What you need to know:
- Shakirah Nyinagahirwa is in Senior Four at Kawempe Muslim. The 16-year-old studies in a sports bursary.
Shakirah Nyinagahirwa always gets a nod of approval from both teammates and opponents.
There is a lot of hype about many women footballers in the country but a lot of people say this lanky midfielder is “built different.”
Kawempe Muslim’s Nyinagahirwa blushes over the descriptions when we engage her after their first home league win of a tough season against She Maroons.
“When I was in primary school, I used to dream of become a doctor,” she says. “But when I realised that I had the talent, I decided to work hard to achieve more goals in life.”
Nyinagahirwa realised her talent while still studying at Seeta Church of Uganda Primary School in Mukono.
In 2015, she represented her district at primary school games in Mubende and was later sent for trials at Kawempe, which she joined in 2018 as a Senior One student.
“I passed the trials, the school offered me a bursary and I’m happy to be here.”
The young midfielder, however, broke out to the nation at a moment she should not have. Fans had turned up to watch how much progress the national team Crested Cranes were making ahead of what turner into unsuccessful Africa Women’s Cup of Nations qualifiers with Kenya in 2018.
But they were instead treated to the ball controlling abilities, boldness and drive of a girl in the midfield of a Kampala Select team – one who freely went toe to toe with some of her opponents in the Crested Cranes camp.
Later, she had an opportunity to launch her own national team career when coach Ayub Khalifa named her as part of the team to the Cosafa U-17 Women Championship in Mauritius.
Nyinagahirwa lit up the tournament, which Uganda won, playing in midfield with Uganda Martyrs High School, Lubaga’s enforcer Kevin Nakacwa. But football’s cruel nature is such that the goal scorers, like Juliet Nalukenge and Fauzia Najjemba in this case, hog the limelight.
“I was just happy to be on the national team. Although, my target now is to be on the senior team,” Nyinagahirwa says.
The same happened at the age group’s inaugural Cecafa edition later in the year at Fufa Technical Centre - Njeru, where home fans had a chance to catch her up-close as the team won another trophy.
Brings others into play
Nyinagahirwa’s dynamism in midfield means she can almost adapt to playing with anyone.
When Nakacwa suffered an injury after the U-17 Women World Cup qualifiers’ preliminary round second leg against Ethiopia, Khalifa opted for winger Catherine Nagadya to partner Nyinagahirwa in midfield away to Tanzania .
Uganda lost 2-1 and Nyinagahirwa, working hard to compensate for the absence of Nakacwa, earned a yellow card and a suspension from the second leg in Lugogo.
However, her combinations and quickly forged chemistry with Nagadya in a tough away match were enough to convince Khalifa to retain the latter in midfield for the home game - only adding Shamirah Nalugya into the picture.
Nalugya’s coming into midfield gave Khalifa more options that worked for him even at club level because he knew Nyinagahirwa would operate smoothly with anyone.
For the first matches of the 2019/2020 FWSL season, Khalifa deployed Nyinagahirwa and Rhoda Nanziri at the base of his midfield in Kawempe. But after Tanzania, he returned to the club and switched Nyinagahirwa-Nalugya axis.
The ball retention and creativity was exciting but the outbreak of the Covid pandemic led to the suspension of the league.
When Covid subsided, Nalugya missed the 2021 club season through injury but Khalifa got a chance to redeploy the midfield pair in the Cecafa U-20 Women Championship and the World Cup qualifiers later in the year with a new revelation in Nandago playing ahead of them.
The dominance of Uganda’s midfield during Cecafa was clear although the tournament ended in a heartbreak as Ethiopia struck late in the second half of the final match to win 3-2.
For the World Cup qualifiers, Uganda dominated Kenya (10-3 aggregate) and South Africa (1-0 aggregate) but struggled against Ghana (7-2 aggregate loss).
But in there, Nyinagahirwa again showed the ability to adapt when an injury to Nalugya forced Khalifa into deploying defender Aisha Nantongo in midfield.
She returned to Kawempe for the 2022 season, where, with Nandago, she has different partners from Nanziri and Krusum Namutebi to Phiona Nabulime.
It has been a tough season for topflight record champions Kawempe, who won four league titles before Nyinagahirwa ever thought of playing for them but now have a paltry 18 points in 15 games.
The seven losses have been greeted with tears from both Nandago and her partner in crime at the final whistles but to their credit, there is hardly a game Kawempe have not dominated.
Kawempe’s form is more of a reflection of their quality, or the lack of, in front of goal and at times a suspect defence not helped by goalkeepers struggling for form but the midfieder insists “we are working to return this team back to where it belongs.”
Crested Cranes midfielder and the more experienced of all her partners Nanziri, describes Nyinagahirwa as “forward thinking but with the heart to do the dirty work when we do not have the ball.
“The only problem is that if we concede first, we have to reassure her that there is still something for us in the game.”
Nalugya, now a rival after moving to Kampala Queens, says “Nyinagahirwa is the future. If she does not lose her focus, her style of play is one Uganda and her club will rely on for years to come.”
“She is, however, too focused on defence splitting passes to the striker that she some times ignores the option to stretch play to the wings. If she can get that, she will be even more devastating.”
Nalugya also comments on a rarely appreciated ability of the midfielder saying “she can also shoot.”
This is something Nyinagahirwa has had to work on. During the Cecafa Championship in 2019, Khalifa could be heard urging her to shoot at the edge of the box. But she lacked the power to seize the chances.
However, when the U-17 team was reconvened for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, where Uganda was ejected by Ethiopia on away goals after a 2-2 draw at St Mary’s Stadium, Kitende, and a 1-1 draw in Addis Ababa, Nyinagahirwa was clearly aiming to shoot at every opportunity.
During some moments, she even attempted to take freekicks. For Kawempe, this season, she has scored twice.
Margaret Kunihira, also a national teammate and formerly at Kawempe, is awed by Nyinagahirwa’s “discipline on and off the pitch” and adds that “she is the best at doing the donkey work” but also believes the 16-year-old is more versatile than she is actually given credit for.
Kunihira, however, also suggests that to stop Nyinagahirwa, your team have to take the lead against hers.
“After those losses to Ethiopia (U-20) and Tanzania (U-17), she was inconsolable. In fact, for Ethiopia, she stopped playing as soon as they scored the third yet we had a few more minutes to fight.
“She does much for her teams to win so she does not taking conceding goals or losing lightly. If she can fight to the end in games where things are not going according to plan, she will be even better.”
Of course, the midfielder is open to learning more and continuing to make an impact on the game.
“I pick inspiration from players like Juliet (Nalukenge). Although we play in different positions, she has achieved a lot in football. That is why I try to work hard to be on the national team.”
Nyinagahirwa’s age definitely counted against her being included in the Crested Cranes squad for the Cecafa championship and the Women Cup of Nations.
She is definitely one for the future.
Date of Birth: July 25, 2005
Mother: Sarah Nakabugo
Father: Mustafah Funi
Primary School: Seeta Church of Uganda
Secondary School: Kawempe Muslim
*Currently in Senior Four
Clubs: Kawempe Muslim (2018 to date)