The connection is bad, the video keeps freezing, the flow is slow, the voice is sometimes inaudible. But Marie Stella Gakima never loses her smile or her infinite patience.

To be on time for this appointment, she had to leave home very early to get into town, where the connection is more reliable. But for Gakima, it's business as usual.

As if these daily challenges were nothing compared to what she has endured to get here, to be part of the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme. It's an extraordinary opportunity that has come to her at the age of 37, when nothing, absolutely nothing, predestined her for rugby.

Follow what you've been given

Even as a young girl from Burundi growing up in a rural environment, rugby was not for her. Imported by foreigners at a time when the country was being colonised by the Germans and then the Belgians, rugby was initially considered a male-only martial sport, “a game for barbarians”.

“But things have changed,” laughs Gakima. “You can finish a game without being injured, which gives confidence to the players and the public.”

Founded in 2001 and a full member of World Rugby 20 years later, the Fédération Burundaise de Rugby (FBR) has come a long way and has undergone a real revolution driven by women's rugby, and in that sense Gakima is a pioneer today.

Being a girl, Gakima never had access to rugby training. Born in the heart of the country and orphaned by her parents at the age of five, she was raised by her grandmother on the mantra that “I must follow what I am given”.

So, she just went along, didn't ask any questions and trusted what life had to offer. To continue her studies, she left her home province to go to university in the city. “I had three choices: medicine, economics and statistics,” she recalls. “And they put me in sports.”

She tried to appeal, but her appeal was rejected. Marie was forced to “follow” what she was given. “In the end, I found the lessons interesting,” she admits.

“The ball made us think of a sweet potato”

She learnt to swim and swam for the first time in her life, discovered other sports and finally decided to stay on the course that had been set for her.

It was there that she first learned the word rugby and discovered its theory and rules. “The game scared me when I started in 2010,” she confesses.

But there was one thing that attracted her beyond any fear: the ball and its distinctive shape. In fact, it's the ball that made her choose rugby over all other sports.

“The ball made us think of a sweet potato,” she laughs. “I wanted to touch it, see it, feel it in my hands, try to catch it. The ball was a mystery.”

At the end of her four-year training, she joined the Ministry of Sports for an internship, where she was spotted by a former teacher. In 2016, she joined the FBR as an assistant to her teacher, who was then the general secretary.

This led to her being put in charge of women's rugby within the federation.

A strategic fit

In 2022, Gakima first applied for the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme in response to a call for applications from Rugby Africa. Although she was not selected, she did not give up hope and applied again the following year when her application was accepted.

“I was interested in women's leadership. I wanted the training to help me be a leader, to learn, to share my experiences with others, to exchange ideas,” she explains.

“With my coach at Capgemini, I'm learning how to adapt leadership to my country. We've been able to define a strategy to keep girls in rugby, whatever their role: referee, player, coach, administrator, etc. It's perfect for our situation.”

Rugby is now taught to girls. “And we manage to keep up with them, even in the heart of the country, where women's teams are still coached by men,” she points out.

Although rugby today is still concentrated in the cities, the number of girls taking up this sport is growing steadily, by an average of three to five per cent a year.

“I would like to see new clubs being set up every year,” she hopes.

Raising the bar

At 37, and with three children, Gakima is still the only woman to sit on the Federation's Executive Committee, to which she proposes her strategies for developing women's rugby.

“I've gained confidence in myself, and I can say what I think. I'm seen as someone who can help build the union and women's rugby,” she says.

Marie admits that she has learnt a lot – and is still learning – thanks to the network she has built up with the 11 other beneficiaries of Capgemini's Women in Rugby Leadership Programme in 2023. She was unable to attend the last conference in Paris in October due to a lack of a visa.

“I work a lot with the Burkina Faso rugby union, for example, which is headed by a woman. We share the same realities,” Gakima says.

“In our country, no sports federation is headed by a woman. It's a very patriarchal society. So why is it possible in Burkina? Especially since it's considered a martial art. How did a woman become president of the federation?”

This programme has not only changed Marie Stella Gakima's life, but it is also changing attitudes in Burundi. And Marie is there every step of the way.