When sport spells openness and progress

Some people look at Rwanda today and forget that it was not always like this. The country is rarely out of the news. It is hailed for remarkable achievements but at the same time vilified for the same.

Some people look at Rwanda today and forget that it was not always like this. The country is rarely out of the news. It is hailed for remarkable achievements but at the same time vilified for the same.

It is pointed out as a worthy model but dismissed as a doomed experiment to be avoided. It has opened to the world in ways many others have not, and yet some still find reason to claim it is closed.

All of which means that it is doing the right thing.

It used to be different not so long ago. Rwanda was closed to the outside world. Its leaders were afraid of the influence contact would bring and were content to keep Rwandans in stupid isolation and ignorance.

This was to be expected. Forced isolation is the hallmark of dictatorship or leaders who are morally and politically inadequate, and as a result lack the confidence and legitimacy to govern with more openness.

Rwanda’s governments in the thirty two years following independence exhibited all these.

In general, the choice of isolation serves several purposes.

First, it is to deny people exposure to external influences or examples so that they can continue to think that what they have is the best. They have nothing better to compare with. And so they remain blissfully ignorant and pliant.

Second, the leadership projects itself as the benevolent giver of every gift, including the people’s continued existence. The citizens are therefore beholden to them for such little mercies as the right to life.

Third, they want to present to the world what it wants to see – a picture of contentment and stability, of everything under control. Inevitably that means hiding from view all the atrocities being committed against its citizens.

This way they remain sort of invisible and avoid blame and accountability for their more horrible actions.

That’s how apologists of Rwanda’s earlier governments picked on this supposed contentment and forced stability as evidence of good governance and heaped praise on the leaders of the time.

That’s how it was twenty three years ago and earlier. Rwanda today has higher visibility and is more open to the outside world. More people come to Rwanda and a growing number of Rwandans travel to other countries for business, education, sports or on holiday. You might even say, it is internationalist (certainly pan-African).

There is evidence aplenty for this – in regional integration, immigration policies, and international diplomacy, including playing a significant role in the maintenance of peace in many parts of the world.

This opening up has not been limited to the usual governmental work. It is increasingly also evident in such other areas as sports.

Rwandans are ardent sports fans, but the country as a world sporting nation was unheard of, not even in the imagination. Fans and sportsmen/women were restricted to the local scene and even then to only three sporting disciplines – football, basketball and volleyball.

In the last twenty three years sports in Rwanda has made it to the international stage.

The first time that happened was in 2004 when the national football team, Amavubi (Wasps) reached the finals of the Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia. Around that time, Amavubi had become the scourge of teams in the region.

That landmark achievement was followed by another one in 2011 when the Junior Amavubi reached the Under 17 world cup finals in Mexico.

Since those high points, however, Amavubi seem to have lost their sting.

The national basketball and volleyball teams have become regular participants at continental tourneys.

In the marathon and distance races, a number of runners have taken to the road or track here and abroad. However, they seem to have a knack for fading away mid-race.

We are even finding a sporting niche for ourselves in cycling. In the not-too-distant future, Rwanda might become synonymous with excellence in cycling in Africa in much the same way as the Ethiopians and Kenyans have done in distance running. But first we have to edge out the Eritreans and South Africans.

And now, a new sport, cricket, has been added to the growing list. On Saturday October 28 Rwandan cricket got a home, nay a shrine, at Gahanga in Kicukiro District. And, who knows, in this region, it might in time acquire similar iconic status to Lord’s or The Oval in England and other cricket shrines across the world.

Less than twenty years ago, cricket was unknown in these fabled hills. Hardly surprising seeing as it is a very English sport generously bequeathed to the Empire, which we were not part of.

In any case we couldn’t do so without the permission of our erstwhile French “benefactors”. Today, we don’t need anybody’s permission to do what we desire.

As I have written in this column before, cricket is uniquely suited to the Rwandan character. It demands from players and spectators alike great patience, perseverance, tenacity, staying power and a good, friendly nature.

These are qualities that Rwandans have in abundance and that have brought this country to the level at which it is.

We have now become part of a family of cricket playing nations. We can only benefit from the competitiveness and desire for excellence that sports embodies and the greater exposure and openness that it affords.

The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the New Times Publications.