Kenya’s Rugby Gem shortlisted for Rhino Grassroots Rugby Award
A rugby programme in Kenya that helps to keep at-risk children off the streets and into a scholarship is the third organisation to reach the final of Rhino’s prestigious award.
In the Kenyan market town of Nanyuki, some 200km north of Nairobi, IT worker Dennis Gem has been helping to save lives through rugby.
For more than a decade, his self-started, self-funded Rugby Gem programme has worked in the most deprived areas of first Mombasa and now Nanyuki, targeting children from orphanages and giving them something to do outside of school. “Most of the kids are from deprived homes and orphanages and, for those in Mombasa, in areas with big drug problems,” explains Dennis. “The end result for the majority of these kids is drugs, crime, jail, prostitution, early marriage or death. There’s a good number of kids in my team who have had saved their lives through rugby.”
Dennis began his work when he was in Mombasa, and found a big group of children making a lot of noise outside of church. Their Sunday school teacher had been absent, he took over the lesson and introduced rugby, a sport he played at high school.
When work took him to Nanyuki – he works in IT for the British military – having set up a coach to take over in Mombasa, he launched another programme and now has 450 children involved. He’s even managed to source funding and support from his employers. “Dennis gives children an opportunity to be safe for a few hours,” explains Major Richard Crane, of the British Army Training Unit. “He works with the local orphanage managers to help bring them into his programme, and he also checks on their progress in school too – he’s like a foster dad to 450 kids.
“It’s a part of Kenya that has a lot of problems: child slavery, prostitution, drugs ... and orphan children are always targeted,” continues Richard, a rugby players himself who has been a big supporter of Rugby Gem since he was stationed in Nanyuki. “Dennis catches an awful lot, but there’s a lot more that slip through and so we still need more support.”
Rugby Gem goes far beyond the sport too. “He’s developing rugby at all levels, there’s even a three-year-old playing and it goes up to under-18s, boys and girls.
“It’s not just the rugby, he uses the sport to then try and get them scholarships into schools and colleges and he’s managed to develop players for the Kenya national sides too.”
The success on the pitch is impressive with Kenya’s vice captain Jeffrey Oluoch among his students, together with Solomon Maleu of the under-20s. On top of that, two girls have been called up to the national sevens side, nine were selected for the Kenya under-20s girls, and two for the boys. The recently cancelled Youth Olympics was set to feature no fewer than six of his girls in the Kenya sevens side.
Dennis also runs the Nanyuki Jackals, a men’s side in the third tier of Kenyan club rugby that often includes a number of his students, together with members of the military. “Without Dennis, those kids would be on the streets,” says Richard. “It’s really made a big difference to lives and saved lives too.”
The Rhino Grassroots Rugby Award, now in its seventh year, recognises clubs, organisations and individuals globally who show the true spirit of rugby at community level.
2015: TAG RUGBY TRUST (UK)
2016: KAMPUCHEA BALOPP (Cambodia)
2017: SKRUM (Eswatini/Swaziland)
2018: SHIBUYA INTERNATIONAL RUGBY CLUB (Japan)
2019: KHELO RUGBY (India)
2020: RICHMOND RUGBY (UK)