We all know that sport has a unique ability to bring people together from all around the world and those of us who have travelled to places a little less ordinary know that there are few better ways to make friends quickly than with a smile and a ball.
Though there are many examples, there are few things better or more heat-warming than seeing the England fans sing La Maseilles more rosoundingly than God Save The Queen has ever been sang at Wembley following the various terrorists in Paris a few years ago. If perhaps the biggest and worst enemies ever in England and France or indeed Germany too can come together in fraternity, it makes you wonder what excuse any other country has.
Of course it is one thing forgiving former enemies from abroad but it is another thing entirely when the war and division is all within the same country. You only have to look at the United States or Great Britain to see what lasting effects a war fought between two sides in one nation does to people. The shadows of the Union and Confederates and the Loyalist and Nationalists hang long.
Which makes what is happening in Rwanda all the more remarkable. It is hard to think of a genocide worse than that in Rwanda and all in the knowledge of the global media and world powers. With up to 1 million people killed along ethnic divisions in the 1990’s many a country would have totally disintegrated.
Rationally speaking one would think there were much more important things to do in Rwanda than invest in sport, even more so in Cricket which found a home around the world in former British colonies but not particularly in Rwanda that was a German and then Belgian colony.
On a visit to the country, Christopher Shale noted what enthusiam there was for cricket in Rwanda but with understandably impoverished resources. Working as he did for David Cameron (former British Prime Minister) and having been deeply involved in Rwanda through Unubano, a social action project and helped build a community centre near Kigali for genocide survivors, Christopher took it upon himself to create a new cricket stadium and facility in Rwanda in the hopes it would facilitate nation building and give hope to the children of the country.
Sadly Christopher Shale died in 2011 suffering a heart attack at the Glastonbury Festival but his vision of bringing Cricket to the masses of Rwanda was picked up by his son, Alby Shale. Towards the end of October 2017, the dream came true when the new international Cricket Stadium on the outskirs of Kigali opened and hosted a T20 Cricket tournament with numerous stars of English and South African cricket on hand to lend support.
Sitting on the grass terrace of the Cricket Builds Hope stadium, one can enjoy the panorama stretching out across the seemingly endless hills of Kigali, Rwanda’s new international cricket stadium is as spectacular as it is a symbol of hope. The African nation’s name continues to be as emotive and divisive for many foreigners as it did almost a quarter of a century ago when a million members of the Tutsi tribe were slaughtered by the Hutu government in the 1994 genocide.
But today, Rwanda is a country that has rebuilt itself to become one of the safest in the notoriously troubled region of central Africa. And that renaissance is nowhere more tangible than inside the new £1m cricket stadium in Gahanga on the outskirts of the capital Kigali. It might not be Lords in London or the MCC in Australia but it is a facility to be proud of and probably one more inspiration and important than any other cricket ground in the world.The venue represents a remarkable turnaround for the country which has been largely attributed to the strict regime of the president Paul Kagame, who was at the official opening at the weekend. Former England and Yorkshire cricketer Michael Vaughan and ex-South African batsman Herschelle Gibbs captained the sides for a celebrity T20 match, which also featured current England international Sam Billings, on Saturday.
Speaking at the tournament, Alby Shale said “Seeing how cricket has brought people together in Rwanda has been incredible. Having the new stadium open now is something I wish my father could have seen. I know he would have been so proud to see the impact that this ground will have on a country that was so close to his heart.”
The opening ceremony was, however, not simply a showpiece event for the privileged few, as young Rwandan cricketers were given the chance to play in the game in front of a 1,500-strong crowd. Among them was Landry Rurangwa, who had been selected to play for a Yorkshire Tea team in a cricket festival staged last week before culminating in the final which was won by Uganda yesterday. While the Yorkshire Tea team was knocked out in the group stages, Mr Rurangwa was picked as the squad’s star player.
He joined Vaughan’s team in the celebrity match, which was eventually won in the last over by the team overseen by Gibbs. Mr Rurangwa, 21, who grew up in Kigali and now oversees coaching sessions in schools through the Rwanda Cricket Association, said: “Having this stadium means so much to us, and it will help cricket grow throughout the country. Cricket has brought Rwanda together.”
