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Jonathan Clayton looks at a new cricketing outpost
If the French had any remaining doubts that Rwanda, the tiny country in the heart of Central Africa, was a lost colonial cause they must have been banished by the sight of the heavy home-made rollers - oil barrels filled with concrete - smoothing the cricket pitch of the Kicukiro Oval just outside the capital Kigali.
Then an excited mixed group of Africans and Asians took to the centre of a brown, lumpy field where long-horn cattle normally graze and played the first game witnessed in the country. A bemused crowd of peasant farmers looked on.
That was back in 2000. For years, Rwanda was best known for its mist-covered mountains. On independence from Belgium in 1962, it became an active member of the Francophone club of African nations. The ruling elite, made up mainly of members of the majority Hutu tribe, fostered close ties with Paris. In 1994, the French-backed government launched the genocide against members of the minority Tutsi tribe and moderate Hutus, killing at least 800,000 people in 100 days. The killing only stopped after the victory of the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front - the core of today's government.
President Paul Kagame, who was brought up as a refugee in neighbouring Uganda where he learnt to play cricket, accused France of supporting the genocide. Over the years, relations worsened and earlier this year, he broke diplomatic ties altogether. Today, heavy padlocks and chains hang outside the French embassy and French cultural centre.
Next November, Rwanda will seal the divorce by joining the Commonwealth, the 53-member group of primarily former British colonies. And the Rwanda Cricket Association hopes the sport will receive a further boost. Charles Haba, president of the RCA, says: "We have overcome many hurdles but cricket is now firmly established in Rwanda." Those hurdles included the problems of explaining the game to a country that is among the poorest in the world and still largely French speaking. The ICC recognised the RCA's efforts by awarding affiliate status in 2003.
Now, there are at least five clubs around the country and the sound of cricket echoes around the lush villages nestling on the side of the Ruwenzori.
"Cricket in Rwanda is now on a steady upward path. With the development structures taking shape, we are destined to shake not only the cricketing world but the entire sports fraternity," adds Mr Haba, a banker who like many Rwandans grew up as an exile in neighbouring Uganda.
The country's small Asian community warmly welcomed cricket's arrival. Today, Asians dominate three of the most active clubs and two clubs consist of mostly local Africans - which the RCA says demonstrates the sport's huge potential for growth in the country.
This article was first published in the August issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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