Black Pearls: From a ‘bunch of villagers’ to rugby superstars

Emily Lekuru is one of the stars of the side. 

What you need to know:

Buteme has over the years exhibited that rugby can be used as a tool to guide the girl child through the dangerous phases of life like under age marriages. That is why, wherever she has set up a team, she engages the community to support these girls.

This year, Black Pearls Rugby Club won the national 15s women’s league for their first, going unbeaten throughout the season. This, for a team that got founded only six years ago, is something to cheer about.

Jinja, like many other places, used to be a hub for talent. Footballers, boxers, athletes and golfers, name it. Around 2013, Helen Koyokoyo Buteme, former Lady Cranes captain and coach, and arguably the biggest name in women’s rugby, set out to form a women’s team in the Jinja region. Not to just play for fun, but compete for honours on the national scene.

Buteme has over the years exhibited that rugby can be used as a tool to guide the girl child through the dangerous phases of life like under age marriages. That is why, wherever she has set up a team, she engages the community to support these girls.

“Rugby is a fairly new sport in many people’s eyes. Many believe it’s a man’s sport so when you tell them that their daughters can play this sport, trust me they don’t easily believe you. So we begin by sensitizing the parents and the community at large,” she says.

Buteme first went to Jinja around October 2013 but many of the girls didn’t pick interest. Then she shifted to Walukuba and girls were mobilized from Walukuba, Police and Dam Waters. That set the ball bouncing. After two weeks, she held an U-19 7s tournament that attracted a number of teams from Jinja (Police Teargas Rangers, Jinja Crocs) and three from central; Entebbe Sharks, Entebbe Whales and Thunderbirds.

That tournament acted as a talent show and girls like Emilly Lekuru, Peace Wokorach, Immaculate Mufuwa, Grace Auma, Ritta Nadunga and Lydia Namabiro were discovered.

As time went on, the numbers swelled. Buteme got overwhelmed because she was travelling from Kampala to Jinja twice a week to conduct training sessions. She had to get some body on the ground to help her, and that is how Duncan Kirya and Walter Kayima came into the picture.

So, Jinja Teargas Rangers, mainly made of children from the police barracks, became the team for the young girls and Walukuba Titans for the slightly older girls. The aim was for Teargas Rangers to play in the Uganda Rugby Union U-19 categories, while the Titans played in the national senior competitions. Buteme also got other players from Kampala, Lira, Kitgum, Apac and Gulu to bolster the Titans.

She loaned others to Kampala-based Black Panthers until 2016 when Walukuba Titans made their 15s bow. Some players would play for Teargas Rangers on one weekend then play for Titans the following weekend.

 

Villagers in the city

In February 2016, Walukuba Titans played their first ever game in the national 15s league. They started on a high, thrashing Black Panthers 40-03. Big statement. But if they thought the elite division was going to be an easy ride, they were mistaken.

In their second league game, they visited Kyadondo to face Thunderbirds, the oldest and most successful team in the history of women’s rugby in Uganda. The Titans’ team was largely teenage in age and were only boosted by the experience of Buteme (coach/player) and Emmanuella Oroma. They lost 44-05.

Simply put, playing a Thunderbirds team with an experienced cast of Asha Nakityo, Samiya Ayikoru, Fortunate Irankunda, Winnie Atyang, Irene Ziggie, Yvonne Najjuma and Rachel Kakaire was always going to be a huge mountain to climb.

Some of the Titans’ players were seen shedding tears after the fulltime whistle. They had been introduced to the real thumping world of the leather egg. One Thunderbirds senior player, after the match told me: “They beat Panthers and thought they would scare us. We cant lose to this bunch of villagers. Impossible,” she stressed.

After the game, I talked to Tolbert Onyango, the current men’s 7s coach and a man that commands respect in the rugby circles. He was happy to see a team of young girls from upcountry, coming to dare the best.

“They will be good players if they keep together. You can see that the talent is there and now what matters most is keeping them together, introducing them to as many games as possible and I am sure Helen (Buteme) will do that. Trust me, in a few years they will be stars’” he predicted.

Stars they have become. Talk about women’s rugby today and names like Grace Auma, Emilly Lekuru, Mary Ayot and Peace Mirembe will quickly spring up. In fact, since 2016, Auma has twice been crowned Uspa Female Rugby Player of the year (2021, 2016). Emilly Lekuru scooped the same award in 2018.

They have also become cogs in both the 7s and 15s national teams.


Birth of the Black Pearls

In 2018, when the Stanbic Black Pirates were looking to have a women’s team, they opted to move with the tried and tested Titans, which changed name to ‘Black Pearls’. After all, Pirates love Pearls, so they say.

Pirates’ takeover came as a relief to Buteme in terms of transport and medical costs. Along the way, a number of players have fallen off, notably Ayot, Gilder Azikuru and Peace Wokorach but the team has gone on to win both the 15s and 7s league.

For Buteme and her ‘bunch of villagers’, it’s been a long journey and they believe that to keep soaring, they need to triple the efforts. After all, the likes of Avengers and Thunderbirds are breathing down their necks. But for now, the Black Pearls are shining, brightest.

Titles

National 15s League (2022)

National 7s league (2018, 2021)

Central Region 7s (2021, 2022)


Individual milestones

Grace Auma: Uspa female player of the year 2021, 2016

Emilly Lekuru: Uspa female player of the year 2018

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