Paris 2024: Rwanda's Mukobwankawe aiming high at third Paralympics

Liliane Mukobwankawe, the star of Rwanda’s sitting volleyball team, reflects on her journey in Para sport and competing at two Paralympic Games 30 May 2024
Female sitting volleyball athletes celebrating
Rwanda booked their tickets to the Paris 2024 Paralympics by winning their third straight ParaVolley Africa championship in January.
ⒸWorld ParaVolley
By AMP Media | For IPC

Mother, leader, entrepreneur, icon – Liliane Mukobwankawe is many things to many people in Rwanda, but there is one thing she would like to be known as the most in her homeland: a Paralympian.

Now 35, the sitting volleyball star captained her country to at Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 where they finished eighth and seventh out of eight respectively. But she is aiming much higher at the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games, which open on 28 August.

“I have talked about winning a medal in Paris or Los Angeles [in 2028] because I see that there have been changes in my team,” she said. “We have a new coach with lots of experience, a good team who knows each other well. We have done lots of training since last year and played in lots of international tournaments.

“We haven’t reached that level yet but to win a medal is my dream and everything is possible despite the great teams we have in front of us. It would be an honour for me and my team, and especially my country of 1,000 hills.”

Mukobwankawe captained Rwanda's sitting volleyball team at Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020. @World ParaVolley


'Sport is life’

Sitting volleyball was originally intended as a rehabilitation sport for injured soldiers, played on a smaller court with a lower net compared to volleyball contested at the Olympic Games.

Sitting volleyball made its Paralympic debut at Arnheim 1980, with the first women’s competition held at Athens 2004.

Mukobwankawe first tried seatball – a variation of sitting volleyball  – 10 years after being in a car accident. At first, she could still walk freely and play basketball, but she eventually became unable to walk without crutches.

“After being injured, I spent my time in hospital but through sport I started to enjoy life again, finding friends like me,” she recalled. “Sitting volleyball means many things to me. It means coming out of isolation, being myself, being open and connected. Sitting volleyball is sport, and sport is life.”

Sitting volleyball helped Mukobwankawe come out of isolation. @World ParaVolley

Indeed, Mukobwankawe is able to see her disability with rare perspective. Some of her teammates were injured during the Rwanda Civil War, while her father was one of more than half a million people who lost their lives during the 1994 genocide.

“I will never forget what happened and how our families died without doing anything wrong. My teammates are very disappointed because they too know the situation.”

Mukobwankawe says competing at the Paralympic Games has transformed her life. @World ParaVolley


Smashing it to the spotlight

The Rwanda women’s sitting volleyball team were formed in the aftermath of London 2012, when the whole country was inspired by the Paralympic debut of their men’s team.

They became the first women’s team from sub-Saharan Africa to qualify for the Games when they made it through to Rio 2016, a moment Mukobwankawe describes as her favourite memory from the sport.

The tournament itself, though, was somewhat of a reality check.

“Because we were the best team in Africa, we thought we would be in first place but we found teams who were better than us, teams like China and the USA who were more experienced at the Paralympic Games,” Mukobwankawe said.

The Rwanda women’s sitting volleyball team were formed after the London 2012 Paralympics. @World ParaVolley

Rwanda lost of all of their matches without winning a set, but those first Games were nevertheless transformative for Mukobwankawe and her teammates.

“It had a big impact,” she said. “I started as a volunteer player, but I am now paid by my club during our championship. Also, during international competitions or training camps we are given an allowance.”

This enabled her to start a business selling clothes, shoes and bags, while her public profile has also soared after the team went one better at the Tokyo 2020 Games, making history by claiming their first victory at the Paralympics – against hosts Japan – in the 7th/8th-place play-off.

In December, meanwhile, Mukobwankawe was recognised as one of Rwanda’s outstanding sportswomen at the launch of Awareness Raising on Gender Equality, Gender-Based Violence Prevention and Response.

“I am very famous in Rwanda. I get recognised in the street,” she admitted. “I am known as the country’s best player in sitting volleyball."


Dreaming of a royal return to Rwanda

Mukobwankawe believes “discipline, hard work and perseverance” are needed to be a top sitting volleyball player, while she describes the key to captaincy as “good cooperation and collaboration with my team, taking responsibility and taking time to hear everyone”.

The mother of two will need all of these qualities and more if Rwanda are going to defy their world ranking of fifth (as of 1 March 2024), and claim a medal in Paris, where the sitting volleyball begins on 29 August.

Mukobwankawe and her teammates are currently training six days a week. @World ParaVolley

After qualifying for the Paralympic Games by leading Rwanda to their third straight ParaVolley Africa championship in January – on her 35th birthday – Mukobwankawe and her teammates are currently training six days a week - “three on the court, two in the gym and one at home on individual aspects” – to give them the best possible chance.

“I am very excited to qualify for the third time for the biggest event in the world and excited for my country because sitting volleyball has now been represented at every Games since 2012,” she said.

“Success comes from several factors: the government, which supports us without discrimination, the commitment of our NPC [National Paralympic Committee], and the commitment of our players and staff.”

And what would the celebrations be like if Rwanda did manage to reach the podium? “It would start on the court, [continue in] the Athletes Village and finally at home in Rwanda where I know we would be welcomed like queens.” 


Book your tickets for the Paralympic Games by visiting the Paris 2024 ticketing website.