The cricket nets at Lord’s are unusually quiet this morning; the only clear sound is the single ‘thwack’ of bat on ball as Heather Knight, England’s indomitable World Cup-winning captain, executes another stroke straight out of the coaching manual.
Yet the immaculate surroundings are a far cry from the focus of today’s gathering: cricket in Rwanda. It would appear to be an utterly incongruous pairing, but for the Rwandan Cricket Stadium Foundation (RCSF), who will be unveiling the country’s first cricket ground at the end of October, this is hopefully all about to change.
The woman bowling to Knight is her friend and competitor Mary Maina, Rwanda’s cricket captain. It is her first trip to the UK and already Mary has picked up the British penchant for weather-led discussions. “I expected it to be colder,” she laughs. The 24-year-old, who is also studying to become a biotechnologist, is small in stature, with a smile wider than a Cheshire cat as she starts her run-up.
Both women are proudly sporting the bright blue and yellow kit of Rwanda when they put down the bat and ball and wander over to talk about the initiative they believe has the potential to change the life of all Rwandans.
Four years ago, during an injury-induced break from cricket, Knight visited the eastern African republic to do some coaching with the national team and inspect the RCSF project. She recounts eagerly: “While I was there I heard a lot about how it started and what it was about and I just knew it was something I wanted to get involved in. I became a patron for the charity and then a trustee a year or so later.”
Like so much in Rwanda, the story of this project is lit, inevitably, by the backdrop of the nation’s blood-stained history. In 1990 the Rwandan civil war broke out after increased tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. This culminated in a 100-day period during 1994 when the Hutu majority government led a mass slaughter of the Tutsi community. More than 800,000 people were massacred across the country.
Maina understandably feels immense gratitude for having escaped the horror. Only a small child at the time, her parents were fortunately living and working in Kenya and the family avoided the violence.
Taking a short break from bowling, Maina begins to talk. What is immediately striking about the cricketer is the rare blend of charisma alongside earnestness. As she speaks, her eyes express and urge her listener to appreciate every word. She continues: “I suppose I must say the genocide didn’t affect me directly. But indirectly, yes. Absolutely. Not only other extended family but also friends of mine were affected, too. I have friends who lost their parents when they were very young. Many people actually witnessed their parents being murdered. Many people I know were denied their true right of a family and life. At some point when you are all sharing the pain, you feel that the whole genocide experience affects you in such a strong way, even though I was not involved in it directly.”
Terror and confusion ran rife as Tutsi families fled for their lives, pursued not only by the ruthless Hutu military, the Interahamwe, but former friends and neighbours, butchering one another to avoid their own execution. The Rwandan genocide was one of the bloodiest in modern history, and many orphaned children and widows were left as heads of households. Alongside the machete, the hideous utilisation of rape as a weapon of war led to a spike in HIV infections across Rwanda.
Even as the bloodshed ended, those who escaped were terrified to go back. Many became refugees in neighbouring Uganda and Kenya, former British colonies where cricket was a popular game. As Rwandans finally began filtering back over the following years, with them came cricket, a game barely played there before the civil war.
Now the fastest growing sport in the country, cricket could become one of the most powerful tools for reconciliation in Rwanda. Untainted by any pre-genocide divisions, cricket has become integral in uniting the nation and a balm to the tragedy of the past. Perpetrators and victims, fractured communities and families now work together in teams to promote respect and fellowship.
“The really beautiful thing about the cricket team in Rwanda,” reveals Maina, “is that it is just like a huge family. A second family. Anybody will teach you how to do anything if you are interested. I would visit the ground and find about four people from the national team who would be willing to help you out.”
She pauses for a moment, contemplating this. Then she smiles. “The cricket fraternity has moved from just being a sport to being a lifestyle. People want to live cricket. It is not only about batting and bowling anymore.”
