“When anything is possible
A calm Irankunda running the show in a past league game at the YMCA in Kampala, Uganda.
Photo courtesy: Tsauba Stone

By Ariel Okall
Editor: Brenda Mwaniki

Success is a journey. For Cynthia Irankunda, known to many as simply Cycy, it has been a long and treacherous road. This journey began from a country torn apart by civil unrest. Most women here are not expected to make it out. If you have been blessed with the opportunity to meet and interact with Cynthia, you will see a woman with a unique personality. She is slightly shy off the court, but on the floor she does not shy away from the spotlight or hesitate in those big moments where superstars make clutch plays, where champions are made.

Irankunda (right) challenges her former teammate Hilda Luvandwa (left) during a Kenya basketball league playoffs match.
Photo courtesy:Chris Omollo NMG

While the fear of failure is the only one thing that may make a dream seem impossible to achieve, Cynthia has shown nothing but bravery and confidence. From Ngozi Province in Burundi, her unique family name “Kaburundi” easily shows you how proud she is to be Burundian. She took a liking to basketball as a young girl because her home was closer to a basketball court. She attended practice every day and if that was not enough she played with boys to improve her toughness. As an alumnus of both Tigoi Girls High School and  United States International University, Irankunda has won both the Kenya Basketball League Championship and FIBA zone V Club Championship with the USIU Flames. She has also featured as part of the KPA roster in some of their continental games. For now she is plying her trade with Ugandan side KCCA leopards. She has been named player of the game several times and finished the 2019 NBL season as one of the most efficient players. This is what she had to say when I talked to her one on one:

1: Where did you go to school and how did you end up in Kenya?

“A Coach from Tigoi Girls High School recruited me during East Africa Secondary School Games. I joined Tigoi in October 2009 where I spent two months learning English before I could join Form three. I spent two years there and got a sports scholarship to study at USIU in 2012.”

2: Two months to learn English is quite fast coming from a Francophone country. How did you manage that and still be able to work on your craft?

“It was challenging and demanding. My teammates helped me a lot with English outside the classroom and we would train from Monday to Sunday”

3: As an athlete from Burundi how tough was your journey to stardom?

“Being from a country where women in sports don’t get enough support, the journey has been tough. I had to sacrifice my comfort at home and stay far from my family to get sports scholarships in Kenya, but it was all worth it.”

4: What is your take on women’s basketball in Burundi?

“Women’s basketball in my home country has been neglected over the years. The National team last took part in any international tournament in 2013. There are many talented girls in Burundi but they lack motivation, proper training, and exposure.”

5: Burundi has several women basketball players abroad, a good example being Ines at Iowa State University. Is there hope for them, that one day they will be able to wear National colors and represent their country?

“It’s my dream to play for the Burundian National Team. I hope that one day our basketball federation will realize that Burundian women can also compete in East Africa and even have a chance at winning. Therefore they will consider calling players playing outside.”

6: Comparing the three countries, Kenya, Burundi, and Uganda, where can you say you have played your best basketball?

“I can say that I have played my best basketball in Kenya. I was able to play with and against the best players in East Africa which pushed me to play at my best.”

Irankunda with the ball as KPA faced off Lakers of Zimbabwe at the FIBA Africa Champions Cup in Mozambique 2018
Photo courtesy:FIBA

7: What is your WHY? What makes you wake up in the morning and say you still want to play basketball?

“The undying passion I have for basketball keeps me going. It brings me joy and fulfillment.”

8: Your work ethic is something that has kept you on top for years. What drives you? What is your motivation?

“I believe that there is always room for improvement. I hate losing and that’s what makes me train hard and be the best I can be to help my team win.”

9: Would you care to shed some light on what you learned from playing alongside Sarah chan and what impact coach Bassog had on your career?

“Playing alongside Sarah Chan pushed me to work on my game and be the best I can be. Having her on our team made us title contenders each year.
Coach Bassog spent many hours working on my game and I am forever grateful for his contributions.”

10: The ultimate goal for any athlete or rather the primary objective is winning a championship, the holy grail. Without putting pressure on you, are we getting one from you and the KCCA leopards this year? How will that make you feel?

“I compete for a championship every year. I put pressure on myself each year to be in a position to help my team win. I will go into this year’s season with a championship mentality, and if I win it all, it will make me feel great.”

11: Talk to the young girls out there who want to be like you?

“The journey will not be smooth but it will be worth it. With passion, hard work, and persistence, anything is possible.”

Irankunda goes past Hellen Aketch of KPA in a past league match at the nyayo gymnasium
Photo courtesy:Jack Owuor, piccentre
Irankunda of KCCA leopards battles two JKL Dolphins defenders in a league match at Lugogo MTN arena
Photo courtesy: URN

When the odds have been against her, Irankunda has defied them all. Living proof that work ethic, pure love for the sport, and willingness to learn are key values in the pursuit of greatness. We have watched her team up with the best in the game, and also seen her battle the best in the business and still emerge as one of the best to ever dribble it. From her journey we have learned that the problem is giving up, quitting, and lack of self-drive. Believe in yourself, get rid of the doubts because everything that you ever wanted is on the other side of fear. Indeed ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

By Ariel Okall


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