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Rwanda rugby in Asia: 'A dream come true'

By Miranda Leitsinger, CNN
  • Rugby team first from Rwanda to play in Asia
  • 13 Rwandan players in Hong Kong
  • Man who grew up in Hong Kong and worked in Rwanda brought team over
  • Team has many "first" experiences: plane, boat and train rides

Hong Kong, China (CNN) -- Djuma Adams Mugabo used to sell cigarettes, wash cars and carry bags for people as a street kid living in Rwanda's capital of Kigali in the years just after the country's genocide ended.

His dad disappeared around the time of the 1994 genocide -- no one knows what happened to him -- and he eventually became separated from his mother and four siblings and had to live on the streets, sometimes begging for food and not having a place to sleep. Now 23, Mugabo could not imagine that one day he would be in Hong Kong as one of 13 Rwandans selected to join the country's rugby team in its first international competition in Asia.

"It's like a dream come true," said Mugabo, who lived on the streets for about eight years and is now team captain for the tournament. "We've been waiting for this. We couldn't believe it until we got on the plane ... It's my first time on the plane, my first time to see the ocean."

The team, ranging in age from 17 to 27, will compete Wednesday in the Kowloon International 10s Rugbyfest, a one-day tournament that takes place before the Cathay Pacific/Credit Suisse Hong Kong Sevens over the weekend. Teams from Britain, South Africa, Australia and a few from Hong Kong will join in the competition, which features 10 players on each side with games running 10 minutes straight.

Video: Rwandan team's remarkable trip
Video: 'No division in rugby'

Getting the Rwandans to Hong Kong was the work of Dave Hughes, a rugby fan and player who grew up in the southern Chinese enclave.

While working for a non-governmental organization helping street children play sports in Rwanda in 2008, Hughes one day came across some youths tossing around a rugby ball in the capital of Kigali.

"I was pretty surprised to see anyone playing rugby in Rwanda," he said.

He eventually tracked down Rwanda's rugby players and started playing for the Sharks team. Other teams --- the Buffalos, the Gorillas, and the Grizzlies --- emerged, so he organized a few tournaments.

Read more about Hughes' experience organizing Rwanda rugby

Hughes, a chartered surveyor, raised money from the rugby community, friends, family and strangers --- and paid out of his own pocket -- to get the team here. See the team's Web site

"For these guys, it's an absolute opportunity of a lifetime to see the world, to showcase the rugby and what they have learned," he said. "They are extremely excited. ... They are on the pitch now, training with one of the best 10s team in the world, and they held their own."

If you want to achieve, you have to believe.
--Djuma Adams Mugabo, 23-year-old Rwanda rugby player
  • Rwanda
  • Genocide
  • Rugby

The team is having many "firsts" in Hong Kong (apart from their three plane trips needed to get here): training with world-renowned international teams (New Zealand Aliens, the Penguins), walking on the city's famed outdoor moving escalator, seeing skyscrapers and a vast modern road network, and taking a subway.

On one such excursion, riding on the traditional wooden boats with red sails that crisscross the Hong Kong harbor, players sang songs of thanks --- clapping their hands and stomping their feet as the sun set. They wore team shirts that read on the back, "Strength and togetherness" in their national language of Kinyarwanda.

"I have to focus strongly and think about what I am going to do that day (they compete) because there will be a lot of fans. In our country, we don't have fans because rugby is not very popular," said Didier Kamanzi, 24. "I have to show what I know in rugby to make them happy, to make them shout, 'Rwanda, Rwanda!' So I have to give 100 percent."

Back home, the teammates are friends who help each other out, with some housing those who have nowhere to live. Team coach Gerald Nsenga, 34, took in Mugabo and paid his school fees so he could continue his education.

"I used to live on my own and it was a really hard situation for me," Mugabo said. "You know that, in school, you are a bright student, but you can't make it because ... you are poor --- you can't make it -- and some times they dismiss you. And you go home and you just cry. ...

"The good thing is, I always have hope ... that anything is possible. If you want to achieve, you have to believe," he said.

Most players were jobless, doing whatever work they could find, said Nsenga, who noted that some of them were also students.

"We work as a team ... whenever there is a problem with a player, we help them," he said.

The divides of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which at least 800,000 members mainly from the minority Tutsi community were killed, don't exist on the team, players and Nsenga said.

"I think, yes, sports are a very important factor in reconciliation. ... In sports we don't talk about differences, we talk about being one," he said. "They have that sense of belonging, we belong to this team, we are brothers ... we are all rugby players."

Players said they would take the lessons learned from their Hong Kong experience back with them home.

"I learned how to travel in a boat, how to go in a plane ... even in my game, I learned" from the foreign coaches, said Kamanzi. "Rwanda is a small country, but we try to grow up."