Voice of Sport

In mountainous Rwanda, Cricket faces an uphill fight — and cows: But world class oval coming soon

Despite a space crunch in Kigali, Liliane Mupende Uwanziga, Director of Urban Planning says she is a fan of the cricket project adding: ‘Right now we don't have enough sports facilities, so everybody can create their own niche’


COWS and pedestrians on the pitch are just some of the hurdles cricketers face in their quest to bring the much-loved British game to Rwanda–a mountainous country where flat land is rare and most locals wouldn’t know a wicket from a crease.

On Rwanda’s only cricket pitch, “cow’s corner” isn’t an obscure term for a distant sector where the ball rarely lands. It’s most of the field.

“They start chasing people,” Clinton Rubagumya, a 17-year-old cricketer says of cattle that regularly drift across the field on a college campus here and disrupt play. “It takes time to shoo them away.”

Churchgoers

Cows are only the beginning. Soccer players linger in the outfield of the uneven, roughly rectangular field; churchgoers amble between bowlers and batsmen; motorcycles at the adjacent driving school can drown out any cheers from a sprinkling of fans.

These are just some of the hazards that cricketers face in their quest to bring the beloved British game to Rwanda, a tiny, mountainous country where flat land is as rare as a local who can tell a wicket from a crease. (Wickets, by the way, are the sets of vertical sticks that batters must defend against balls tossed by bowlers about 20 yards away; creases are the white lines that keep them apart.)

Former British territories from Jamaica to India are cricket mad, including some of Rwanda’s East African neighbours, like Kenya – who reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2003 — and Uganda. Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, was long French-speaking and soccer-loving.

Anglophone neighbours

But in 2009 Rwanda switched the official language of education and government from French to English, in a bid to strengthen ties to its Anglophone neighbours and the global economy. It joined the Commonwealth of Nations, the club of former British territories, to win an invitation to its regular meetings of heads of state and business leaders. Rwandans who grew up exiled in English-speaking countries and returned after Rwanda’s genocide and civil war ended in 1994 saw a chance to evangelize a sport they had grown to love.

The fathers of cricket in Rwanda acknowledge their hearts-and-minds campaign has a long way to go.

“No matter how big a cricket tournament we have, as long as there’s a tiny village holding a tiny soccer game, it’s going in the newspapers ahead of us,” says Charles Haba, chairman of the Rwanda Cricket Association and a former member of the national team.

Challenging topography

Battling to get them more space is Oli Broom, a peripatetic cricket coach backed by a UK charity, the Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation.

Broom has moved to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, to build a $1 million [Sh850 million] cricket stadium, but the lanky 32-year-old Briton is struggling to come to grips with some of the globe’s most challenging topography.

“If Rome’s got seven hills, this place has got a million,” Broom says.

Kigali hasn’t officially counted, but Rwanda markets itself on billboards and brochures as “the land of a thousand hills.”

Edge of town

Broom has picked one on the edge of town, covered in brush and cornfields. He is hoping to buy it next year and level it into a playing field with a restaurant and other amenities.

When he dropped by recently to retrieve the deed that the owner had left him in a sack, he found it underneath a resting cow. An adjacent landowner is building a factory up against the edge of Broom’s envisioned field.

“It’s a shame because the view is diminished, but we can’t be fussy,” he says.

Kigali unfolds across a series of lush mountain tops and deep valleys, with homes and businesses clinging to nearly every inch of hillside.

Developers competing

Half of the city’s 282 square miles are too hilly or marshy to build on, says Liliane Mupende Uwanziga, Kigali’s director of urban planning. Competition for what remains — and for Ms. Uwanziga’s time — is fierce.

During a 15-minute interview conducted between her office, an elevator and the car ride to her next appointment, she handed off a building proposal to an assistant and greeted developers who want to build a recreation center. When the car stopped, she was met in the parking lot by the architect for yet another project.

Despite the space crunch, she is a fan of the cricket project. “Right now we don’t have enough sports facilities, so everybody can create their own niche,” Ms Uwanziga says.

Errant balls

On a recent morning, a dozen teenage girls at the current cricket field were bowling and batting under a blazing sun ahead of a tournament in Uganda. Bowlers — equivalent to baseball’s pitchers — threw balls that had burst at the seams at batters standing in a tattered green net. Their coach had to yell pointers over the whine of a motorcycle turning slow circles around orange cones at the driving school, just 30 yards away.

“I’ve never seen a game where the players are so passionate with so few people watching,” said Louis Nderabakura, the 22-year-old manager of the driving school. Nderabakura occasionally picks up errant cricket balls that land amid his battered sedans and tosses them back. It is a frequent occurrence during games that can stretch across most of a day.

Soccer domination

Establishing even this tiny toehold for the sport here has been a battle. Ahead of a pan-African soccer tournament in 2009, the Government turned the cricket pitch into a soccer stadium with bleachers and artificial turf. The cricketers were told to hack themselves some new space out of the bush on an adjacent plateau. They brought in a contractor from Uganda to pour the cement-and-turf pitch at the center of their new field, because no Rwandan builders were familiar with the designs.

They weren’t alone for long. Now the pitch is surrounded by a half-dozen soccer fields, a basketball court and the driving school.

Recruiting coaches

The soccer players who surround the cricket pitch aren’t convinced the game is the next big thing for their countrymen. “It looks complicated,” says Zachashie Nwigema, a 13-year-old goalkeeper.

Broom, who is finishing up a book about a 14,000-mile cricket tour he took by bicycle through more than 20 countries, is now recruiting British cricket coaches for his young Rwandan players.

In July he climbed a volcano in Rwanda’s Virunga mountain range to raise $800 to buy new front teeth for a Rwandan cricketer who had his knocked out by an unexpected bounce of a ball. His plans for a new stadium include a bar and restaurant to generate income for equipment and to spread the sport among the curious.

“The idea is that Rwandans can look after themselves in terms of cricket in perpetuity,” he says.

(See Video: Cricket in Kigali: http://on.wsj.com/1qBfcUl  )

– Adapted from The Wall Street Journal