Lanna Assaigo-Kami admits that she “can’t kick a ball or play to save my life” but she is keen to use her skills in administration to ensure that more children in Papua New Guinea have access to rugby.
Assaigo-Kami says she was pulled into the game by her late husband, Steven Kami, and she is determined to repay the support she and her three sons received from the country’s rugby community when he passed away four years ago.
Although her own playing experience amounts to one brief appearance, Assaigo-Kami suggests she “could win the Olympics with paperwork and admin”.
It is through her off-field work that the lawyer hopes to have an impact. In March, she was confirmed as one of this year’s World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship recipients and she plans to use it to help honour Steven, and make her sons proud.
On #IWD2021 we reconfirm our commitment and investment into the acceleration of women in leadership positions with 12 brand new recipients of our Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship programme 🏉#ChooseToChallenge https://t.co/nTvWuJEcGJ— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) March 8, 2021
“My husband passed away in 2017 and he was part of the interim [Papua New Guinea Rugby Football Union (PNG RFU)] board,” Assaigo-Kami told World Rugby.
“We wanted to develop the high school and the kids’ Get Into Rugby arena because we have three sons and generally… their exposure was extremely limited.
“There weren't necessarily any programmes that were strong enough within the schools to introduce them.”
She added: “When [Steven] passed away, I really felt the whole rugby community, they really did support my boys and I. So, it was a matter of being able to give back.”
Following her husband’s death, Assaigo-Kami offered her legal expertise to the PNG RFU board and helped to redraft its constitution.
“What I really appreciated was the community that rugby gave us,” she said.
“There's that beautiful camaraderie that comes from working and that comes from being in that area.”
Learning from fellow leaders
In her application for the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship, Assaigo-Kami made her ambitions for the programme clear.
She stated that it was her goal to have a seat on the Oceania Rugby Board within three years and the World Rugby Council in eight.
Her mentor has encouraged those objectives and is working closely with her to help realise them.
Last month, Assaigo-Kami set up a focus group on safeguarding that she will chair, and is currently enrolled on an online governance course through the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
“It's exciting,” she said. “Basically, it puts me in a position where I get to do two things I’m very passionate about.
“That is generally in terms of children, definitely children's programmes, and the second passion is governance.
“So, this definitely ticks both boxes, and the fact that I can do it in the space of rugby is pretty exciting.”
Being part of the scholarship programme has also brought Assaigo-Kami into contact with 11 other female leaders from across the world.
She says that she has been “humbled” by the other recipients and their struggles and experiences.
“I'm finding out there's a lot more to learn around the world and it's exciting,” she said.
“It truly is amazing to be able to find people that, you know, in another scope, I would never, never be able to meet, never be able to know about them in that area.
“I think I'd probably hear about them later on, but just in terms of an article on how they're pioneers or groundbreakers.
“I don't think I'm a groundbreaker in comparison to them because they really are breaking different ground.”
Growing the game
Assaigo-Kami’s youngest son, who is 12, is beginning to show an interest in playing rugby, and she is happy to report that the game is gaining more of a foothold in Papua New Guinea.
That is largely thanks to programmes such as Get Into Rugby, although the ongoing pandemic has had a huge impact on what the PNG RFU has been able to do in the last 18 months.
“Things are growing,” she said. “We do have aims to go into the schools, we are slowly going into different communities, the rural communities, which is growing in different provinces.
“We've got a province where basically it's just growing… the kids' programmes are exploding.”
Outside of rugby, Assaigo-Kami currently serves as Chair of Coalition for Change PNG, having been a founding member of the advocacy group in 2008.
The organisation was established to address the issue of gender-based violence, particularly that which occurs in the home, and Assaigo-Kami believes rugby has a role to play in promoting social change.
“It's an excellent tool in terms of the culture once they see a good sporting hero,” she said. “One thing that it can promote is the safety of children.”
Assaigo-Kami realised the power that sport could have shortly after her husband Steven died, when a young swimmer she had helped win a Pacific Games bronze medal through previous voluntary work came to offer his condolences.
“It basically hit me that this kid and many others will use sport as a safe place,” she said.
“He did that with swimming and [it is possible] to do that with rugby, for a number of kids that have no exposure to any other community, no exposure to a positive family environment.
“After looking at the rugby community that had come around and supported my three boys and I, it was just the thought of being able to provide that safe place for any other child to come in to and learn to be part of a community.”