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Team Rwanda: Finding Hope and Redemption Through Cycling

August 24, 2011

The tag line on the front of the mid-July issue of The New Yorker put much of this blog in sharp relief. “It’s not about the bike,” it intoned, “Philip Gourevitch on Rwanda’s cycling team.” While my intent last winter was to use this blog as an attempt to raise funds for Bikes to Rwanda and merge my interests in cycling, coffee, environmental sustainability, and human rights, the blog has been little more than a riding log—very much all about the bike—of late. And while I have much discussed my joy of climbing, Gourevitch’s title, “Climbing,” offers a chastening look at the real challenges associated with working against obstacles (in front and behind) and the ever-changing notion of redemption.

My reflection is several weeks later than I had intended. While it has given me the opportunity to collect my thoughts and acquire a healthy perspective, I feel compelled to make this a more central feature of the blog. I will try to use this piece as an entry into a longer series of writings on Rwanda, working backwards.

Training ride.

In a sense that is both sporting and bigger than sport, Team Rwanda is about hope. From Gourevitch:

The riders from the northwest were familiar presences, often hailed by name. And yet the distance between the athletes—on their expensive road bikes, with their American coach following, iPod stopwatch in hand—and the world that they tore through seemed as though it could be measured in centuries.

Gourevitch again:

“Rwanda needs heroes,” a sports fan in Kigali, the capital, told me, and by doing something that every Rwandan could identify with—riding bicycles—these young men were fulfilling that need.

And within this hopefulness are multiple stories of redemption, individual and collective. For each rider, being a part of this team is a sign of success and overcoming hardships. For a nation, crippled by its past, this is a model for a more positive future. Team Rwanda is composed of both Hutus and Tutsis. Rwanda, Team Rwanda’s manager, Jock Boyer, relates: “is the land of second chances. Murderers are walking around here all over the place. The government let them out of their prisons as they admitted to what they did, and a lot of them are building homes for the widows of families that they slaughtered.” Another story of redemption is Boyer’s own. Boyer, an American, was a professional racer as a young man whose life subsequently spiraled into troubles. In Rwanda, with this team, Gourevitch suggests he has found peace and hope.

In essence, cycling is a both a form of escape and a form of penance. Escape from the past, while penance is practiced through the physical rigors of training and racing. It is maybe not surprising to find a team of elite cyclists in a country like Rwanda, whose ghosts are omnipresent. Gourevitch expands:

Cycling is an excruciating sport—a rider’s power is only as great as his capacity to endure pain—and it is often remarked that the best cyclists experience their physical agonies as a relief from private torment. The bike gives suffering a purpose.

Like his riders, Boyer got into cycling to bury the ghosts of his parents’ divorce. “I relate to pain,” he tells Gourevitch. But rather than  summarizing Gourevitch’s essay in its entirety or providing a critique, I want to stress three recurrent themes running through the piece that—in addition to redemption and hope—stood out to me.

1. Reverence of the bicycle

Gourevitch begins with an anecdote from one of the riders on how he bought his first bicycle and its importance not just as a sign of status and upward mobility, but also the freedom is conveyed. “When Gasore [Hategeka] spoke of the bike, he meant something almost mystical: the embodiment of an ideal of self-propulsion,” Gourevitch writes. “In that limited geography, the bicycle is the prevalent form of mechanized transport. Few Rwandans can afford a bike, yet where there is one it can pay for itself.” (my emphasis). For Gasore, the bicycle he was able to purchase after saving his earnings from picking potatoes represented opportunity—he could make 2000 francs (roughly 4 dollars) in a day’s work, a princely sum. But Gasore took pleasure in the riding: “the longer the trip the better: he liked to see the country, and he liked the workout.” Speed and the climbing through the mountainous northwest thrilled him.

 2. The role of personal and collective memory in post-genocide Rwanda

Gourevitch is an astute reader of post-genocide Rwanda. His piece is constantly inflected with his subjects’ uncertainties about the pasts they are relating to him. While the chaos of a genocide will undoubtedly make systematically following a discrete thread of events near impossible, even (especially?) for people living in the middle of all the violence and horrors. Such conditions might sharpen the recollection but the sensory overload can make it impossible to give experiences a coherence. Especially for children now entered into adulthood—and likely sheltered as much as possible by older relatives. Nevertheless, Gourevitch stresses that in his conversations with Gasore, for example, the Rwandan “never brought up the defining cataclysms of recent Rwandan history: the genocide of 1994, or the civil war that preceded it and the renewed war that devastated the northwest in its aftermath.” Another racer, Innocent Sibomana—”Sibo”—talks about the addictive pain associated with racing, and how it serves as an escape from the horrors of his childhood: “The bike is good. I forgot all the pain I had before I joined the team.” (I want to expand on this in a future post).

