of club affiliation then ranting and raving when the board members do not perform is really an exercise in futility.

The good news is that there is still time to fix things.

In the next couple of months, we will have a chance to vote in new board members. What if…what if we voted people in with a record of having grown the game? What if we required that anyone standing for office presented us with his or her manifestos for the docket they were vying for, and what if we took time to actually scrutinize these manifestos? What if we voted in people who have shown commitment to sacrifice time for these positions? What if we voted in people who we trust to make decisions on the basis of what works for Kenyan rugby and not just specific clubs?

In rugby, the men’s and women’s game is exactly the same. They follow the same rules and require the same set up despite the gender differences. It should be no surprise to anyone then that the women want to play at centre stage, they want leagues of their own, and they want to compete locally and internationally. They deserve this.

Kenya Rugby Union’s strategy should concentrate on standardizing the support that national teams get. One way to do this is to have blanket sponsorships for the national teams. Sponsors should not have the luxury of cherry picking off the shelf, teams that they would like to sponsor. The amount of money offered up to sponsor the men’s national team’s shirt for example, should be enough to cover the women’s and the under 19 teams.

I hope that KRU will leverage off the excitement to develop the women’s game and use it to develop secondary school rugby. KRU sanctioned competitions need not break bank. KRU’s primary role will be to ensure maintenance of tournament standards and officiating. The Union should meet the girls where they are, in the schools, as they work on bridging the gap between the schools and the clubs and the national team.

We should look at creating women’s rugby at club level independent of the men’s clubs. Are there corporates or members clubs out there willing to invest? At this point, the only way for women’s rugby is up and the future looks bright. The Union should take lead in sharing this vision with the rugby fraternity and with funders.

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to some of the people who have served the women’s game selflessly in Kenya. Coach Sammy Kemmey and Pritt Nyandat who were instrumental in the early days, previous team managers Yvonne Makwali and Doris Mwanzia, the current technical bench Head Coach Kevin Wambua, Strength and Conditioning Coach Michael Shamiah, Team Manager, Angela Olum and Physiotherapist Ben Mahinda, Namulisa Kombo who shows us that women are right at home at top management of their local rugby clubs, the players who sacrifice year in, year out for the love of the game. The fans who would turn up 3 hours early to watch the women’s games before the men play. The women referees, coaches at national and school level and Mwangi Muthee who despite his problems as Chair of KRU was instrumental in establishing the Mwamba Women’s rugby team.

The future of women’s rugby in Kenya

Kenya's Women's fifteens national team lifts the 2011 Elgon Cup

There is an aura of complacency surrounding women’s rugby in Kenya. It is now time to take steps to move it to the next level.

Development of women’s rugby in Kenya has to become a matter of national concern. I want to be able to read about the girls’ rugby competition at the national secondary schools games. I want to read about a women’s rugby clubs league and I want that league to consist of more than three teams. I want to hear about a women’s university rugby league. I want to hear about Kenya hosting an international women’s tournament attended by teams other than Uganda.

When we do get to watch the girls and women’s teams play, we all remark about how well they play, how experienced they have become, how much exposure they need to get. Talk is great. But it needs to be backed up by actions.

Women’s rugby in Kenya does need more exposure and awareness. This means that we need to create opportunities for more games and tournaments for both local and international teams.

The women’s game needs to get local partners to assist in financing and supporting women’s rugby in Kenya. The arguments for how women’s rugby needs to be seen to be performing before corporates can come on board, and how women’s rugby cannot perform without funding are chicken and egg stories, which do not help the situation.

Perhaps Kenyan rugby should focus on appealing to philanthropic corporates other than those that only focus on immediate returns on investment. We can no longer look at women’s rugby as a product, which has to be packaged to suit possible investors. Consider the milestones that women’s rugby in Kenya has made thus far, the lives that it has affected, the ethos that it promotes amongst the players and then think of the kind of people or corporates that we want to help to promote the women’s game.

In 2009, I served as Team Manager for the women’s national team. During this time, I watched the players exhibit a great love for the game by diligently attending training sessions throughout the year for two competitive fixtures, in the Elgon Cup, which are sometimes uncertain. This year for example, the return leg in Uganda was dropped and the Elgon Cup had already been awarded to Kenya until it was announced that the Uganda leg was back on.

During the 2010 Safari Sevens tournament, local women’s teams were scheduled to play a game at about 9 or 10am on the final day of the tournament. The timing for the game was moved up to 8am and this was not properly communicated to the team. On arrival 8am, the women’s teams were informed that they had arrived late for their game and that they would not be allowed to take the pitch because the day’s schedule was extremely tight.

This was very unfortunate because the women had gone out of their way to invite friends and family to show up and watch them play at the Safari Sevens, which is a big deal. What was even more unfortunate was that although the women’s fixture had been cancelled because of a tight schedule, there was still enough time in the programme to have scantily dressed women run onto the pitch and dance for close to five minutes, three different times!

During my time on the Rugby Super Series committee, and particularly as Tournament Director in 2009, it took extra effort to get the women’s game to be played in the afternoon in front of fans. An early morning game might have made it easier to plan the day’s fixtures, but it would have meant that the women played to empty stands.

Despite the odds being against them the women’s rugby fraternity continues to tirelessly contribute to the growth of rugby in Kenya. Coach Sammy Kemmey, Assistant Coach Pritt Nyandatt, physiotherapist George Omondi and Team Manager Yvonno Makwali work endlessly to keep player morale up.

Members of the women’s rugby fraternity have been instrumental in running mini rugby programmes in Kenya. Also, some of the players perform administrative roles at the Kenya Rugby Union and others are IRB certified rugby referees.

Recently, it was announced that three sub unions; Western, Universities and Coast, had been formed by the Kenya Rugby Union. I hope that these sub unions have specifically included in their mandate, development of the women’s game.

We now have a director in charge of women’s rugby. This is a step in the right direction. It is also great to see that Pritt Nyandat, assistant coach for the national women’s rugby team, is part of a recently constituted National Squads Management and Elite Performance Sub Committee. I do hope that there are immediate plans for proactive engagement of the Union in development of the women’s game. I also hope that eventually, the KRU will appreciate the growth of women’s rugby in Kenya and allow the game to be governed by a separate body; Kenya Women’s Rugby Union perhaps?

Rugby clubs in Kenya also have their part to play in developing women’s rugby in the country. They can do this most effectively by creating a women’s section within the club membership and subjecting them to the same conditions as male players. This would give clubs extra members and with it, extra income from membership fees. Having women in the clubs will also increase the publicity of the club and improve chances of getting those elusive sponsorships and grants.

Finally, women rugby players in Kenya need to get out there and force the world to see them. Play hard and fight for what’s rightfully yours. You’ve earned it.