LONDON – When Robert Kajuga was served a plate of food shortly after he arrived in Bury St Edmunds earlier this month, there was one item in particular upon it that he did not immediately recognise. It was certainly not anything he had encountered in his home country of Rwanda.
Thus it was that Kajuga, a 27 year-old distance runner who will compete in the Olympic 10,000 metres final on Aug 4, became acquainted with the concept of mashed potato.
‘The potatoes,’ he says in broken English. ‘They change the potatoes into, like porridge. Puréed. In our country, we just cook potatoes. We don’t do that.’
It is just one example of the curious clash of cultures that has been taking place of late in a small Suffolk town, ever since the Rwandan Olympics team descended on Bury St Edmunds to set up their pre-Games training camp.
Over the last two weeks, locals and Olympians have greeted and accommodated each other; observed each other at work and play; and bonded.
When the team – there are only five of them, along with a mountain biker who is yet to arrive – venture out on to the streets of Bury on a training run, they find people lining the streets. Some of them, clad in running gear, join in. Runners from the local athletics club act as pacemakers.
Judo competitor Yannick Fred Sekamana recalls: “We arrived on a Friday. On Saturday, in the morning, we went for a run, and we could see all these people. All these people were interested in us. They’ve come to see us. I didn’t expect that.”
The town has taken the Rwandans to its hearts. Students from a local school created a mural which was unveiled last week. Cultural and educational links have been forged, with a teacher exchange programme in place and a display of Rwandan dancing in the town centre last weekend.
Swimmer Alphonsine Agahozo, celebrated her 16th birthday, and was thrown a surprise party at the town’s guild hall.
Stepping into an environment that could have been unnervingly alien, the Rwandans have instead been overwhelmed by the generosity of their hosts. “I didn’t expect it to be as good as this,” Sekamana smiles. “We knew people had prepared things for us, but we didn’t know it would be as much as this.
“The British people have a good character,” says Kajuga. “They have good hearts. They treat people with kindness. All the people here have made me happy. When they see us, on their face, they have happiness.”
Every day has been an adventure into the unknown. Sekamana is keen to try fish and chips, but will have to wait until after his competition. Kajuga availed himself happily of the room service in the team hotel.
“When you want, they bring you food and drinks to your room,” he noted, impressed.
“On Friday we went to the cinema,” Sekamana says.
What did you see? “Spiderman,” he replies. “3D.”
But for all the cultural outreach, it is the competition they are here for. Although all five are outsiders in their events (Rwanda’s best medal hope, mountain biker Adrien Niyonshuti), simply participating in the Games is a source of immense national pride.
“First of all, I have to make sure I give a good image of judo and Rwanda,” says 18 year-old Sekamana, who was born in France and only started competing for his nation after hearing about an event in Burundi and taking second place. “After that it depends on the draw.”
Mention Rwanda to the many Britons and the image conjured up is one of horror, of murder, of the genocide that took place in the 1990s. Though physical and mental scars remain, the rift between Hutu and Tutsi has largely healed over.
“In the past, there was genocide,” Kajuga says. “Now, we have unity. Before, we had the tribes. Now, just Rwanda. There are no more problems. Everyone in Rwanda is Rwandese. There are no tribes any more.”
In place of horror, hope. “Rwanda is not what people think of it,” Sekamana agrees. “It’s improving. It’s actually not like they see it on TV. There are big shopping centres, sports, tennis clubs, golf, swimming, soccer. There is everything.”
The Rwandans left Suffolk on Wednesday morning, but Sekamana has vowed to return with his best friend. “I’ll make sure I see everybody,” he says.
Amid the deluge of negative stories that this Olympic Games has produced, here is a happier yarn. A simple tale of friendship, generosity and understanding. And only the Olympics could have made it possible.