In the aftermath of the devastating Rwandan genocide of 1994 a cricket-loving generation of refugees returned to their homeland. Now they are being built the stadium they deserve, writes Jo Harman.
The challenges facing the development of cricket in Rwanda were starkly demonstrated 10 years ago when the Rwandan Cricket Association (RCA) leased a hectare of land from a local college in the Kigali suburb of Kicukiro and began building the nation’s first cricket ground.
There was no history of cricket in the country but its popularity was growing quickly as thousands of exiled Rwandans who had grown up playing the game in nearby Uganda and Kenya returned to their homes in the months and years following the genocide that took the lives of nearly a million people. As a country torn apart by ethnic divisions attempted to rebuild itself this newfound passion for cricket was seen as just one small way in which a sense of unity could be restored and in 2002 – three years after a small number of former exiles founded the RCA – land was leased to begin development of a ground.
But even as Rwanda entered a new chapter the memories of its past were all too vivid – as work began on the new ground and fallen trees and debris were cleared thousands of bones and skeletons were revealed in the soil beneath. The land had been the site of one of the genocide’s most infamous massacres after Belgian peacekeepers left their post and approximately 2,000 people at the college were killed. Nonetheless, this site, which had been the setting for such horrific scenes eight years previously, was to be the first home of Rwandan cricket’s burgeoning community and a concrete pitch with artificial matting was laid.
In 2003 Rwanda were invited to join the ICC as an Affiliate member, making their international debut at the African Affiliates Championship the following year, and participation figures now exceed 4,500 across the country. But despite this growth in stature and popularity, the site at Kicukiro remains the country’s only cricket ground.
Efforts are now being made to rectify this by the Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation (RCSF) – a Rwanda-based charity run by British and Rwandan members – working in partnership with the MCC Foundation to fund, construct and manage a not-for-profit international standard cricket and sports centre in Kigali. Set up in 2011, the foundation has attracted a number of high-profile patrons including Brian Lara, Jonathan Agnew and David Cameron and has already raised £330k of the £600k needed to make their dream a reality.
Lara, in particular, has had a keen interest in the plight of Rwanda for several years having visited in the country in 2009 to do some coaching. After learning that the genocide was happening at the time of his record scores of 375 and 501* in 1994, he pledged support for what he describes as his “African brothers” and flew over to the UK for a RCSF fundraiser at Lord’s in May. With the help of patrons such as Lara and financial support from private and public donations, the aim is to have the stadium in place by 2014.
“This project is crucial because Rwanda has one ground for thousands of players across the whole country,” says Oli Broom, the foundation’s project director. “They need to have somewhere they can be proud of – to have somewhere they can learn about cricket, as well as play. Having somewhere where international teams can come and play will help to raise the standard of cricket in Rwanda and we are working alongside various organisations to provide a good coaching infrastructure.
“All the facilities will be sustainable and Rwandan cricket won’t have to rely on the international community to keep them going. In future the idea is to keep generating income so there will be tennis courts and a swimming pool as well, with all the money going towards the development of cricket.”
Daniel Dalton, formerly of Warwickshire CCC and a Level 3 qualified coach, spent time in Rwanda last year coaching in primary schools and universities and working with the national team. He witnessed the country’s passion for the game first hand. “Pretty much everyone in the country suffered from the genocide in one way or another,” says Dalton. “When you talk to them and get to know them it turns out they all had family members killed and some even had their entire family wiped out in front of their eyes. They are survivors and it is a really inspiring story.
“They all take their cricket a lot more seriously than most people do in England. All the guys in the national team, cricket is their sole focus. They don’t make money from it but they define themselves in society as cricketers and they will be at the ground every day training, working out ways to become better cricketers.”
There are clear points of comparison between the origins of the game in Rwanda and the remarkable rise of the Afghanistan cricket team. It was while residing in neighbouring Pakistan, having fled their own war-torn country during the 1980s, that Afghan refugees were first introduced to cricket. As they gradually returned to their homeland the game began to prosper with the assistance of foreign investment, eventually leading to their qualification for the World Twenty20 in 2010. It is a point not lost on the RCSF, who see Afghanistan’s journey as a source of inspiration.
“Rwanda doesn’t have the nearby countries with the vast cricketing pedigree like Afghanistan have got in Pakistan and India but the guys who brought cricket to Rwanda grew up playing the game and I think that’s really important,” says Broom. “I definitely think Afghanistan is going to be an inspiration for them. In a lot of countries sport is playing a great role in getting people over conflicts and cricket is playing a small but really important role in Rwanda.”
Although the RCSF have raised in excess of £330k, they still have a fair way to go and any donation, however small, would be very welcome. Please visit www.rcsf.org.uk to lend your support, or contact project director Oli Broom at email@example.com for sponsorship or other opportunities.