A symbol of hope after Rwanda’s atrocities RWANDA’S NEW cricket stadium is a stark contrast to the pitted outfield of the previous national ground at the Kicukiro Oval, which was a notorious massacre site. A plaque outside that venue commemorates the 4,500 Tutsis who were slaughtered when the United Nations took the decision to vacate a compound where the Rwandans had sought sanctuary.
It is hoped the new venue will act as a catalyst for cricket in the country, which has an ambition of playing in the World Cup within 15 years. The Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation, under its new name Cricket Builds Hope, will oversee the operation. The charity will use cricket as a tool for social change in Rwanda and potentially other developing countries. The new stadium itself includes space for free HIV testing services for the local community.
It’s not just in the capital that Cricket is changing lives, at the Mahama Refugee Camp in southeastern Rwanda, one of cricket’s universal truths is being played out by a group of very enthusiastic Burundian children: it is a batsman’s game. One of the aims of the Rwandan Cricket movement is to inspire and improve the lot of women in the African nation.
Somehow Mary Maina, the captain of the Rwandan women’s team, is bringing order to a one-hour cricket class given to a group of around 200 children who have never clapped eyes on the game before.
She has pegged out four small cones and placed a plastic ball on top of each one. One group are queuing up to give them a whack. About 50 metres away the others are lining up in a row behind a set of different cones, which she tells them is “the boundary”, and they are “fielders”. When she shouts “one, two, three, go” the batsman swings and all hell breaks loose as about 120 kids scrabble around in the dust trying to grab the balls, while the batsman runs around two sets of stumps like a baseball player going around base.
This is how you deliver cricket in a United Nations refugee camp home to 55,000 people of whom 51 per cent are children. The camp sits on the banks of the Akagera River on the border with Tanzania and in two years its population has grown from 8,000 as families flee the political instability of Burundi to find refuge in Rwanda.
It is here Mary is spreading the word of cricket for, as a Rwandan player, she knows the significance of introducing it to refugees. It was Rwandan refugees returning home after the genocide 23 years ago who brought cricket with them after seeing it in similar camps in British-influenced Uganda and Kenya.
“It is about humanity and the right thing to do. If I was in their shoes what would I want?,” Mary says. “I would want exactly what we are doing, showing them there is hope because we know what happened to us. There was hope then, and now look at us.”
While we were talking, at the new cricket stadium in Kigali they were clearing up the mud caused by a sudden storm on Wednesday and tending the pitch, the first grass wicket in Rwanda, in preparation for Saturday’s opening ceremony, a momentous day for Rwandan cricket.
The manicured outfield, tiled pavilion and pristine net facilities in Kigali feel further away from Mahama than the three hours on tarmacked road, and another hour on a rutted dirt track, that separates the camp and the country’s thriving capital city.
But this project at Mahama is the next step for the Rwandan Cricket Stadium Foundation that raised the £1 million to build the ground. The refugee camp trip is a glimpse of the future when the charity hopes to stretch beyond Kigali, using cricket as a vehicle for social change.
In Mahama they know the value of sport, even one as alien to Burundians as cricket. Mostly the children play football, making balls out of rags bound together with string around an inflated condom. One day they would love to have a cricket field, more likely an artificial pitch (water is needed for better uses in a refugee camp than grass), so the work Mary did on Thursday could become a regular fixture of camp life.
“The purpose of sports is security, and when they play they forget trauma, self-pity and all other kinds of problems that refugees have,” says Joseph Kamuzinzi, the camp’s protection assistant in charge of youth and sports.
Mary’s infectious enthusiasm connects with the children and turns what could be chaos into a fun, controlled session. There is no real attempt to coach cricket. Just hit the ball and smile. “It is step by step,” she says. “The fun bit first – it helps you mobilise the kids so they want to come next time. Then you add skills one by one, and then hopefully a cricketer is born. With these children it is about how to get through to them. They need to feel you are a friend. That is the logic I used today. Let’s get kaddish together, enjoy this together and get crazy together. After that it was easy to coordinate. But as you saw, everyone always wants to bat and hit the ball as far as they can.”
