Hear Them Roar: Kenya’s Lionesses hunt for rugby greatness

Kenyan women rugby team. (Photo: Okwi Okoh)

Kenya’s rugby team, The Lionesses have just qualified for a key tournament in their hunt for a place at the World Cup. bird story agency caught up with the team at a recent practice. They and teams of women players across the continent have their aim set high as the women’s game gets more and more traction.

By Okwi Okoh

The early morning air is crisp and the sky is several shades of grey above the Moi International Sports Centre 15 kilometres north-east of Nairobi’s central business district.

The turf is green and soft, even though Kenya’s “short rains” are petering out and winter is coming. These are ideal training conditions for the Lionesses, Kenya’s national women’s rugby team, and their captain Sheila Chajira doesn’t want to waste a minute of it.

On that day in early May, Kenya was preparing to face South Africa’s Springbok Women, Cameroon’s Indomitable Lionesses and Madagascar’s Lady Makis for the chance to play in a qualification tournament for the 2025 Women’s Rugby World Cup, hosted by the global leaders, England.

The Lionesses are currently 23rd in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings. South Africa dominates Africa at 13th place, Madagascar is 28th, and Cameroon is 29th.

Most of the team has already “warmed down” but Chajira is running a passing drill with a few players after journalists asked for a photo-op.

29-year-old Chajira recently returned from maternity leave and her eyes soften when she talks about her one-year-old girl and only child.

In player mode, her gaze is probing and catlike, constantly assessing whether to launch an attack or crush one instead.

Her ability to quickly convert visual data into explosive movement, muscle memory, and strategy is the result of a deep love for the game, work ethic, raw talent, and commitment to her leadership role.. The goal of competing at the highest level in
2025 is also a major motivator.

“If we qualify for the World Cup it means World Rugby will come in for us, we’ll get funds, we’ll get more games for exposure…and money-wise,” Chajira said as her practice session came to an end.

Fast forward several week and Chajira and her squad beat Madagascar 29-20 on May 20. While overrun 48-0 by South Africa, they then rebounded to thrash Cameroon 52-3 on May 29, the same day South Africa crushed the hosts 79-8.

That means South Africa has sealed its place in the newly introduced three-tier World Rugby WXV Championship which will serve as qualifiers for the World Cup. Runners-up Kenya will feature in the WXV Third Division clash later this year.

The World Rugby Union intends for WXV to highlight regional champions and get more representation in the World Cup.

In order to tap a wider pool of talent, the Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) is now attracting more girls and young women to the sport by partnering with schools and universities and organising tournaments. That is clearly bearing fruit evidenced by The Lionesses’ recent climb in global rankings.

The Lionesses’ coach Dennis Mwanja claims that wider societal support will strengthen his team’s battle readiness. It’s a belief he developed while playing for “The Shujaas”, the Swahili word for heroes, and the nickname of Kenya’s men’s rugby team. The 11-year veteran was a former captain and represented his country in two men’s Rugby World Cups.

“A happy player is a good player. So we look at their sustenance or their facilitation of training, we look at consistent sources of income. I would say most of these girls are single mothers and they live hustles… they could be working elsewhere and they are doing productive work for our country. So if they are assured of getting a source of income out of this sport, they would have peace of mind. Regular camps as well would enable the technical bench to cover a very broad spectrum of this game,” Mwanja said after putting the team through a gruelling early morning training session.

Mwanja’s sentiments are shared by players, managers, and owners across the continent, like Sithembile Kasawala, Zambia’s captain. Kasawala also said that more representation at the top is critical to the growth of women’s sports in Africa.

“It can only be improved if only women can get involved in administration at a higher level so that they can talk on our behalf,” Kasawala said while preparing to take her squad, ranked 36th globally, against Uganda and Kenya during the Rugby Africa Women’s Pool B campaign in October last year. Kenya won the pool.

One of the forces behind the development of rugby in Kenya and the growth of the women’s game in particular, is Nekesa Were.

Were has helped organise international tournaments, brokered sponsorships, managed the Lionesses at one point, advocated for players’ welfare, and currently serves in a leadership position at the Harlequins Football Club, one the country’s top men’s teams.

Were is also an influential pundit and has regularly analysed the perceptions and needs of the Kenya Rugby Women’s League which was founded in 2006. It currently hosts 12 teams, eight in the Championship and four in its Premier Divisions. Each team will face off against all the others once during the regular 10-week season. The league organises the annual Kenya Cup which features the top four teams in the Premier.

Were believes a more vibrant domestic ecosystem is what makes national teams like the Springbok Women so successful. The South African Rugby Union made history on May 3, 2003, by welcoming its first professional women’s rugby team. The Bull Daisies, a 35-member squad, is now on contract until 2025. The Daisies in turn signed several Springbok Women, including the formidable two-time title-winning former captain Lusanda Dumke.

Another encouraging development was World Rugby’s report of sizeable crowds at Antananarivo’s Stade Makis, which swelled to about 15,000 for certain matches. That’s the highest number ever recorded at an African Women’s Rugby event, according to the global governing body for the sport.

According to Were, wider support for women’s teams across a variety of sports will propel professionalism in women’s sports across the continent.

“They are using rugby as a platform, as a platform to wellness, as a platform to dignity. And so if you understand that model and the drive for people to join teams, whether clubs or to try and get into the national team, if you understand it’s more than just a thing that they do on the weekends; if you understand that they have so much passion to do it despite the fact that it doesn’t pay, the majority of them are never going to be truly professional; if you understand the drive and the human behind the game and why they do it, then I think that then helps or educates how we set up the structures, how we support them to be the best version of themselves,” Were said while observing a Harlequins workout session.

The Lioness’ captain is a case in point. Chajira doesn’t have a day job and her rugby duties leave her with very little opportunity to bring in an income.

“It’s a little bit challenging because… me as Sheila, I don’t have a permanent job. Rugby is my day-in, day-out life, so when you don’t get (an) opportunity to go play so you won’t be paid. If you’re not training you won’t be paid. It’s not that we have (a) contract, it’s just a monthly payment and if you’re not there playing it means there’s no payment. So you have to work very hard. We go, we have an opportunity like this, we take over, we play, we make number one or two, we have more games so that we can get something for ourselves,” she said as her fellow Lionesses huddled in the background.

Despite the numerous challenges faced, however, Were says steady progress will help the KRU build on its goal of promoting the women’s version of the sport.

The number of clubs and players has increased significantly over the last 17 years. The Kenya women’s national team, the Lionesses, is also becoming more and more competitive, Prior to the current tournament, in 2019, they reached the final of the Rugby Africa Women’s Cup, where they lost to South Africa.

“So what’s coming up next for the women’s national team? They’ve just gone into Madagascar and a win in Madagascar will open up so many doors for them and will put them on a lot more and bigger international rugby stages. And with women’s rugby or with any sports, I think it’s one of those chicken and egg situations where the women need to perform in order to attract attention. But the women want attention, financial attention especially in order to perform,” Were added.

The reality is that fat purses, equal treatment, and regularly packed stands will not come overnight for the Lionesses and most other African women currently playing rugby.

But Chajira and her pride are even more determined after their impressive performance in Madagascar to pounce on every opportunity in their hunt to showcase their talents and skills on the world stage.

bird story agency

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