Nick Hoult sees Rwanda join the cricketing family
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. 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 yesterday’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. From today, the charity morphs into Cricket Builds Hope, using the new Gahanga Cricket Ground as a resource centre for delivering social programmes, with a particular focus on female empowerment. 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 £1million 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.”
‘If I was in their shoes what would I want? I would want exactly what we’re doing’
‘I think there is no limit to the power of this game if it is used in a very sensible and strategic way’
New beginnings: Michael Vaughan, above, in a T20 match yesterday at Kigali’s new stadium; left, action from Wednesday; below, children at a refugee camp