Cricket is helping heal the past in Rwanda. Paul Jeeves finds out how the company behind Yorkshire Tea is playing its part in the African nation.
On a patch of rough grassland doubling up as a cricket pitch 7,500ft above sea level, the diminutive figure of Cathia Uwamahoro is giving an introduction to the sport to a group of 60 young men gathered around her.
The sun beats down and the altitude – roughly the same as the towering El Capitan in America’s Yosemite National Park – would be a challenge to even the most seasoned cricketer.
What follows is 45 minutes of chaotic play that is as far removed from the sedate summer scenes at Lord’s as any traditionalist could imagine.
Balls are hurled down the wicket with as much gusto as there is a lack of technique, three or four fielders go up together to compete for each catch and the perfect cover drive is nowhere to be seen.
Welcome to cricket, Rwandan style.
The sport remains in its infancy in the African nation, but there is a momentum building.
Rwanda now has a new £1m international cricket stadium, officially opened on the outskirts of the capital, Kigali, a fortnight ago today by the country’s President Paul Kagame, and the sport is one of the fastest growing there.
Cathia, a member of the women’s international team, is among those who are helping to introduce an ever-growing number of people to cricket, holding coaching sessions often in some of the remotest parts of the country.
Cricket itself has transformed Cathia, and she freely admits that before she took part in an introductory training session while at secondary school in her home city of Kigali in 2008, she was a shy and introverted teenager.
But within the year, she had broken into the women’s team, and now has an enviable high score of 45 runs in an international T20 game and 90 runs in domestic matches.
She is even a world record holder after completing a mammoth 26-hour nets session, cheered on by England player Heather Knight, in February to highlight the sport to her fellow Rwandans.
Cathia now has a job working in a leading global finance house based in Kigali, a position she believes she would never have secured had it now been for her involvement with cricket.
“Cricket has changed my life,” the 24-year-old said. “It has given me confidence that I would never have dreamt I could have had before I started playing. To become a world record holder is an amazing feeling, and it has helped raise the profile of the sport here in Rwanda.
“To have cricket on the front and back pages of newspapers would have been unheard of before, but I am so proud to be doing my own little bit to raise the profile of the sport.
“Cricket is becoming more and more popular, but so much more needs to be done, so that is why we are taking these coaching sessions out to as many communities as we can.”
To think that cricket is even a small part of Rwandan culture would have been unthinkable less than a quarter of a century ago.
For 100 days in 1994, the country was in the grip of a genocide, with a million Tutsis slaughtered by members of the rival Hutu tribe.
It was an atrocity that left the international community reeling, and world leaders faced widespread criticism for failing to intervene.
But 23 years on, the country’s deep divisions have been tackled for the large part by the strict regime imposed by President Kagame.
It is illegal not to wear shoes, as a mark of respect, and to counter the stereotypes of African poverty, and plastic bags are outlawed in a progressive statement on the environment.
President Kagame has also banned identity cards that used to denote people as Tutsi or Hutu. People are now simply Rwandans.
The country ranks as among the safest nations on the African continent, an impressive achievement given it is surrounded by troubled neighbours Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Cricket began in Rwanda in wake of the 1994 genocide as thousands of people returned from countries such as Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania where the sport is widely played.
In 1999, a small number of former exiles founded the Rwanda Cricket Association (RCA), and four years later the country became an Affiliate Member of the International Cricket Council. Cricket is now played in 43 schools, and there are 2,000 regular players in club games.
The women’s game has enjoyed particular successes, with the under-19 team beating regional heavyweights Kenya. There is hope that within 15 years, the country will be competing in cricket’s showpiece World Cup tournament.
The captain of the men’s international team, Eric Dusingizimana, said: “Cricket can bring hope.
“We have had troubled times, but now the sport is growing fast, and is helping Rwanda heal itself.”
Rwanda’s economy is largely centred on farming with 90 per cent of the population engaged in agriculture and the tiny landlocked country – roughly the size of Wales – has few natural resources.
However, while the majority of its 12m residents survive on less than $1.25 a day, Rwanda’s economic growth is impressive, and has stood at eight per cent GDP annually.
