“I’m so, so happy to be here,” says Lilian Mukobwankawe, Rwanda’s sitting volleyball team captain, speaking from the Athlete’s Village at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. With the support of Laureus Sport for Good, The Rwandan National Paralympic Committee has sent a women’s sitting volleyball team to the Paralympic Games for the first time in history and according to the team captain, they’re there to make an impact both on and off the court.
Lilian grew up enjoying sport and physical activity until her life was changed by a car accident at the age of 9. Unable to access the hospital treatment she required due to her financial position, Lilian’s knee became fixed and she now can’t bend her right leg.
“We’re here to show the world that we can,” says Lilian. For many years there was a perception around the world that African and Rwandan woman couldn’t play sitting volleyball but being in Rio shows that we can.”
Lilian’s teammate, Sandrine Nyiramabarushimana, also credits the sport of sitting volleyball with giving her confidence, and shifting her perceptions around her own disability. “Before I got involved in the sport I was at home thinking I was the only one to be disabled and that my disability was the worst thing in the world. My family would laugh at me.
When I started playing sitting volleyball I saw different categories of disability and realised my disability wasn’t as severe as I thought. It shifted my mindset. I started talking to others, I became less shy and more social. I changed.”
When she started excelling at the sport her family’s mocking turned to respect. “When I was growing up, my family didn’t even know where the airport was. Through the sport, I’ve travelled to Europe, other countries in Africa and now I’m in Rio. I’m here representing not only Rwanda but my family and Africa.”
Lilian, Sandrine and their teammates make their Paralympic debut against China on Saturday and they are philosophical about their role. Of course, they want to win, but even more they want to send a message to the world. “We firstly want people to like and love the sport of sitting volleyball, because it does so much to help us in Rwanda. And secondly, to get behind all of the athletes competing in Rio – sport has the power to change the mindset and perceptions of people and the Paralympics will bring this message to life.”