As you drive past one of the most iconic roundabouts in Rwanda’s capital city Kigali, it’s hard to miss a giant billboard honoring one of the country’s most recent triumphs in sport: the national cricket’s team captain Eric Dusingizimana, who broke a Guinness world record batting non-stop for 51 hours in May 2016. He had trained months on end to accomplish the feat of the ‘longest net session’.
This has made Dusingizimana one of Rwanda’s most recognizable faces but has also brought awareness to a sport few talked about before. Remarkably, cricket is now being hailed as a new cohesive force for a country that has seen one of the world’s greatest human tragedies.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame is all praise for the country’s new hero and his sport.
“The record-breaking feat of endurance recently accomplished by Eric Dusingizimana is a fitting example of the perseverance and determination that characterize the Rwandan people. Sport is a unifying force that builds both individual character and national cohesion and cricket is no exception,” said Kagame.
The president is an ardent lover of sport and one sees him occasionally expressing his views on various sporting disciplines to his million-plus followers on Twitter.
Rwanda reveres football, and has well-entrenched interests in basketball and cycling – the country’s rolling hills are filled with cyclists in colorful gear on Sunday mornings.
And now cricket is also getting its share of the limelight. The sport also has big names supporting it in Rwanda.
Former British prime ministers David Cameron and Tony Blair were famously part of the fundraising drive for the Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation, which has now, over the past four years, managed to raise over a million pounds for phase one of a world-class facility for cricket in Rwanda. Blair was present when Dusingizimana broke the world record – he was in Kigali at the time to attend the World Economic Forum on Africa.
After bowling to Dusingizimana on his way to the world record, Blair noted the importance of the sport in a country like Rwanda.
“Cricket is known as a gentleman’s game and one cannot ignore the impact the sport has had in uniting the people of Rwanda,” he said.
The national team’s captain is mighty pleased about the mileage the sport has received since, which in turn helped raise additional funds for the stadium’s construction.
“That was easily the largest crowd I’ve seen at any cricket event in Rwanda and now more people know about the sport,” said the batsman.
His accomplishment exemplified the many things the Rwandan people stand for, one of which is the country’s perseverance in rebuilding its economy after the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994.
But before Dusingizimana became an overnight celebrity, it was not all rosy for the sport. One would hardly hear cricket mentioned outside its small circle of players and foreign enthusiasts. Newspaper coverage was hard to come by and radio and television did little. This made the task of finding sponsors for the game difficult.
It is partly for this reason that Dusingizimana and Alby Shale, founder and project director of the Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation decided to try something different.
Dusingizimana’s record was previously held by an Indian batsman but it was Shale who set out to achieve the first record. As part of the first campaign to raise funds for the sport, Shale had set a new world record batting for 26 hours but this was eventually broken by another Englishman whose record was 48 hours.
“It was at this point that my friends asked if I could do 49 hours but then came an Indian guy who made it 50 hours. That’s when Eric came and started working for the Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation and when I suggested it to him, he didn’t think twice.”
Shale’s first interaction with Rwanda came as part of a group of British volunteers who would come to the country every year to work for the Rwandan people.
“My father [Christopher Shale] set up a social action project that would go to Rwanda every year to try and justify why the British government should spend some of its GDP on international aid. I immediately fell in love with the people and saw first-hand how Rwanda was trying to rebuild its community having gone through the horrors of 1994,” says Shale.
It is during this time that he noticed the love the few cricket enthusiasts in the country had for the game.
“After my return to the UK, I started having extensive conversations with some organizations and my father about how cricket is a resource-intensive game and Rwanda was really lacking in facilities, this was ultimately prohibiting their development, that’s when we agreed to set up the Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation to help the sport grow in the country.”
Unfortunately for Shale, a few months after setting up the foundation, his father passed away and that’s when it became more obvious he needed to focus on this as part of his legacy.
“I needed to channel my grief and keeping my father’s dream alive was the only thing I could think of. Cricket needed to be taken to the next level and ever since, we’ve been trying to raise funds to try and create the first international cricket stadium in Rwanda.”
The facility will include a cricket square, cricket nets, a maintenance facility and all the equipment needed to maintain the oval to international standards.
The foundation has to now raise a further £250,000 for the construction of a cricket pavilion. Its design will replicate a bouncing cricket ball in a bid to make it look authentic, and complementing Rwanda’s beautiful landscape. The local community will be involved in the construction of the facility.
Just like most development projects in the country, the Rwandan government has had a hand in seeing this dream come alive.
The government, through the Ministry of Sports and Culture, has not only given VAT exemption to the foundation but also provided the land on which the facility is to be built, free of charge.
“Such has been the government’s role in facilitating not only the growth of the sport of cricket but also across other sectors that has seen a whole-scale infrastructure transformation in the country,” Charles Haba, President of the Rwanda Cricket Association, had said in an earlier interview.
The story of Rwanda’s growth over the past 22 years is never complete without the mention of the role its women have played in seeing it come to fruition. Rwanda holds the record for the highest number of women in public office with a 64% representation in parliament.
This empowerment has been reflected across various sectors and the sport of cricket hasn’t been left behind. In its journey towards achieving the dream of a world-class cricket stadium, the national women’s team captain Mary Maina will attempt to set a new world record for the longest net session by a woman.
The feat has never been attempted before and Maina will have to bat for a minimum of 24 hours. A university student, she believes that the growing popularity of the sport among women is a reflection of women’s empowerment in the country. In fact, the growth of women’s cricket in Rwanda has seen it surpass that of international powerhouse India despite the latter having more people supporting it.
“Our leaders have made us believe that a woman’s place can be anywhere. In Rwanda, a woman is not only restricted to the kitchen stereotype, we have been made to believe that we can achieve anything and even be better at most things,” says the 24-year-old.
Clearly, the journey of cricket in Rwanda is not so different from the country’s own growth. They are both setting world records.