Monday, 07 January 2019 00:00

Rwanda 11 years on…

As a regular traveler for work, boarding flight WB305 from Dubai to Kigali was in itself unremarkable. However, the following four days were truly remarkable for me and below is at attempt to describe why.

 Back in October 2005 I set off from Lords with my good friends and by then fellow Trustees Ed and Chris to start a journey from Cairo to Cape Town with bold ambitions of tackling HIV / Aids in Africa through cricket, under our newly established charity Cricket Without Boundaries (CWB). Over the next five years CWB grew rapidly. Through innovative methodology linking cricket and HIV / AIDS awareness messages we were and are part of the fight against the epidemic in Africa. But we also moved into tackling other social development issues such as FGM in the Maasai, Kenya and child soldier reintegration in Northern Uganda.

When I look back at those first five years of CWB, I realise how much I learnt. I set off from Lords with frankly no idea of what we were doing, of what lay ahead and nor of the power of cricket to bring people and communities together. Driven by a love of travel, Africa and cricket, I had delivered cricket and HIV Awareness sessions in Egypt, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Namibia and in each country learnt more about its people and what makes it tick than I could ever have imagined by visiting on holiday. I had also made a huge number of close friends, both in Africa and in the UK.

Then between 2010 and 2018, despite remaining as a trustee of the charity and providing support from afar, I hadn’t actually been out on a CWB project delivering our work. In between, much had happened, including getting a global development job with the International Cricket Council, moving to Dubai, losing my Dad and having two wonderful children.

So flight WB305 was special for many reasons. I was joining the last four days of a CWB project in Kigali, a country I had visited four times between 2007 and 2010, and a country with whom I now worked with on a professional basis. But a country where when we first set foot in 2007 and met Emma Byiringiro and Charles Haba for the first time cricket had only just started, had no qualified coaches and had just a handful of Rwandans who had learnt the game when in exile in Uganda playing with a handful of South Asian expats on a very ‘average’ cricket ground.

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In those four visits from 2007 – 2010 we had built a strong relationship with the Rwanda Cricket Association, trained around 100 coaches and introduced many young people to the sport. I knew from my roles at ICC and CWB that cricket was growing in Rwanda and that they had a shiny new ground, unbelievably delivered by the Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation. However, sat in my office in Dubai Sports City on the 30th October, it was difficult to imagine what I would experience the next day. Flight WB305 landed at 5am and I made my way to the hotel, to be greeted by the Jamie, the one person I knew on the project (and my new roomy). After meeting the full team of ten over breakfast, we made our way to a local school to be greeted by the small matter of approximately 600 wildly enthusiastic children with very limited English and a strong desire to have fun and play cricket. ‘Boom’ I was back on the ground delivering with CWB!

The following four days saw us deliver coaching and HIV / Awareness sessions from 8am – 6.30pm each day, consume a few local Mutzigs in the evenings and form some strong friendships. This was something I had done regularly in the formative days of CWB, but coming back to it after 8 years I realized how much I had taken such amazing experiences for granted.

What I first noticed when landing back in Kigali was the scale of growth and change in the city. Everyone had told me about this, but seeing is believing. The airport was new; the roads were new; the buildings were new - almost entirely unrecogisable. But actually, underneath the new concrete everything was very recognizable. The hills, the red earth, the people and the complete lack of litter all remain a constant. Huge change underpinned by some constants became a theme throughout the four days, not least in the nightclub of choice moving from Planet to People – clearly a more respectable establishment by any objective measure, but ultimately not a patch on the old favourite – Planet. The most enjoyable sight of Rwanda for me was a ‘short’ walk from one coaching location to another when our bus seemed to go AWOL one afternoon. Maybe it was a 20-minute walk for tall Eric and his extraordinary long legs, but for those of us more vertically challenged the hour walk through the beautiful rural areas surrounding Kigali, stopping to wave at and play football with people in the houses we passed was for me truly a joy.

That walk ended in Ndera – a big focus for the Rwanda Cricket Association and a focus for our four days of coaching. Coming out through the isolated houses with a few green bean plants around to them to an open space and seeing a hundred children playing cricket was a joy. The beer I shared with the two Giles in the local ‘pub’ when the heavens opened equally so! A simple shack with a fridge, cheap beer and a few strange looks, combined with learning about Giles upcoming book release about sleep was a touch surreal.

