April 4, 2014

The cricket ground that was a killing field

It has been 20 years since genocide ripped Rwanda apart. Now cricket is playing a small role in helping people move forward

Women cricketers in Rwanda got a coaching session from England international Heather Knight © Martin Kharumwa

It was while on a weekend in Rwanda to provide coaching sessions for the women's national team that Heather Knight batted against "Tall Eric". Known as the fastest bowler in Rwanda, Tall Eric can extract considerable bounce from his 6ft 6in frame. More so when he's bowling on a concrete strip.

England opener Knight has faced bowlers sending it down at 75-80mph before but less often on a pitch that is covered with three separate sections of astroturf. Unsurprisingly, the local players are more confident off the back foot. It is an "interesting pitch," Knight says. "If it hits one of the cracks it either dies or flies at your head."

Kicukiro Oval in Kigali, Rwanda's only dedicated cricket facility, is not of sufficient standard to host international cricket. It is also scarred by the haunting memory of the genocide carried out 20 years ago. Some 4000 people lost their lives in a brutal massacre at the ground and many times that number died between April and July 1994. But Kicukiro Oval, and the game that is played there, also provides a symbol of hope.

"All the people that lived there fled to neighbouring countries to escape the genocide, Uganda, Kenya, places like that and they picked up cricket," Knight says. "When they came back to Rwanda, when it was safe, they brought cricket back.

"Most people in the country, if they are older than 20, will know people that got killed, people that did the killing, and also potentially have been involved in it themselves. It was very humbling. I went to the genocide memorial there; a million people got killed in about 100 days, women and children, so it was quite sad. But it's great that a sport like cricket is bringing people together and giving the Rwandans the chance to move on. Because with the genocide, everyone disbanded, the country hasn't got a real, true identity, because it was so raw. I think cricket and sport is enabling the people to do that."

To improve the game's progress in Rwanda, a UK-based charity is raising funds to build two new pitches at a location in Gahanga, just outside of Kigali. The Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation (RCSF), of which Knight is now a patron alongside Brian Lara, Jonathan Agnew and UK prime minister David Cameron, is closing in on a target of £600,000 (US$1m) to finance the project. Founded by MP Christopher Shale, who sadly died in 2011, the RSCF made the news last year when Shale's son Alby took part in a 26-hour net at The Oval in London.

"The plan is to get two pitches so other teams can come and tour, because at the moment the national teams have to go abroad to play inter-African tournaments and all the money that Rwanda Cricket has goes into travel expenses and getting them out there," Knight says. "So there's no money to grow the game in the country where there is the real need. I think they'd really blossom if they had the pitches and could get it going in schools and things like that."

The Rwanda Cricket Association was founded in 1999 and Affiliate membership of the ICC was granted in 2003. Funding from world cricket's governing body amounts to around $20,000 a year, most of which goes to transporting the national teams to play in nearby countries like Uganda. Despite having a single concrete pitch and a "very ropey" outfield on which to practise, Rwanda won the ICC Africa Division 3 Championship in 2011.

During her brief trip, Knight put the women's team through their paces with some fielding drills before taking part in a T20 game with the men. There is a perhaps surprising degree of equality, with club cricket split evenly between boys playing on one weekend and girls the other. Knight's preparations for the World T20 also meant some demanding workouts around the local hills, at an altitude of 4000ft above sea level.

"It puts things into perspective," Knight says. "Cricket means the world to me but people out there haven't got a lot in life, and it's nice to go and do something like that and have a bit of a break."

As the 20th anniversary of the genocide approaches, cricket is in some small way helping ordinary Rwandans to chart their way forward. Sport can unify as much as it can divide, and the example of Afghanistan, where the cricket team has made an impact at the highest level despite a recent history of war and struggle within the country, provides evidence of that power.

The RSCF has many impressive backers - a reception for the charity was held at Downing Street on March 31 - and a noble goal, but shouldn't this be what the ICC is for? Proposed changes to the ICC's funding structure are unlikely to see a great increase in wealth trickling down to this level, where it is needed most. The politics are tangled but Knight is positive about the benefits for cricket in expanding its reach and plans to return to the country for the stadium's anticipated opening in 2015. "Tall Eric" - not to mention "Short Eric" and "Big Eric" - will doubtless be ready for another game.

"I think it's definitely important to grow cricket in countries like that," Knight says. "I've got so much from cricket throughout my career and I think there's a real scope for growing the sport, not only in England but in countries like Rwanda, giving kids who haven't got a lot the opportunity to learn and have fun and have a way out through cricket. So I think it's key that we grow the game, because if it's truly a global game it's only going to be good for cricket in the long run."

Find out more about RCSF and how to donate at www.RCSF.org.uk

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • HareshVyas on April 5, 2014, 20:45 GMT

    I would like to share very interesting conversation with my Indian friend in Rwanda ...I visited Rwanda one month back, we met in a party, he is working there, he had a plaster in his leg and he was walking bare foot, as he cannot wear shoes, so I asked what happened? he said oh I injured while playing cricket, then I asked do you play cricket in Rwanda and he said; oh yes, we play with local team and we play very serious cricket. I just asked; what he means of serious cricket; and he said - you know I am just coming from a match and it ended with hand to hand fight - between Indian and Rwandan team! I realized - these people really play serious cricket with passion!

  • gnat9 on April 5, 2014, 16:47 GMT

    I wish one of the IPL francises gave 'Tall Eric ' a contract. If he can extract bounce from a concrete pitch, he can surely do wonders on the hard baked dustbowl Indian pitches.

  • Nutcutlet on April 4, 2014, 23:04 GMT

    An inspiring read. Thank you for it, Alan. I heartily second the opinion expressed by yoadie. The soothing effect that cricket, perhaps more than any other sport, can have on strife and desperate circumstances is, I think, something that has dwelt in the subconscious of all those who have played and followed the game. At a social level - the grass-roots that so often get forgotten- a cricket match is an occasion when differences can be set aside as the participants try their hands at a game of skill and temperament in a team context. Sport is hugely important in the modern world and not the least of its virtues is its ability to provide a bridge between people of different cultures or outlooks. And I firmly believe, possibly because it takes more time than other sports and has a defined and ordered framework, that no sport does this better than cricket.

  • dummy4fb on April 4, 2014, 16:41 GMT

    This is amazing!!! what an initiative. Keep it up girls!

  • dummy4fb on April 4, 2014, 12:21 GMT

    God bless them all - glad to know that this type of work is being done!

  • GreatWhiteBrotherhood on April 4, 2014, 3:00 GMT

    Some powerful countries needs wars and revolutionary springs in other countries for their existence. Good to see how the people of Rwanda are using sport to move forward. Hopefully some conspirant will not end their peace by trying to probe in to their past war. Good luck to people of Rwanda.

  • dummy4fb on April 4, 2014, 2:53 GMT

    Hah.. A French and Dutch former colony taking up to cricket.. Heart warming..Places like Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq and even northern Sri Lanka are places where cricket needs to penetrate and heal the scars of war..