Like many young boys all over the world, as well as also girls in recent years, I spent a considerable amount of my childhood playing football. Sometimes this was in the street where I lived. At other times I played in the park, when not chased away by an over-zealous park keeper! Playing football in my primary school yard, usually with a tennis ball and on other occasions with a marble, was a daily occurrence.
We played before school, morning break, lunchtime, afternoon break and when we could, after the school day was over. It was at school where I played my first competitive matches, representing St. Columba’s Junior School at under 11 level, in the Wallsend Junior Schools League.
During the 1990’s, playing football on the often very dry and dusty streets of Bujumbura, Burundi, was a young boy called Gael Bigirimana.
Gael is the youngest of four children, with two older brothers and an older sister. Unlike the good fortune of myself and my friends, Gael and his siblings and friends didn’t have the luxury of shoes or sand shoes, but learnt their early football skills with their bare feet. This, of course, was many decades after my childhood football games. Those days in the dusty streets of Burundi, then a few years later in Uganda, were a long way and time from Coventry, then Newcastle, England.
I have been a Newcastle United supporter all of my life. Over these last ten years and maybe longer, we have a large influx of African footballers playing here in England, as well as other European countries. Having been to Uganda five times within the last six years, I have seen first hand the popularity of English Premiership football throughout the continent of Africa, including Uganda. I was so thrilled when in the summer of 2012, before the start of this current season, my team signed a young player from Coventry City, who was born in Burundi, then spent time in Uganda, before coming to Coventry, England, with his family.
Gael Bigirimana, often referred to as Bigi, was born on the 22nd. October, 1993, in Bujumbura, Burundi. Gael’s mum came to Coventry first, followed a short time later by dad, his two older brothers and sister. This was 2004. Gael spent about two years in Uganda, where he played his first competitive match and also wore football boots for the first time. This was in a suburb of Kampala, the capital.
Soon after settling into a new life in Coventry, Gael was anxious to continue playing football as much as possible, not uncommon with countless boys and girls the world over. When aged only eleven, Gael called into Coventry City’s training ground and asked for a trial. It seems the coaches at first discouraged Gael, but being impressed by his enthusiasm and speed as he ran away up the road, thinking he was being initially rejected, the coaches called Gael back and his football career was now underway.
Through school games and youth games, Gael finally signed for Coventry City’s Academy squad. Gael signed professional in the summer of 2011 and made his debut for Coventry City soon after in the Championship League on the 8th. August, 2011. Having played many games for Coventry during the 2011/2012 season, Gael signed for Newcastle United in the Premiership on the 6th. July, 2012. Gael’s debut for my team was on the 23rd. August, just weeks after signing, against the Greek team Atromitos in the Europa Cup. His Premiership debut was on the 2nd. September against Aston Villa, with his first goal scored against Wigan Athletic on the 3rd. December. Gael is the first Burundian to score in the English Premiership, a feat he is understandably very proud of.
As a Christian and a Catholic, I wanted to know more about Gael’s own faith story, his love of God and his devotion to his faith and all it means to him in his daily life. Unlike many other wealthy professional footballers, Gael is a very humble young man, who lives a quiet and unassuming life, not attracted to fast and expensive cars and all that money can often mean too many footballers and their lavish lifestyles. I was aware Gael and his family are regular churchgoers and when they lived in Coventry, they attended the Mosaic Church, which I think is an evangelical-type Christian church. In Newcastle, Gael was anxious to share with me that he and his family attend the Newcastle Christian Life Church. When I inquired with him as to where exactly this church is, he smiled and told me it is very near our stadium, St. James’ Park. It crossed my mind that for over 52,000 fanatical supporters, this was on many occasions, their occasional place of worship.
I wanted to probe more about faith with Gael, without being too intrusive. When I asked him about what his faith truly meant to him, he told me, “It is everything, it’s what I live for. It is my life.” Wanting to try to establish in what ways and how faith fits into Gael’s busy life as a Premiership footballer, he thought for a moment before explaining to me, It’s where God puts me in this football industry.
It excites me.” I quickly sensed that for Gael, this was his personal vocation and when I suggested football was his calling and his own journey in life, he smiled and simply said “yes.” I wondered if Gael viewed his special talent and gift as his destiny in life, from as far back as those barefoot days playing on the often hot, dusty Burundian streets. His reply was very thought-provoking and spiritual. “It’s a divine gift. Nobody can take it away from me.”
I was very interested in this deeper and more spiritual aspect of this very gifted and very talented young African. I wanted to look further into Gael’s philosophy and appraisal of his specific journey in life. The answer I received was something that inspired me and captivated me:-
“God put me into this life. It’s a lesson for me. God gives me the character and the attitude to treat people well. God wants me to live with people and be an influence to others by talking to them. It is where God is taking me, to instruct others that God is Truth. God is preparing me. People like to know bigger things. It’s the way God wants me to do it. God will help me to help others to listen to the Truth. In reality, I see God as a Fact, a Truth. God can do it in my life.”
During these last few seasons in particular, here in England, as well as in other European countries and I am sure throughout world football, there have been justifiable criticisms of “some” professional footballers failing in their duties to be suitable role models to young boys and girls, who emulate their every move, action and word. We have young women who want to be seen out and about with a professional footballer and live the extravagant lifestyle that a wealthy footballer can give them.
When, however, I think of Gael Bigirimana and what he has achieved so far in his not quite twenty years, my mind turns to countless young boys and girls I have watched playing football in Uganda. Often their ball is made of old newspapers, formed into a sphere and is adequate for their purpose in being able to play football. For them, young men such as Gael are exemplary role models and someone for them all to aspire to follow in his footsteps.
Although Gael and his family left Burundi, I suspect, in rather a hurry to escape unfortunate conflict and political unrest, I felt it was very inappropriate to speak about this when we chatted at Newcastle United’s Training Ground. It has been quite apt to be talking to Gael not just about his football career to date, but also his faith and love of God, because it was the afternoon of Holy Thursday, when we met.
This is the beginning of Easter and the Resurrection. I am sure that although those far off days in Burundi would hold vivid and special memories for Gael and his family, they would also be in many respects painful and heartbreaking memories. Maybe Gael’s grandparents and other members of his family are still living and surviving in Burundi. I wanted to know if Gael’s parents had ever returned to Burundi, but again, I felt this was not an appropriate part of their life to ask about.
I suggested to Gael that with modern fitness regimes and, God willing, if he escapes serious injuries, he would hopefully have fifteen or more years at the top in his career. I think this notion mildly amused Gael when I asked him where he saw himself in fifteen years time and whether he aspired to be a football coach, or even a media pundit, he smiled and shook his head.
His reply quite staggered me in some respects, but in my short time with him, a part of me wasn’t so surprised. At present and thinking ahead to when his playing days are finally over, in answer to my question, Gael told me he wants to be a manager, but a “Faith Manager.” Gael elaborated and told me, “I want to speak to a young generation. I want to give to young people what God has given to me. It is God’s blessing to me.”
Before we concluded our chat, I asked Gael if had considered returning to Africa for a visit. Thinking he would understandably tell me he would like to visit Burundi, he told me he would love to return to Uganda, seek out his coach and thank him for all he had done to set him on his way for his football career. Whoever this very influential man is, I am sure he will know only too well the success his protege has already had.
Written by : Pat Brennan
About the Writer
His name is Pat Brennan and lives in North East England. He has visited Uganda on many occasions and met many different people there. He help to raise awareness and funds to help support the many different projects.
The writer’s website: https://patsugandamission.wordpress.com/