A 13-year-old boy called Charles, who has lived in the camp for two years, agrees. He had never seen cricket before. “It is easy, you just hit the ball.”
It has not been easy to reach this stage. It took five years to raise £1 million to build the cricket ground in Kigali and lay the foundations for projects such as the one in Mahama. But now that the ground is in full use, Cricket Builds Hope can move forward.
Ally Shale, the 27-year-old British project coordinator, has delivered the ground first envisaged by his late father, Christopher. Shale is about to move on, and hands over tomorrow to a new coordinator in Geordie Morrison, whose job it will be to ensure there is funding to maintain the ground, at around £50,000 per year, and build the social programmes liaising with Cricket Without Boundaries, a charity that has experience of similar work in Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa. The Lord’s Taverners have donated 1,000 items of kit to help with the task.
Mary, as an ambassador, will be at the centre of the campaigns, along with another female player, Cathia Uwamahoro. They will deliver educational and vocational programmes through cricket. “Our initial focus will be on disadvantaged women and girls aged 16-25,” says Morrison. “We are going to be running leadership programmes from the stadium with a partner called Resonate, who use storytelling methods to help women build confidence and skills. Our first focus is on 450 women in Gahanga and all being well those programmes should be up and running in 2018 with sufficient fundraising.”
In Mary and Cathia the charity already has two women who have built their own stories to change their lives. Cathia was introduced to cricket by Eric Dusingizimana, the captain of the Rwanda team, after she saw him holding a coaching demonstration. Mary stumbled across it, too. “Best accident that ever happened in my life,” she says.
Cathia is now a Guinness World Record holder for batting in the nets longer than any other female player, which led to her being offered a job with one of Rwanda’s leading financial companies, and Mary has become an accomplished media performer while finishing her university studies in biotechnology.
“We have had girls on the back pages of sports papers, which you do not see with other sports in Rwanda,” says Shale. “We have challenges in our society,” says Mary as we speak on the bus home from the refugee camp. “It is men-dominated, and sport is totally men-dominated, too.
“Seeing that a girl in our society can stand up in a community of men and feel my ideas matter is a big thing. Cricket has given us that environment.”
Free HIV testing and educational workshops will be held at the ground and Cathia explains how she uses cricket in that setting. “I say consider the stumps as your life, the bat is your condom and the ball is Aids. You use the bat to defend the stumps from the ball so you have to protect yourself.”
The Rwandan men’s team plays in Africa Division Three; the women have been playing seriously only for five years but now they have proper facilities the hope is the game will boom. “We had nothing, but now everyone is like, ‘I need to train because I have to play at that ground,’” says Mary. “We watched a lot of the women’s World Cup. Our ground is the same as the ones they played on. When you have a good ground what is left? It is the players. We need to be in the nets more to play the standard of cricket we watch on TV.”
Shale will be a trustee of Cricket Builds Hope and believes the ground is just the beginning.
“One hundred per cent this can grow outside Rwanda. We need proof of our programmes being successful over a year to 18 months first,” he said. “There are ideas of trying to help terrorists who have been incarcerated but are now trying to be reintroduced in society, and using cricket as a vehicle to do that. I think there is no limit to the power of this game if it is used in a very sensible and strategic way.”
Final word to Mary. “One girl in my team was denied the right to a family due to the genocide in our country. She lost her parents and grew up in a home. It was only when she joined our team that she felt she had a family experience. She has grown from being that reserved person who always felt as if she did not matter in society to someone who leads her friends at school. Seeing that transition makes you understand how cricket helps people’s lives around here.”
I invite everyone reading this to watch this moving video on how Cricket is inspiring hope in Rwanda with this short but wonderful video from the ICC, the International Cricket Council. It is what inspired me to write this blog today with additional text from the Daily Telegraph and Yorkshire Post newspapers.
If I ever get to Rwanda, I can’t think of anything better than to spend a day watching the cricket.