Cricketer Don De Dieu Mugisha bowls a ball down a bumpy, dusty wicket at a match in Rwanda: a sport introduced by those who returned after fleeing genocide 20 years ago.
While still viewed with bewilderment by many in this small, hilly east African nation, the game is growing rapidly, and fans are raising funds to build the country’s first dedicated international-standard pitch.
For players, efforts to build a pitch symbolise far more than a strange game with a bat and a ball.
“Because of our history, people here in Rwanda try to do something that can bring people together,” said Mugisha, 18, who is the captain of Rwanda’s Under 19 team.
Fans believe sport offers a way to bring a still traumatised community together.
Today’s field is a small and uneven pitch at a college at Kicukiro, site of a notorious massacre during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, in which almost a million people were slaughtered in three months of killing.
“The history of cricket in Rwanda has to do with the history of the country and what we went through being forced out as refugees,” said Charles Haba, 37, a founder of the Rwanda Cricket Association (RCA).
Haba learnt the game at schools in Uganda and Kenya. Like others, he continued to play on his return to Rwanda, starting with a team of just seven players. “When you have a passion, you want to pursue that passion,” he said.
Cricket fans from Rwanda and Britain, backed by London’s Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), are working to build a 4.5-hectare field on the outskirts of the capital, Kigali, with construction to begin before the end of the year.
Dark memories of the killings that took place at Kicukiro remain. About 2,000 people sought shelter in a school here but, after United Nations troops withdrew, murderous gangs using grenades and then machetes killed almost all.
“Some of our players lost loved ones here, we have given hope to a place that has been a place of killings,” Haba said.
Along with several friends, Haba set up the RCA in 1999 and was recognised by the International Cricket Council in 2003. From the tiniest beginning, there are now more than 5,000 members.
But the lack of facilities is hampering growth.
“Our biggest single challenge has been infrastructure, so we are very excited we are putting up a new international cricket stadium,” Haba said.
Patrons of the project include West Indian batting legend Brian Lara and David Cameron, the British prime minister.
The project has so far raised about two-thirds of the almost US$1 million cost (Dh3.67m), said project director Ed Pearson, enough for the pitch and practice nets, with remaining fund-raising for a pavilion.
For Haba, cricket is not about politics, but it is far more than just a game.
“Sport speaks a language that no politician can speak,” Haba said. “When you are on the same team, it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are from.”
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