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How cricket united the people of Rwanda after the horrors of genocide

The process of reintegration in Rwanda has got a helping hand from the unlikeliest of sports.

Cricket is the fastest growing sport in Rwanda, with over 7,000 active members in the community

In 1994, the tiny central African country of Rwanda witnessed one of the most brutal genocides in the continent’s history. Close to 800,000 people were killed in less than 100 days, crippling the backbone of the country’s economy, political structure and most importantly, its humanity.

The massacre was led by extremists from the Hutu tribe, who blamed the death of then President Juvenal Habyarimana on the second largest ethnicity in Rwanda, the Tutsis. The killings were carried out by the ruling party’s youth wing, but government propaganda would see the feud reach the local level as well. Several people belonging to the Hutu community proceeded to kill Tutsis across villages and cities.

More than two decades since Rwanda’s darkest period, sanity has been restored. The government has decreed all ethnicity-based discussions to be illegal. But an unspoken rivalry between both tribes still exists, with nuances of the genocide almost impossible to forget. A stroll down the country’s capital Kigali bears witness to remains of the brutality that ensued. Broken skulls and bones from the genocide are still visible in any open field you enter.

Despite such atrocities, the people in Rwanda are extremely enthusiastic about the future. And the enthusiasm is stemming from one of unlikeliest of avenues. Cricket, yes cricket, has become an essential component of the country’s attempt to rejuvenate and re-unite the population.

Close to 800,000 people died during the Rwandan genocide

Prior to 1994, cricket was unheard of in the country’s sporting landscape. Current Rwanda Cricket Association Head Charles Haba first brought the sport here, after playing regularly with seven of his friends at a local park.

Now, Rwanda boasts of 7,000-plus cricketers, all eyeing an opportunity to don the national team jersey. A domestic structure of 11 men’s teams, five women’s sides and eight university outfits also highlights how far they have come.

Imagine playing cricket in the same team as the killers of your family: RCSF Project Director Alby Shale

Alby Shale founded the Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation in 2011, attempting to create infrastructure for the sport in the country. Speaking to Sportskeeda, he says, “What we are trying to do here is so much more than creating a stadium. The various communities in this country cannot look eye to eye, but thanks to cricket Hutu’s and Tutsi’s are competing in the same sport and in the same tea.

“No one would think 10 years ago, that they would play together. They know that one of their teammate’s relatives probably killed their father/mother/uncle. However, they are still competing, knowing that it’s behind them. That’s how important cricket has been here.”

Alby, son of the late Christopher Shale, David Cameron’s former Conservative Party constituency Chairman first came to Rwanda when he was 18. Along with his father, he was a part of the Umubano, a social action project. His father passed away in 2011 due to a heart attack.

Cricket was introduced in Rwanda as a social activity

Now, Project Director of the RCSF project, he has completely shifted base to Kigali. Having raised close to £800,000, he requires an additional £250,000 to complete the project. He adds, “Our goal is to make people realise how cricket helps people bond. And they are already reconciling. They know that the situation is such that to progress, they have to work together.”

The proposed national stadium  (Source: light-heart.org)

Currently a part of the ICC Africa division two, Rwanda has been consistently playing international cricket. However, due to lack of accessibility, infrastructure and funding, the game-sense required to compete at the highest level is missing.

Alby says, “The ICC hasn’t helped us to move forward with our plans. They don’t realise how good this story is for them. Not only will they be globalising the sport, but they will also be helping in reconciliation. They give us $115,000 annually, but to structure a sport from the very bottom requires more finances. Hence, we do charity events in the UK, where people donate for the cause.”

The ICC recently signed its biggest broadcast deal, but the funds that Rwanda so desperately requires are yet to reach the country. Alby also confirmed that the first phase of building their national stadium will begin in the next couple of weeks or so. The facility will include a grass pitch, six practice nets and dressing rooms.

The billions of dollars received by ICC will be distributed among the top nations such as India, Australia and England, leaving little for the other affiliate nations.

Enthusiasm trumps lack of facilities and infrastructure

There is no grass pitch in Rwanda, and their current base is the Kicukuro Oval, the secondary school ground with a matted, rundown artificial pitch on a concrete base. The pitch in such a bad condition that you can only bowl from one end, and unexpected bounce is a constant. One of the national team batsmen, Don Mugisha, lost his front set of teeth after the ball unpredictably bounced onto his face.

