Rwanda has been at the centre of African football's field of vision over the past few weeks, hosting the African Nations Championship (CHAN) which concluded on Sunday, seeing neighbours Congo DR triumphantly taking the title back across the border.
A tournament that draws focus on the wealth of talent the continent has plying their trade on home soil, it proved the perfect backdrop for the 'Unleash African Football' festival, an event uniting fans and players in the belief that the game at all levels can bring about social growth.
Run by charity streetfootballworld, in collaboration with CAF and local group Association des Jeunes Sportifs de Kigali (Esperance), the event saw legends of African football such as Cameroonian hero Roger Milla and former Zambia star Kalusha Bwalya take to the pitch with locals at the wide-ranging event. The star names and football-lovers of the community descended on Esperance's home at the Kimisagara Football for Hope Centre in Kigali for the festivities on 6 February, ahead of the CHAN final the following day.
"It was an important event for me and for my organisation as a whole," explained Gilbert Ndayambaje, deputy legal representative at Esperance. "Football has the power to unify different people from different areas and domains; the festival was an opportunity to demonstrate what we do as an organisation, which is use football for social transformation."
Held at one of FIFA's '20 centres for 2010', which built on the legacy of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Kimisagara gave a new home to the group who have spent the last two decades trying to fight against the issues of ethnic division in the nation following the 1994 genocide. Since opening its doors in 2012, the centre now helps 10,000 children every year providing social services and football facilities.
Backed by music and dance, the festival featured two Rwandan professional players alongside the aforementioned legends taking part in a novel match – called 'football3' – aimed at fostering fair play, teamwork and respect. Mixed gender teams decide the rules before they play, with the sides reflecting on game at the final whistle, seeing both goals and fair play earning points.
Volunteer Emmanuel Kayumba, who is also a second division player in Rwanda, was initially skeptical about the concept, but has since become one of its main supporters after seeing the potential it had for integration. "The first time Esperance showed it to us, we didn’t really care for it but after being taught about football3 we realised it provided the opportunity to play with girls and give them the chance to compete too," he explained, after being overawed by the presence of Milla and Bwalya. "It’s important to me to know that girls have the same opportunities as boys in Rwanda and in society in general."
With grassroots talent and governors alongside the locals and children in attendance, they were treated to football being used as a vehicle to discuss challenging issues such as discrimination, gender inequality and HIV/AIDS, while providing workshops highlighting the role that the sport can play in addressing social issues in the region.