Heather Knight, England Women’s opening batter and double Ashes winner, spent a whirlwind three days in Rwanda as an ambassador for a Rwandan cricket charity, coaching cricket and exploring the capital Kigali and its surroundings.
Representing your country at the highest level is the dream of all cricketers, male or female. Imagine you have achieved that goal, but the only games you get to play, outside of rare international competitions, is one T20 match every fortnight.
Furthermore, that match is played on a concrete strip covered with three separate astro-turf strips haphazardly joined together. But hey, at least you can hone your skills and practice to your hearts content in the nets… apart from the fact that there aren’t any.
This is the reality for the men’s and women’s national teams of Rwanda in East Africa. Currently there is one cricket pitch in the whole of this beautiful country - The Kicukiro Oval. One charity - the Rwandan Cricket Stadium Foundation (RCSF) - has set out to change this.
Due to the nature of the pitch (and the fact that the outfield isn’t exactly Lord’s!) the Rwanda Cricket Association (RCA) is unable to host international fixtures. Therefore any money the RCA does receive from the ICC is spent on travel expenses for the national teams to attend occasional inter-Africa competitions. This leaves no room to develop the game at the grassroots.
Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills, has a chequered past. The tragic genocide that occurred here two decades ago resulted in nearly a million people being slaughtered in just 100 days. The Kicukiro Oval itself was the site of a particularly horrific massacre, portrayed in the film Shooting Dogs.
But somewhat heartwarmingly – after the remains of the victims killed there had been removed – the ground is now a symbol of hope for many young Rwandans, giving them a chance to change their futures, and enjoy themselves, through cricket.
The RCSF, a UK-run charity which boasts Prime Minister David Cameron as Patron, aims to build the first dedicated cricket stadium in Rwanda. The badly needed facility, will ultimately lead to greater opportunities, not just for the national teams, but also for the country as a whole.
The stadium will have two pitches and allow cricket to blossom, giving thousands of under privileged Rwandans the chance to discover our amazing sport.
I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to visit Rwanda, albeit briefly, to support the work the RCSF is doing. My whistle-stop tour began with a coaching session with the Rwandan Women’s side, followed by testing the aforementioned concrete strip, by padding up to face Rwandan’s quickest bowler “Tall Eric” (“Short Eric” and “Big Eric” were in the field!). I’m pleased to say I survived to tell the tale and the concrete pitch actually plays reasonably well!
I was also able to take a trip outside of the capital Kigali to visit the beautiful Sorwathe Tea plantation – learning a bit more about my favourite drink and Rwanda’s biggest export.
RCSF Project Director Ed Pearson and I also managed to acquire a couple of heavy-duty bikes whilst up there to go exploring. The bikes weighed as much as a baby elephant, had no gears, and were nigh-on impossible to steer – not ideal in a country that is basically all hills! It’s no surprise that we both ended up falling off!
On our travels we came across a small village, whose children flocked around us shouting “Mzungu, Mzungu” (an endearing term meaning ‘wandering white person’). They didn’t speak a word of English so we communicated in the only way we knew how – with a game of catch. The kids loved it, and it just showed how sport has the power to bring people together.
Despite being in Rwanda, my personal training didn’t stop with the ICC Women’s World T20 just around the corner. I was treated to altitude and hill running, alongside a boxing session with a Rwandan boxing champ – who needs swanky gyms?!
The trip concluded with a humbling visit to the genocide memorial, and a visit to the site where the new ground will be built. Hopefully I can return to see the ground opened in the not too distant future. It’s set to have one of the best views in world cricket!
I found Rwanda to be an extremely endearing country with some of the friendliest people you could ever meet. It has some breathtaking scenery - I’m a stickler for a good view and I wasn’t disappointed!
It is also leading the way for African (if not all) nations with a monthly “clean your streets day”, a total plastic bag ban and a government that is two-thirds female.
The RCSF are just over halfway in raising the funds to make the dream of a home for Rwandan Cricket a reality (£350,000 of £600,000 to construct and build a stadium complex with two cricket pitches).
Everyone deserves a chance to move on from their past and cricket is helping to do just that in Rwanda by bringing people together the way only cricket can.
Find out more about RCSF and how to donate at www.RCSF.org.uk