The foundations for this growth are centred on a fledgling tourism sector aided by the chance to see gorillas in the wild, and the burgeoning tea and coffee industry.
Unlike the established nations of China, India and Sri Lanka, tea production in the country only began in the 1960s. But in a little over half a century, Rwanda is now seen as producing some of the best tea in the world, helped by the high elevation of its plantations – including Gisovu where Cathia conducted the cricket training session – the warm and wet climate and its volcanic soils.
The importance of its tea industry has been recognised by one of Yorkshire’s best-loved companies, Taylors of Harrogate, the firm behind Yorkshire Tea.
Taylors has been dealing with its plantations since the industry began, and now spends £10m every year to buy 15 per cent of all the tea that is produced in Rwanda. But it is not simply a business relationship, as the Yorkshire-based company has quietly become a major benefactor in Rwanda.
Concerns emerged nearly a decade ago that the quality of tea was in decline, and there was evidence of underage workers on the government-owned plantations.
While many in the international community have voiced concerns over President Kagame’s regime, he has undoubtedly created an often progressive outlook to Rwanda’s society.
The tea estates have been privatised, and as a consequence they have become hugely efficient operations, with some producing as much as 3.1m kilogrammes every year.
Taylors has spent £1m since 2010 on social and environmental projects, training farmers to improve their crop yields and boost income, and ensuring all workers are aged at least 16 years old.
Wells to provide clean water have been introduced on the doorsteps of communities on the Gisovu estate, prior to which villagers had to walk four hours each day to collect supplies.
But it is now cricket that Taylors, a company that has sponsored the England international team for the past five years, is bringing to Rwanda.
While funding is still being provided for fundamental changes across plantations in partnership with the Ethical Tea Partnership and Rainforest Alliance – including more than £75,000 in improving water supplies in three tea estates – cricket has become an increasing focus.
The company’s head of tea, Ian Brabbin, has been among those spearheading the drive to introduce the sport to some of the tea plantations which Taylors deals with, with the company spending £90,000 over the next three years to improve facilities.
He played in a Yorkshire Tea team involved in a week-long cricket festival to celebrate the opening of the new international stadium, which was eventually won by Uganda.
Talks are now underway to create a new tournament, The Yorkshire Tea Tea Cup, within the next two to three years featuring teams from eight estates that Taylors works with, with hopes that the final will be played at the new ground.
Mr Brabbin, who has been working in the tea industry since 1986, admitted questions have been asked over whether financing cricketing initiatives was the best use of resources in a country that still needs key schemes to tackle its extreme poverty.
However, he added: “Coming here to see how Rwanda is embracing cricket has been a revelation. The sport means so much to so many people, many of whom have very little.
“Of course, we’ll continue to support farming diversification schemes, or help finance more wells for clean water.
“But this is about giving people something they can cherish, something that will bring communities together.
“These initial coaching sessions may be chaotic and nothing like the cricket you’d see in England, but to see the smiles on people’s faces and how much joy this is bringing means I know we are doing the right thing.”
And at the Sorwathe plantation, it is clear just how important cricket has become.
A training session at Kinihira School, where the sport was introduced three years ago, is the polar opposite to the hugely enjoyable yet anarchic scenes of Gisovu.
On a basketball court that is doubling as a cricket pitch, children as young as seven steam in on an uneven and rutted wicket to produce deliveries of a line and length that any player from England’s leading private schools would be proud of.
The enthusiasm is infectious, as a crowd of 500 youngsters circle the play and cheer when a ball is whacked out of the park to the rough boundary.
With a glint in his eye and a smile spreading across his face, headteacher Claver Rubumbira proudly tells of how four boys and two girls from the school have already played for the national teams.
“In my office I have four trophies from cricketing tournaments that I look at each time I walk in, and I realise just how important the sport has become,” he adds.
“I knew about cricket as I had seen it on the television, but up until we started playing here, it was something I never really experienced.
“Now we cannot imagine life without cricket, it is a part of our community and a part of our lives.”
In Monday’s The Yorkshire Post, how cricket in Rwanda is helping refugees fleeing other African countries.