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Cycling helps young Rwandans Forget their Painful Pasts

2011 July 18
by sfcg

Members of Team Rwanda pass a small village and supporters as they ride through the rain from Butare to Kigali (Dominic Nahr, The New Yorker)

Last week’s New Yorker features a profile of Rwanda’s national cycling team. The article, by Philip Gourevitch, discusses how cycling helps the members of the team—both Hutus and Tutsis–cope with their memories of the 1994 genocide. As Innocent Sibomana, one of the Team Rwanda cyclists interviewed for the article, states “The bike is good. I forgot all the pain I had before I joined the team. Cycling is like a fatal drug. When you get into it, you don’t want to do anything else. You don’t look to one side or another.”

Team Rwanda was founded in 2007 by Jock Boyer, a former professional cyclist who was the first American to compete in the Tour de France.  In the past four years since its founding, the team has been remarkably successful.  In 2009, the world bicycling federation made the Tour of Rwanda an official race on the international circuit.  One of the team members, Adrien Niyonshuti, has also qualified to represent Rwanda in the cross-country mountain bike rice during the 2012 London Summer Olympics.

Adrien Niyonshuti, a member of Team Rwanda who will represent his country in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London (

Adrien was seven years old at the time of the genocide.  The youngest of nine children of a Tutsi family, he lived with his parents on their farm, just outside of Rwamagana, the capital of Rwanda’s Eastern Province. Six of his brothers were killed in the violence and Adrien and his parents only managed to survive by hiding in the bush for days without food or water. Even now, years after the genocide, Adrien finds it extremely difficult to go back home. When he spoke with Gourevitch before the Tour, he told him he was not looking forward to the Rwamagana run: “It’s hard when I go to the east. I see the house of my grandmother, where everyone was killed, and all the memories come back. I begin to think about it all again, and I try to pedal very quickly to get away. But it never leaves my head.”  He went on to state: “All that I am interested in, today, is bicycling. Even if I think of other things, I can’t do anything about them for now. All that I see before me is the sport.”  It is only through focusing on cycling that Adrien can deal with his painful past.

All the members of the team—Hutu and Tutsi–have been scarred by the genocide. They know that they have been divided by identity in the past, and that those divisions still figure in Rwandan life. However, they want to be known for something else. By riding bicycles, something that every Rwandan can identify with, they are fulfilling their country’s need for heroes.  Although cycling is not an obvious spectator sport, during last November’s Tour of Rwanda, the roadside throngs appeared endless. When the team members train in Rwanda, young men on wooden bikes strain to keep up with the professional riders.  The members of Team Rwanda serve as an inspiration for the entire nation.

The success of Rwanda’s national cycling team demonstrates the power of sports to bring people together and to transcend racial, ethnic, and religious divisions.  Though the team is made of members of different groups, which have often been in conflict with each other, the riders have managed to find common ground in their mission to succeed.  The team also serves as an inspiration to the entire nation and shows them that Hutus and Tutsis can move past their painful pasts and forge a new identity as Rwandans.

Readers who are interested in more details can read the full article at the New Yorker’s website.  You can also follow Team Rwanda on Facebook.

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