How cricket is bringing new hope to thousands of refugees in Rwanda

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No-one can be prepared for the sight that greets them as they arrive at the Mahama refugee camp.

Turning the corner to the United Nations’ compound that sits above the sprawling site on Rwanda’s border with Tanzania, it is the size of the settlement that takes your breath away.

The captain of the Rwanda womens cricket team, Mary Maina, is pictured with children on the Mahama refugee camp after an introductory cricket session. The sport is being used to provide valuable recreation to some of the 55,000 refugees, who are mainly from Burundi and live at the camp on Rwandas border with Tanzania. Picture: Paul Jeeves.

The captain of the Rwanda womens cricket team, Mary Maina, is pictured with children on the Mahama refugee camp after an introductory cricket session. The sport is being used to provide valuable recreation to some of the 55,000 refugees, who are mainly from Burundi and live at the camp on Rwandas border with Tanzania. Picture: Paul Jeeves.

It is vast, a network of rudimentary red-brick dwellings nestling together that stretches away as far as the eye can see.

The physical scale of the refugee camp is an indication of the challenges which are faced by Rwanda to accommodate the tens of thousands who have fled from the political turmoil in neighbouring Burundi.

It was less than a quarter of a century ago that Rwandans would have faced the same plight as their own nation was in the grip of a genocide which saw as many as a million lives lost in just 100 days in 1994.

Now, it is Rwanda which is offering a sanctuary not only to those fleeing from Burundi, but to refugees escaping the long-running violence in another troubled neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But here in the Mahama refugee camp, a glimmer of hope is being offered through cricket with a sport that is increasingly being used to define reconciliation in Rwanda.

A new charity, Cricket Builds Hope, has been launched to spread the sport across the country and bring about social change.

Sceptics may have reservations over such an apparently idealised approach, and claim that what Rwanda needs is investment in infrastructure and industry rather than sport.

But to witness one of the first cricket demonstrations to be played at Mahama would help convince even the most stone-hearted of cynics.

In front of 200 children who have never seen the game before, the captain of the Rwanda women’s international team, Mary Maina, is introducing cricket to the masses.

It may be about as far removed as anyone could imagine from the version that is about to be played this month as the Ashes gets under way at the Gabba in Brisbane, but the enthusiasm of the new recruits is infectious.

Four cones are set out with a plastic ball on top of each of them, and the batting team lines up to take turns in whacking them as far as they can.

About 100ft away, the fielding team congregates waiting for each ball to land while the batter sprints around a pair of wickets to score runs in a fusion of cricket and baseball.

The scenes are endearingly chaotic, and the fun that the game is bringing to communities that have so little in the way of recreation is plain to see.

“It is step by step,” says Mary, 24, who was herself introduced to cricket after watching a demonstration six years ago. “There’s the fun bit first – it helps you mobilise the kids so they want to come next time. Then you add skills one by one, and then hopefully a cricketer is born.”

The children who took part in the hour-long session give a refreshingly simple verdict on the game that many a professional cricketer could learn from.

Charles, 13, who has lived at Mahama for two years had never seen cricket before, but said: “It is easy, you just hit the ball.”

A tour of the camp shows the efforts that are under way to improve life for the 55,500 refugees who live there.

Education and recreational facilities have been introduced to provide the chance not only to learn, but also to help as a distraction from the harrowing psychological effects of having to flee your homeland.

Cricket is key to this, according to Joseph Kamuzinzi, the camp’s protection assistant in charge of youth and sports.

“Sport is about security, it gives them the chance to focus on something to help forget about the trauma and all the problems that refugees have.

“It brings communities together, allowing them to make new friends and build relationships that help them cope,” he adds.

The session at the refugee camp offers a brief glimpse into how Cricket Builds Hope is aiming to introduce the sport to as wide an audience as possible and bring about social change.

Mahama is remote and a four-hour journey from the capital, Kigali, the final hour of which is down a rutted dirt road. Its population has risen from 8,000 to 55,500 in the space of just two years as families flee the political instability of Burundi. Of its current population, 51 per cent are children.

It is exactly these communities that Cricket Builds Hope is looking to target, building on the work of its previous incarnation, the Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation, which has introduced the country’s first international ground in the capital.

Cricket, for instance, is being used to promote sexual health education and prevent the spread of HIV. Training sessions include the message that the stumps are the batter’s life, and the bat is a condom to protect against the advancing ball, which is the disease. A simple metaphor, but one that is being used repeatedly across Rwanda.

The Cricket Builds Hope project has international backing, including the UK-based Cricket Without Boundaries that has undertaken similar work elsewhere in Africa, and The Lord’s Taverners, which has donated 1,000 items of kit.

And Taylors of Harrogate, the company behind Yorkshire Tea, is also playing its part in supporting a country that it has had close ties with for 50 years while purchasing some of the finest tea in the world.

The Yorkshire-based company has pledged £90,000 over the next three years to promote cricket, building on the £1m it has already invested in Rwanda since 2010 on social and environmental projects, such as introducing wells on tea estates to improve water supplies and encouraging farm diversification.

Dom Dwight, the marketing manager at Yorkshire Tea, was among those who visited the Mahama refugee camp to witness firsthand the effects that cricket is having.

He stressed money will continue to be made available for other schemes in Rwanda, but cricket is now a major focus for the firm, with plans to create a tournament, The Yorkshire Tea Tea Cup, within the next two to three years.

“I have to admit, I asked questions myself as to whether introducing a sport like cricket was the best way forward. But seeing the passion that it is bringing, it is obvious how important the sport can become,” he says. “The visit to the refugee camp has reinforced to me the benefits of the work that Cricket Builds Hope and organisations like the United Nations are doing.

“Taylors can’t take credit for what is happening in places like Mahama, but hopefully our support in other parts of Rwanda will help drive the whole initiative forward.”

Camp that has grown into ‘city’

LOCATED IN the Eastern Province of Rwanda, the vast size of the Mahama refugee camp means that it now ranks as the sixth largest settlement in the African nation.

With 55,500 inhabitants, more than half of whom are children, the camp has become a de facto city, with health centres, education facilities including a school, a bus service and a market to promote small businesses.

The refugees have fled neighbouring Burundi after violence erupted two years ago following the announcement that President Pierre Nkurunziza was to run for a third term.

Mahama is the sixth refugee camp to be established in Rwanda, with others accommodating those fleeing political unrest in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

In The Yorkshire Post tomorrow, how Rwanda is looking to the future through cricket.