They had been admirable for many years for winning trophy after another, until the COVID-19 pandemic turned their world upside down. Players of Gicumbi Stars, a team for people living with physical disabilities, are unable to feed themselves.
In March 2020, Rwanda began imposing tough regulations to control the spread of the virus including a ban on sports activities. A year later, sporting tournaments still remain banned – along with many other aspects of the country.
Gicumbi Stars, founded in 2010, has 27 players including 12 women. The have won 21 trophies from different parasports disciplines at national level, and individually at international. For 2019, they scooped the national trophy for Sit Ball, and emerged runners up in the Sit Volleyball tournament.
But despite these accolades, many Gicumbi Stars players are having tough time putting food on the table, which is compounded by their physical disabilities. Gicumbi district, which helped found the team, stopped providing them with regular payments back in March last year.
According to the team members, the players got Rwf 30,000 after each game. Not all played same games. As illustration of the case, we picked case of Gashirabake Assoumani who would have played up to 16 games a year.
From these payments, and other support from different well-wishers, individual Gicumbi Stars players were able to pay rent, food and take care of the basics.
When the COVID-19 control measures were implemented, such as during the first national lockdown, the central government and local governments gave direct food aid to those considered vulnerable. NGOs also helped government.
For Gicumbi Stars players, since they are living with disabilities, they were to have been supported through NUDOR, the national umbrella organisation of persons with disabilities.
According to the members, NUDOR determined that only 9 players qualified for food aid. They received their share in July, each getting a package that included 3kg of maize floor, 3kg of rice, 3 kg of beans, 3 litres of cooking oil, and 2 bars of washing soap.
It means that during the two months of lockdown from March to May, the players had to depend on their own savings, or fend for themselves if they had no other sources of livelihoods. And for the aid delivered in July, it wouldn’t have lasted them long. They have had to live on the edge. Some of the team members opted to leave Gicumbi town and return to their villages.
Mukankusi Beatrice said; “It is really difficult to even get food. The time when we had tournaments, I had a steady income to pay rent and take care of whatever I needed. I really don’t know for how long this will continue.”
Gashirabake Assoumani vividly remembers the numbers. He said; “From the different tournaments like Sit Ball, Sit Volleyball and athletics, I was assured of at least 16 appearances which would have brought me a total of Rwf 480,000. Now that is no more, yet I have no alternatives.”
For the case of Nkorerimana José, she had to relocate from the urban area back to the rural village. She narrated; “In town, it was tough to get food for my one-year-old baby. I couldn’t pay rent. Worse still, the life here in the village is far worse since I can’t work in fields. If you know a 5 Franc coin, well, I don’t have it.”
Boniface Riberakurora, a Gicumbi district coordinator for the National Council of Persons with Disabilities, said they have solicited for help from different places for the Gicumbi Stars team but have been unsuccessful.
“The district used to support the team from its tax revenue but the district is also struggling as the pandemic has impacted it like everything else,” he said. “Even the private sector, they responded to our appeals saying they have lost business.”
By René Rucyahana
This story done as a collaboration with Radio Ishingiro based in Gicumbi district