One of the few net practice areas in the Capital, Kigali (Source: Telegraph)

The fastest bowler in the country, Tall Eric, generally reaches 130 kph while playing away matches. However, the condition of the pitch in the country is so poor that he can’t even complete a proper run-up. His speed while training at their ‘national facility’ reduces by close to 20 kph.

As I attempted to find out more about Rwanda’s competitive cricket history online, the ICC’s records had absolutely nothing to offer. Speaking about the competitive aspect about Rwandan cricket, Alby adds, “It started about 1995/1996, when the Indian community in Kigali decided to begin an association. Through this a lot of people were introduced to the sport. If you check the available statistics here, it also indicates that cricket is the fastest growing sport in Rwanda.”

The only grass stadium in Rwanda – Kicukuro Oval

A FIFA-funded ‘3G’ football facility right beside the secondary school highlights how far behind the ICC is in terms of garnering global exposure for cricket. Despite being the fastest growing sport, it has failed to capitalise on enthusiasm for cricket there.

Due to the state of the current field, the national team cannot play any of their matches at home. This particular facility can finally see international cricket reach the Rwandan masses, but there is no help forthcoming.

Davis Turinawe, a former Ugandan international cricket, is the current national team coach. He says, “This is my second stint with the national side, I was with them in 2011 and I hope this will also be a new phase for cricket in the country. Last time I was here, memories of the genocide were fresh. Some members of the team didn’t talk to the other and vice versa. However, that has improved a lot now.”

Equipment is also a major problem in Rwanda; the lack of balls and bats have often affected play there. Turinawe adds, “We have a specific amount of balls we can use, there are times when the bowler tends to lose it and that makes me very angry. We have to keep an account of whatever we have, because once it’s finished, it will be difficult to replenish them.”

Women’s team has a better chance of success: National Team Coach

Speaking about the national team’s style of play, he adds, “They lack the basic game sense, if one was to put 200 on the board in 20 overs, they wouldn’t know how to structure their innings. This is mainly because people playing the sport don’t have any access to watching it. We do keep dvd’s of the Ashes, etc to show them.”

Women’s cricketers in Rwanda

“They need to play more against international teams, so that they can get the exposure. The problem is they don’t look at the scoreboard either, they need to study the scoreboard and plan the innings, that is missing right now,” he adds.

The national women’s team has been a revelation in Rwanda. A victory against the higher-ranked Tanzania last year is the country’s biggest scalp in their region; Tanzania has been playing a division higher than Rwanda for the past five years. 

Turinawe attributes the rise to understanding. “The girls team listen much more and are diligent. If you ask them to do something, they will try and execute it in the best possible way,” he says.

Alby adds, “From a grassroot perspective, if you go down to any of the grounds you can easily see 20 -40 women playing cricket. They are very focused, and their success can also help us get more funding. We are confident that they can script a similar story like the Rwandan cyclists at Tour de France.”

Audifax’s story

National team opener Audifax Byringiro, in an interview with the Telegraph, spoke about the death of his family. He said, “I was very young but the problems I faced during my childhood were from the consequences of losing a parent during the genocide, After that my family struggled a lot – we were six kids with only one mother.

“I was a kid with no father so one of the things I did was ask what happened. Where is my father? How was he killed? Where is his body? We never got to know his story or what happened to him.”

Audifax’s journey mimics the struggles of every Rwanda citizen

His family ran away during the time, attempting to dodge every roadblock set up by the Hutus. Byringiro added, “Sometimes my mother would pass me to others in order to help her relax a bit. We were hiding in buildings, or were hidden by friends and family who were not in the same situations as us. 

“When we returned to our house after the killing stopped my older brother went in first because he was now the head of family. He had his foot blown off by a grenade left in the house. He was in a coma for many months and had shrapnel in his head. He suffers from many other problems now.”

However, Audifax is now part of a reformed Rwanda, working in the country’s IT sector.

On June 17, a charity drive will take place to raise the remaining money required for Rwandan cricket. Alby adds, “People can attempt to cycle 286 km or take part in our Guinness World record attempt of playing at the longest cricket net in the world. We really want to garner the money as soon as possible. Before my lifetime I want to see Rwanda play an official ICC international match.”

The people of Rwanda are now looking forward to an integrated future, with cricket as the catalyst for change.

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