Mary Watkins with the kits.
A Rugby-mad Welsh charity worker has been recognised in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list for her work giving children in Rwanda the chance to play the sport, whilst getting praised by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab as well.
Mary Watkins celebrated being awarded a British Empire Medal for services to international development after helping spark an explosion of interest in the game through her charity Friends of Rwandan Rugby (FoRR).
The Newport-based charity she runs with husband Glyn offers coaching and kit to children and young adults across Rwanda.
The couple have been a driving force behind rugby coaching in the country since working as teachers in Rwanda through the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) charity, funded by the UK Government.
Their efforts were even credited with Rwanda taking to the pitch for the African country’s first ever World Cup qualifier.
Proud Mary, 55, said: “South Africa has shown how rugby can help unite a nation, so Wales can be proud of the part we’ve played helping Rwanda fall in love with the game.
“Rugby is something new and fresh and is helping bring communities together that were scarred by the 1994 genocide.
“There’s a lot of love for Wales in Rwanda. We were in Kigali in 2019 when Wales played New Zealand in the bronze World Cup match and the locals were all cheering us on.
“There must be 50 teams playing in Welsh club kit and you’ll see lots of Rwandan sides proudly posing with Welsh flags.”
She added: “I still have no idea who to thank for nominating me for my Honour. When I received the email my husband said, ‘It’s a scam’, and once I realised it was real, I was in shock.
“The hardest thing was not being able to tell anyone, especially when all there’s been to talk about is Covid-19.”
It was a proud moment for Mary when Rwanda – nicknamed the Silverbacks after the country’s famous gorillas – played a 2023 World Cup qualifier against Ivory Coast.
Mary explained: “Welsh coaches and teams have really got behind our charity and almost all of the Rwanda international side have discovered the game or received coaching through our work.
“The qualifiers for 2023 started just weeks after the last World Cup finished in Japan. It was such an amazing moment to see Rwanda line-up for their historic first qualifier.
“Two of our Rugby Development Officers were actually in the team and most of the rest of the team have benefitted from training by our coaches.
“Even though the Silverbacks lost 60-3, the game sparked so much interest. We’d love to find a high-profile Welsh player to go out to Rwanda as an ambassador for our charity to build on this.”
The Watkins’ drive to spread their love of rugby came about in 2014.
The teachers had volunteered through VSO to work at a school in western Rwanda and ended up coaching 200 pupils on how to play rugby.
Mary explained: “We’d been invited to dinner with the principal, and when the conversation came on to sport, he decided Wales was not very good at football, but could we help coach rugby to kids.
“Being Welsh was the only coaching qualification badge Glyn needed to get the job. I remember how bewildered he looked when 200 pupils turned up and he only had one ball.
“But word of rugby quickly spread and before we knew it people were crossing the nearby border from Congo to play. I think we were responsible for the first ever Rwanda v Congo international, although the Congo players all had to disappear at 5.30pm and make a 20 minute run before the border closed at 6pm.”
Prior to coronavirus lockdown restrictions, Friends of Rwandan Rugby was teaching rugby to children and young adults in over 100 schools and communities in ten out of 30 districts across Rwanda.
The Rwanda Rugby Federation fund four of FoRR’s Rugby Development Officers.
Their work has been supported by Welsh clubs including Dragons, Risca, Caldicot, Bonymaen, and Oakdale who have generously supplied kits and coaches on the Watkins’ visits to the country.
Lack of facilities and funding is still a challenge for this fledgling sport in Rwanda.
Mary said: “We took out another 600kg of rugby kit a couple of weeks ago and the generous clubs supporting us are all tickled with the idea of teams in Rwanda sporting Welsh club colours.
“In 2017, I was given 4,000 unsold souvenir 2015 World Cup rugby balls that all said Wales on them. I now only have 660 sat in my garage waiting for the next few tours.
“The pitches are dreadful. The Silverbacks’ posts are just a load of scaffolding they’ve ingeniously put together. They sometimes use bamboo strapped to football posts or just their imagination.
“One of the games we went to was delayed for half-an-hour while they waited for a man on a bicycle to turn up with a very large sack of sawdust to mark out the lines.
“But a £1 donation pays for one child to receive rugby coaching for a year and we are so proud to be helping develop the game there.”
After being introduced to the game by the Watkins in 2014, Donatien Ufitimfura formed his own team Rusizi Resilience RFC. It became the eighth side to join the national league, which led to Rwanda’s official recognition by World Rugby.
He’s now an international player for Rwanda and claims rugby is helping people move on from the horrors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
He said: “I was always very angry before I started playing rugby, but now I’m always happy because of it.
“I have grown up as an orphan in poor conditions. I never saw my father. I didn’t know what rugby was, but I think it was what I was meant to play. It is bringing people together again.”
UK aid has helped lift almost two million Rwandans out of poverty since 2005.
Mum-of-two Mary’s love of the country was sparked in 2013 after attending a VSO awareness event and joining an INSPIRED programme run by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), which saw them travel to Rwanda for 12 months to help student teachers.
She said: “The children had grown up and finished university and my husband and I decided we wanted an adventure.
“As there is no money to buy teaching aids for the children, I was teaching them how to make resources out of things like sticks, stones, banana fibre, bottle tops, plastic bottles and cardboard.
“My toilet roll tube dice are now famous across Rwanda and the students used to call me the ‘Queen of Rubbish’. I fully expected to do one year and then go back to my ‘normal’ life.
“But Rwanda is a country that gets to you. Since that first trip in 2013, I have been back to Rwanda another eight times. I’d encourage anyone to sign up for volunteering overseas with VSO.
“You never know where the journey is going to take you. My big dream is that one day Wales will play Rwanda at a World Cup.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “I congratulate Mary on receiving her honour and wish to thank her for her valuable work in Rwanda through VSO and her rugby charity. UK aid has helped lift almost two million people out of poverty since 2005.
“The UK Government is proud to support volunteers from every corner of the UK make a difference in combatting poverty around the world.”
— to www.inyourarea.co.uk