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Another aspect of Rwanda that has seen remarkable growth is cricket itself. When I was last there all cricket was played from one central location in Kigali. From this venue we had trained a number of young players as coaches and enthused some children in a few local schools. Now cricket is played in schools and communities all through Kigali (and beyond), they have a new international standard ground and the number of coaches and helpers in the cricket community was truly amazing. The level of professionalism and organization with which RCA is run is something only dreamed of in 2007. Yet again, underlining this were some constants. Some familiar faces - Emma, the first person I had met in Rwanda and with whom I had planned the first CWB project there in 2007, is now the General Manager and still loves to throw a few shapes on the dancefloor. Tall Eric, one of the original players we trained to be a coach is now the national captain, Development Officer, CWB Ambassador and a pied piper to the many children he coaches. Audifax, another of the original group we worked with, is now the vice president of RCA, an ex-national team captain, ex CWB Ambassador and now has his own software business. Charles, whilst no longer president of RCA (and physically a shadow of his former self!) is still heavily involved in cricket through the stadium foundation. A highlight was finishing the festival at the end of the project and saying to the children that eight years ago two people standing at the back were sat where they were. They couldn’t have two more perfect role models in Eric and Audifax.

Another constant was the talent. From what is still ultimately an average infrastructure the talent of the players is astonishing and massively reinforces to me that the role of the coach is to create an environment for players to flourish, not to impart knowledge. I was asked to work with a young player on his swing bowling. On asking him to demonstrate his skills, he proceeded to bowl a perfect in swinger, followed by a perfect out swinger and I was left just to congratulate, unable to add any value much to his disappointment!

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Over the past 8 years I have been on many conference / skype calls with CWB colleagues, attended one training weekend and sent / received many emails. However, this was the first time I had seen our delivery in action for such a long time and I was curious to know how it had changed. The formula was pretty much; take eight random strangers who share a love for cricket and have a little cricket coaching experience between them, ask them to raise money for the charity and pay for their own flight to Rwanda, throw them together in Coventry for a training weekend and then dump them in Rwanda after a near 48 hour journey and hope for the best. The results were spectacular.

I joined the team 9 days into their 2-week project and was immediately struck by the atmosphere in the group. A combination of banter, mickey taking and game faces when required. A true desire to get out there and make a difference – a school cancels a session last minute – rather than take a well-earned and deserved break, let’s find another school, even if we are only there for 20 minutes (my one personal highlight being Tall Eric informing us we have precisely 21 minutes for one coaching session - if you have any experience of African timekeeping you will understand the context). The first session I was involved with we were swamped by 600 kids and had little chance of delivering anything of note – no problem, 300 person oki koki should work (much to the annoyance of the head master who wasn’t too pleased with the damage to his precious ‘grass’). I reflected on how this could happen – why weren’t these good people taking the opportunity for a break between sessions when one was cancelled? Why didn’t they moan and give up when swamped with 600 children? Why did they just get on with it when we went to Ndera for yet another late afternoon session with the same children? I don’t know that I have an explanation, but I was left feeling incredibly proud of what we have created, in awe of the work of our volunteers in the UK who have set up and delivered the whole volunteer experience and inspired by the team on the ground and how they had the energy and motivation to do that for 2 weeks straight. It also made me realise the importance of having clear values – I saw the values on which the charity is built so evident throughout my four days – no amount of training or instruction can prepare you for the experiences you will face on the ground, but if you understand you need to be inclusive, adaptable, make it fun, enduring and have integrity then you have a chance.

The one single difference in our delivery on the ground that I noticed was our delivery of HIV / Aids awareness messages. Always a key part of our every session we deliver, getting a group of mainly English people to talk to strangers about sex and condoms is never an easy task. Despite having done it many times before, I found myself nervous about doing it again and unsure how our new delivery method worked. But inspired by the groups commitment to it, I threw myself into it and the simplicity of having a few yes/no questions on a laminated piece of A4 and walking away from each 10 minute session knowing we have busted a couple of myths in each group was incredibly powerful. A number of children walked into the session having just learnt a few catching skills and walked away having learnt that men and women are equal, or that you can get HIV by sharing needles but not by kissing. I was struck by the depth of knowledge that many of the children had (e.g. telling us you can actually get HIV by kissing if both partners have an ulcer for example) yet didn’t think that men and women were equal, that boys and girls should play together or that HIV+ people can play with HIV- people.

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An important part of any trip to Rwanda is the Genocide memorial. It’s impossible to describe in words the emotions you feel wandering round the incredibly well put together memorial, but what I do know is that it has a huge impact on everyone who goes there and that you can’t help but walk away in complete disbelief, grief and yet still unable to grasp what happened just 24 years ago. This was the first time I had visited since I had become a Dad and for me that made it an even tougher experience.

My four days left me with some incredible memories, many high fives, infinite smiles and some new friendships. But more importantly, a realization of the role cricket has played in my life and the interconnectedness of it. 11 years ago I made some friendships in Kigali that are now a part of my working life. On the project team was someone who played cricket with the head of my 6th form 26 years ago, someone who heard about the charity at a party in the village that my parents in laws live and someone with whom I have many shared work connections in England. I would never have got my job at the ICC if it weren’t for CWB, and my role at ICC has helped the progress of the charity.

Cricket is an amazing connector, provides a community to which we can truly belong and helps us all be better human beings.

Andy Hobbs
CWB Founder and Trustee




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