Heather Knight, who is witness to the good that cricket has brought to girls across the UK inspired by England’s World Cup success, sees the potential in the Rwandan game. “It honestly excited and moved me how they’re using cricket out there to try and make something good and mend those historic wounds. Trying to use cricket as a way of uniting people and go forward. They absolutely love their cricket and they’re enthusiastic people with some real chequered stories and they’re finding cricket is helping to move their lives forward.”
With the population depleted and infrastructure severely damaged after the genocide, cricket enthusiasts had to make do with whatever space they could find to play on. Glancing at the numerous flat and spacious cricket nets around the Academy at Lord’s, Knight describes with incredulity the current training ground of the Rwandan national team.
“What they have is literally an uneven field with a concrete strip covered by a patchwork quilt matting. You can only bowl from one end as it is too pot-holed and dangerous the other way. I faced their quickest bowler – Tall Eric they call him [Rwanda men’s captain Eric Dusingizimana] – on the strip, and it was quite a challenge.” Mary is quick to add that when they face neighbouring countries in matches or tournaments, for many it marks their first time playing on a grass pitch.
The current cricket ground, located in the capital city Kigali, also bears the scars of the country’s past conflicts: it is the site of one of the most notorious massacres of the Rwandan genocide. More than 4,500 people lost their lives on that spot of uneven earth. Shards of bone are still occasionally found scattered around the edges of the field.
So the new stadium has a symbolic significance as well as a functional one. As Rwandans desperately attempt to bury their past, one that resides, literally, in the ground beneath their feet, the construction of the cricket stadium suggests a new layer of history devoted to the future. One cemented and built upon reconciliation, inclusion and teamwork.
The not-for-profit international standard stadium will include a pavilion with a restaurant, bar and conference facilities, as well providing free HIV-testing facilities.
“This stadium is really emotional to talk about,” Maina says. ‘It is like finding a homeless person and giving this person a place to stay and saying to them there are no fees or payments. You have this forever and for free. From no facilities to having the best facilities in the country, it is a moving experience. And I believe it’s going to impact people’s lives. I have already seen our young girls working hard so they can use the facility. And it will not only improve the sport of cricket in Rwanda, it is going to have social programmes for social change.”
As a biotechnologist, part of Maina’s work is testing body fluids for HIV. She is devastated to report that more than 80 per cent of the positive results come from the Rwandan youth. “It makes me think, ‘I am a youth, too, is there anything I can do to change this?’ and the best way to do this with the youth group is through cricket. Cricket can mobilise people and provides a fun environment. So I am really optimistic about this programme and what the stadium will bring to Rwanda.”
Once the stadium is opened later this month, the RCSF will transform into the charity Cricket Builds Hope, ensuring people of all backgrounds can access the facilities, and will continue to promote cricket as an agent for social change. In particular, the project is determined to help young Rwandan girls overcome severe confidence issues.
“There’s a real problem with self-confidence at grassroots level,” says Alby Shale, who co-founded the RCSF in memory of his late father Christopher Shale, the Conservative politician and close associate of David Cameron. Shale volunteered in Kigali and shared the Rwandan passion for cricket. “But cricket provides a new platform for them. One of the main reasons cricket is growing rapidly in Rwanda is because of the women. They are beating Kenya and Tanzania and the men are not getting close. I think players like Mary are becoming ambassadors for other women in Rwandan society to seize the opportunities that are now out there.”
Maina, too, touches on the lingering fallout of the gender specific violence of the civil war and how cricket is beginning to make amends. “I tell people that I have the best team in the world, not because we win world cups or even participate in them, but because we have women who actually have the power to change things. You see them before playing cricket and then after and you can see a tangible impact that the game has on them. If you do not contribute individually to the runs, there is no one to do it for you. So that initiative that cricket gives to us is life-changing.”
Maina is a warm and compelling athlete, yet beneath her sunny exterior there are signs of a powerful, self-confident woman. A woman determined to make a difference through the power of the game she loves.
With the interview finished, Mary readies herself to face Knight back in the nets. As she leaves she turns and says: “We all must do what we are best at. As long as I keep playing, and you keep writing, that creates power. And that’s how we will change everything.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Smith. Katie’s latest articles.