Women's Rugby: African women's game on the rise with Helen Buteme in Uganda

Helen

Helen Buteme is one of the pioneers of women rugby in Uganda. A former captain of the Lady Cranes and currently the coach of the Uganda women rugby 7s team.

She is the second female rugby female head coach in Africa after Zimbabwe's Abigail Kawonza who led her team to a top-four finish during the Africa 7s.

"I draw a lot of inspiration from Abigail. She was alone in the field, dominated by men and limited resources, but that did not faze her, she did what she had to do."  

As a coach, Helen guided Uganda Lady Cranes to their first-ever World Rugby 7s Series qualifier.

The research scientist grew up around rugby, her older brothers Erika Wanda and Nathan Wasolo, both played rugby.

"I watched rugby growing up, but it was unheard of women playing rugby. I grew up in Kenya and field hockey was the big sport in girls' secondary schools. I was obsessed with field hockey as a sport, so when I moved to Uganda in 1999 for my university education, I found a hockey team and dove right in"

With time Helen became frustrated with lack of development in hockey, and she quit the sport. For someone who had to be part of team sports, she was not ready to stay idle. One of her former team suggested that they start playing rugby.

 "We laughed about it, but the next day I visited Kyadondo Rugby Club, and told the then manager Reuben Ambicha that I wanted to play rugby. But the non-contact version of the sport. At that point, I had never seen women playing full-contact rugby, so it never crossed my mind that I could play it."

Helen started playing touch rugby with the guys. Later, some of her hockey teammates Alan Sizomu and Rebecca Akwenyu joined, and with time we had more girls joined them.

 "We soon had enough numbers so we could break off from playing touch rugby with the men and have our touch rugby sessions," recalls Hellen.

That was in 2002. Things changed in 2003 after the men's national team went to Kenya for their usual Elgon Cup fixture. The curtain-raising game was the Kenyan women split into two groups playing full-contact rugby. 

Seguya, better known as Soggy, approached Helen after the Uganda Rugby men team returned to Uganda and suggested that they switch to contact rugby. 

African Women's Rugby

"You should have seen my reaction! It like from the scene of a horror movie. I was terrified I had had never seen women playing full-contact rugby and back then I was tiny – I weighed under 50 kilograms."

Soggy managed to persuade Helen to play real contact rugby for her to feel the impact of the game through competitive tournaments. 

The late Jim Park introduced Helen and her teammates to contact rugby. He started them off by teaching them how to tackle while on their knees then progressing up to off the knees through the session.

"By the end of the session, we were running at each other and putting in halfway decent tackles, and I was hooked and wanted more. The interest grew for contact rugby for the girls and touch rugby faded. That is how women's rugby in Uganda started."

In the year 2003, Helen played her first-ever rugby game as the curtain raised for the Uganda men's rugby team in a ten aside game.

She went ahead and played her first international tournament Kabeberi 7s in 2004 about six months after learning how to tackle.

 "We travelled to Nairobi as Thunderbirds A and Thunderbirds B and finished in 1st and 3rd positions respectively, and I emerged the tournament top try scorer and most valuable player."

That marked the beginning of Helen Buteme's rugby career, there was no turning back, In 2008 she was part of the team that qualified for the Women 7s world cup after finishing second to South Africa during the CAR 7s.  

A year later she captained the Uganda Women rugby team (Lady Cranes ) to the inaugural Women 7s world cup in Dubai which she remembers fondly.

"Qualifying for the women's 7s world cup after finishing second to South Africa during the CAR 7s in 2008 was a moment my teammates, and I will forever cherish "

Helen's vision is to see Uganda frequently playing on the world stage – the World Rugby Women's 7s Series, the 7s World Cup, the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics.

 "This is not going to happen overnight, and it will not happen without serious investment from all stakeholders, including the players themselves. These are all long term goals, but I already started working towards that when I took over as head coach in 2016."

Helen put together a young team in 2016 and brought Uganda from seventh to the fourth position at the Rugby Africa 7s.  This year, they played in the World Rugby 7s qualifiers in Hong Kong.

Women rugby in Uganda is on the rise, albeit very slowly. It has shifted from being based mainly in central Uganda to having players in Eastern and Northern Uganda, but financial challenges prevent the sports from having a sizeable vibrant league.

"Our major achievements to date since women's rugby started in Uganda have been playing at the 2009 Women's 7s World Cup and playing in the 2019 World Rugby Women's 7s Series."

"I am deliberately working with young players as I need to build a whole new rugby culture in the women's 7s national team. My plans are long term and it requires players who will grow together over time with minimal disruptions. " 

African Women's Rugby

Over recent years more pre-teen and teen girls in Uganda are getting into the game although it is happening gradually.

The research Scientist is currently has taken full-time duties at Rugby Tackling Life, an organisation that empowers youth in Uganda through Rugby.

Rugby Tackling Life integrates rugby with life skills, sexual reproductive health education etc. to equip both girls and boys to navigate life off the rugby pitch.

"Currently, we are running a project in Kitgum (Northern Uganda) funded by Girls First Fund on ending early child marriage, and we are using rugby to reach out to girls and boys in the community."

One of the girls who came through the Rugby Tackling Life programme and now plays for Lady Cranes 7s is a key coordinator on this project. Her growth as an individual over the years has been incredible, and despite her youth, she is respected in her community in Kitgum and is an agent for social change.

In Uganda, many organisations like Rugby Tackling Life (RTL) and the Tag Rugby Trust (TRT) that run the age-grade programmes and although they are active; the reach is limited due to the funding gap and lack of adequately qualified personnel.

"The amount of talent out there is insane and once tapped, there will be no holding Women Rugby in Uganda back," says Helen, who is committed to seeing the Lady Cranes 7s team rise to a rugby 7s powerhouse in Africa and the world.

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