Gasore Hategeka (from The New Yorker—Dominic Nahr)

3. The keen sense of order in present-day Rwanda

This last is intriguing. Whereas definition of genocide is a point of contention in many places—Turkey/Armenia is a key example, where almost a century later Turks deny genocide, or in Ukraine, where the Stalinist regime wiped out agriculturalists hostile to its changes—acceptance of genocide, a degree of chastenedness, is intimately tied to the collective forgetting of the recent past. So, while the details of the genocide and its horrors are suppressed, the generalities loom over the country’s reconstruction. Sibo commented on the potato boom after the genocide, noting that “to get out of the past, I think the only way is to work.” Gourevitch later describes the team being robbed and beaten while racing at an event in South Africa. The shock is enough to send one rider home: that wouldn’t happen in Rwanda.

All this is interesting to me. My relationship with Rwanda—through this blog—is one very much colored by the genocide that Gourevitch’s subjects are intent to forget. During the one hundred days that irrevocably transformed the Rwandan landscape, the news was somewhat obscured for me. I had just left Vancouver for six months in Europe, landing first in England for a couple of weeks and then moving to Ireland and working in pub in Dublin. I was aware of the genocide, but not intently following the news or keeping up with events. Like much of the inaction around the world (more of this in another post, perhaps), it was only after the fact that the Rwandan genocide became imprinted in my mind. As I reflect upon it, probably in conjunction with the subsequent horrors in the Balkans.

More recently, the historian in me explored the nature of genocide in the twentieth century, making the thematic lecture the centerpiece of my introductory survey to twentieth-century world history. My lecture introduced students to genocide at a variety of different sites throughout the twentieth-century world, and examined the nature of the conditions that led to genocide. In short, my first relationship with Rwanda was too distant or removed, my second was too rational and clinical. My enduring dissatisfaction with my lecture—which moves from the Herero genocide (1904-1907) in present-day Namibia, during which German soldiers starved and poisoned the Herero and Namaqua peoples who resisted their advances and finishes in Rwanda—is that rationalizing an irrational event seems to dehumanize the events. Dehumanization is an intrinsic feature of genocide, orchestrated and perpetuated by the aggressors. How else do you mercilessly kill countless numbers of former neighbors? Striking a balance between the human and clinical experiences has been difficult, but I think I am starting to find it through cycling. In Canada, far removed from genocide-era or post-genocide Rwanda, this is a very safe (and still distant) experience, but in raising funds in support of Bikes to Rwanda, Rwanda is prominent feature of my riding; both out on the ride and in its preparation, fundraising and reflecting.

And that’s a humbling feature of riding. At the back of my mind as I suffer up a steep hill or feel satisfaction in a good descent or climb or turn, my mind quickly turns to Rwanda. The pain in my legs or lungs on an open road in beautiful weather doesn’t hurt anymore and I’m embarrassed to think it did. Increasingly, though, since reading Gourevitch’s fine piece, my thinking also turns to the hopefulness of Rwanda’s cycling team and what it means—on different levels—to its respective members.

Photo from The New Yorker—by Dominic Nahr

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2011 6:36 am

    Sensational write up linked to one of the best articles I’ve read this year. Nicely done.

  2. xyxax permalink
    August 27, 2011 3:49 am

    Just really well written and considered. Pro.
    Genocide, by its repetition, must be all too human. Yet to commit it, to live through it, requires dehumanization, just as you say. And not just dehumanization of the other, but of the self.
    At the same time, in the aftermath, there is hope and forgetting, two measures of survival after great trauma (what we Americans always call a “tragedy”). Hope helps one forget; forgetting helps one hope. Cycling embodies hope and forgetting. just being able to be in relation to other humans again requires hope and forgetting. Not everyone can do it.

    When I worked 6 months in Burundi in 2003, there was still Hutu rebels fighting a Tutsi government in the capital. In comparison to Burundi and the godforsaken Congo, Rwanda seems externally/superficially to have best recovered. Probably because they’ve exported some of that violence to eastern DRC and are led by the more authoritarian than saintly Kagame.

    Look forward to more.
    Sorry to have bloggled on; should have just left it at “good job”.

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