The twin pillars of passion in Rwanda are Christianity and English Premier League Football. The sides of the small buses, the mutatus, are adorned with colourful reminders of this: Wayne Rooney; a picture of Christ; Steven Gerard; sayings from the Bible; a picture of Didier Drogba; the Virgin Mary. Strangely the juxtaposition isn’t incongruous on the buses’ doors, bonnets, bumpers. It feels harmonious.
Instead of following local football, including the national team the Amavubi (the hornets), Rwandans invariably follow one of four English football teams – Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. Even in African tournaments such as the African Cup of Nations, their support will go to whichever nation has their English club players – for example, Rwandans who support Chelsea would support Ivory Coast, because of Didier Drogba.
This blog post is part of a series called Letters from the Heart of Africa. A background and contents can be found by clicking here
Occasionally a ball would thud on the front gate of the house. The children in the red-earth road would played all day, with giggles and occasional hollers and cheers; they played ceaselessly , even as they walked home.
Like children all across Africa, they played with a ball made from banana leaves bound tightly together with string. The result is surprisingly spherical with a roll that is true and disturbed only by uneven surfaces of the road. Sometimes these balls are filled with bits of paper, card, anything they can find, and if they can get nylon string to bind them, so much the better. The football is soft on their bare feet.
Sometimes the string on the banana-leaf ball breaks during a game and it crumbles in to dried leaves strewn across the road; players for some moments chase different pieces, not knowing which is the ball. The larger piece, flapping around trying to roll? Or the other flakey pieces? Then the game stops as emergency repairs are made till it is as close to spherical again.
The football lads in the road only spoke Kinyarwanda, but ours was a simple friendship based on a mutual love of football; players names became our common language.
I don’t normally give travel tips in my blogs, but I will say this to anyone going to visit Rwanda: knowing some basic facts about the main English football teams, name-dropping players and managers, details of great games, affords the traveller much social kudos in breaking down barriers.
For example if someone scored a goal at close range, I might point at him through the gate and shout “Didier Drogba,” Then we might shout, “Wayne Rooney!” or “Cristiano Ronaldo!”, “Cesc Fabregas!” or “Adi Adebayour.” Thus it would go on, without a single word of English, Kinyarwandan or French, – just a list of random, but excellent footballers’ names, like magical mantras creating a bond that transcended language, the culture of football, capable of creating deep joy and empathy.
Rwanda’s infatuation with English football is part of a cultural shift towards many British things. Rwanda joined the British Commonwealth, and became the first member country that was not an ex-colony of the British; she started to play cricket; she joined the East African Community whose big members are the Anglophone Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The English language became the medium of education displacing French and billboards all around Rwanda have adverts in English.
The official reason for favouring the English language is the move to make Rwanda in to a regional I.T. hub, and the English language is seen as the language of international commerce.
The underlying reason of the tide change from French to English is a messy political falling out with France. Before the genocide, Rwanda was part and parcel of that proud expanse of Africa called Francophonie, French speaking Africa, and the population of football-loving Rwandans supported French football teams like Olympique Lyonnais, Toulouse and PSG .
The genocide changed all that – the French armed and supported the pre-1994 regime, under whose watch the genocide was planned. Even in the last days of the genocide, the French intervened and created a safe haven for escaping killers in the now notorious Project Turquoise; they found themselves on the wrong side of history and on the wrong side of the post-genocide Rwandan government, many of whom had grown up in English-speaking Uganda.
So began a bitter falling out as Rwanda extricated herself from the Gallic embrace, finger by finger; when I lived there in 2008, the French embassy and cultural centre were closed after a French judge in 2006 accused the aides of President Kagame of causing the plane crash of the former president Habyarimana, the act that sparked the genocide. Rwanda then broke off all diplomatic ties with Paris, and gave the French ambassador 24 hours to pack up his belongings and leave.
In 2008 Rwanda made English the official language for education from nurseries to universities and at about the same time a five hundred page report published by the Rwandan government made no subtleties on who was to blame for the genocide accusing at point blank range 33 French politicians and army officers, including the top dog himself the then-President of France Francois Miterrand.
Sport and politics don’t normally mix but then Rwanda has never been a conventional nation, she is unlike her neighbours; she has natural borders, curvy and jagged, fashioned by rivers and mountain ranges not by the pencils of colonial cartographers; she has been a single nation state, a one tribe country (compared to Tanzania’s 120), with one king for hundreds of years, not needing the unifying coercion of colonialists; she was one of the last to be colonised; Africa’s most densely populated country; Africa’s most Christian country; the African country with the most female parliamentarians. In that very same tradition she became the first Francophone African nation to shed her Gallic character.
Her passion for English football is seen in the bars of Kigali at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon when men drink and sing the same football songs of their compatriots miles away at the stadia of Anfield, Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford and the Emirates.
Rwanda’s darling, the English Premier League is a passionate love affair in its own right but one that grew out of a messy falling out.
For a full table of contents on the series Letters from the Heart of Africa, please click here