KIGALI, RWANDA – It is not yet 7 a.m. on a Friday, and players are already on the football field at Nyamirambo Stadium in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Sixteen young women, ages 15 to 22, are clad in white jerseys and running drills in advance of Sunday’s game in the national women’s league.
Standing in front of the team, Grace Nyinawumuntu also wears a white jersey. Nyinawumuntu, 29, is the coach of this national club, the Association Sportive de Kigali women’s team. A whistle hangs from her mouth as she tells her team what to do next.
Nyinawumuntu was the first Rwandan woman to become a referee in 2004. Later, she became the first female professional coach in 2008, even helping to found the Association Sportive de Kigali women’s team.
Born in Rwanda’s Kayonza district in the Eastern province, Nyinawumuntu grew up an orphan after her parents died in the 1994 genocide. When she was a child, she liked playing sports with her male cousins. She says her little brother died at a young age, and her sister would not play “boy’s games,” like football.
“When I was still a child, I never played girl’s games,” she says. “I used to play all sort of boy’s games, including football.”
It became her passion.
“Football is my everything,” Nyinawumuntu says. “When I am coaching, this is my greatest leisure in life.”
But the path to her coaching position has been anything but leisurely.
When Nyinawumuntu was growing up, it was taboo for girls to play football. Although it’s become more culturally acceptable for women to participate in the sport, playing and coaching football are still considered inappropriate jobs for women.
Nyinawumuntu says that women who play football earn the reputation of being independent and disobedient. Recently married and without children, she admits that her husband has asked her to give up coaching because he doesn’t think football is an appropriate career for a married woman.
“These days, I am not in a good mood with my husband,” she says. “He says he doesn’t want me to continue in football career.”
But the coach is relentless, avowing her love for football above all things.
“This is my profession,” she says. “I studied it, and it is my job, which pays me, and I am proud of doing it. People have different things to do for fun. For me, it’s football. I can’t stop it for any influence, even my husband or my future children.”
Football has long been a “boy’s game” in Rwanda, as in many regions of the world. Although women’s involvement in football is more culturally accepted now, playing or coaching football is still considered an inappropriate career for women. Undeterred, women have been challenging the stereotype by pursuing their passions through careers as football players, referees and coaches.
Mukagatabaro Verdiana, 77, says it used to be taboo for girls to play football in Rwanda.
“No, no, no,” she says. “In the Rwandan culture, a girl were not