Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Trust

Something a friend said a few days ago has stuck with me and could be the explanation for why I feel the way I do.  He said things are different now, meaning with Team Rwanda.  Team Rwanda isn’t a few guys anymore and a couple of expats.  Team Rwanda is Team Africa Rising, in a new 2.7-acre compound, housing teams from Eritrea and Ethiopia, with 16 Rwandan riders and the daily 2-3 BMX riders who just come to hone their skills and get a good meal.  As I look around Africa Rising Cycling Center I realize how far we have come.  I realize how much people depend on us and how our responsibilities to the team and the extended families of Team Rwanda and now Ethiopia and Eritrea have grown exponentially in the past six months.   And that was what our friend was getting at….Mr. AM and I really can’t leave, not now, not for a while.  We owe it to this team, their families and these countries to keep the program going.  This is when I think I may vomit.

The past six weeks have been hard, very hard.  Our new compound, while incredibly beautiful and the perfect home for our cycling family, is also so much work.  Something is always broken, another bed is needed, sheets, towels, pillows.  The kitchen now has a mish mash of three refrigerators and two janky stoves, one, which spews black methane the other without a workable oven door.  When we have electricity we can use the oven in the office.  When we don’t…we don’t.  We have a generator but at $35/hour in fuel to run it the oven is not a priority.  Throw in a couple of loads of laundry and a necessary Internet upload to the US, and then we flip the switch.

Currently there are 26 riders from three countries at our center, 2 Ethiopian staff (coach/mechanic), 1 Eritrean coach along with our expat staff of 7 and Rwandan staff of 3.5 (Jonathan is only 5).  We have another 12 Rwandan staff that does not live on the property but work 6 days a week, lately, 7.  We have three cooks who are in the kitchen from 5:45am until 9:00pm every day.  We spend $200/day on food. 

With everyone involved on a day-to-day basis both Rwanda and expat Mr. AM and I have suddenly become responsible for the well being of 200 family members.  When did this happen?  Our friend was right.

Even with all the controlled chaos and long days in the 2 weeks leading up to the Tour of Rwanda I am happy.  Stressed but happy.  I have these moments of such clarity and joy.  W said the other day he was driving the motorbike and realized how lucky he was to be living this life.  When I watched Eva, one of W’s new BMX upstarts, petting Shaka, once fearful of dogs, I have one of those moments.  Eva comes every day he can when he’s not in school.  He rents a bike to ride to our center and spends hours riding the pump track and of course gets a good meal in the process.  Today as Team Rwanda was coming in from their training Eva was doing laps and the guys, Eva’s heroes on a bike, started shouting and clapping.  They were impressed with his progress.  Eva beamed.  He’s a good kid, kind, committed, just wanting to be a part of this family every day. 

This same friend told me not to “stir up any shit” when we were talking the other day about a chronic issue we face.  He could tell I was angry and I was.  The next morning in my daily devotional I read three things cause anger:  hurt, frustration and fear.  I am hurt that some people do not listen to us.  We’re just the ones on the ground sacrificing everything to make life better for these young men and women.  I’m frustrated that EVERY single day is a battle to keep this place open.  I am fearful that Beatrice, our cleaning lady, mother of four, who sends her children to school because of THIS job, may not have it if I cannot raise the money to keep this team going. 

Yes, I am angry.  I’m angry at first world problems.  I’m angry that Ebola hysteria has consumed the US and taken away a trip of a very special person to Mr. AM and I who was coming to the Tour of Rwanda, to stay at ARCC and to see his late wife’s new education center.  I’m angry at the amount of waste in people’s lives…and they’re still not happy.

Two nights ago we stood in our dining room, 42 people, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Rwandans, Americans and even a Canadian, all holding hands together and praying before dinner.  How did I get so lucky?

Today I paid out bonuses to our Rwandan staff….about $400 total.  It was like Christmas here.  They have been working so hard.  They ARE this team and they know it.  The other night the cooks received a round of applause for simply feeding us day in and day out.  It was initiated by Nathan….he’s such a leader.  Beatrice, Joseph, Damascene, Felix, Janvier, Thomas, Cathryn, Kiki, Obed and Protais all had life a little easier today. 

If only the world could see what I see.

Team Rwanda cannot compete with the big non-profits of the world.  We do not have an M & E (monitoring and evaluation) program in place.  How do you monitor the development of a cycling culture in a small country in Africa?  What does it mean to this country?  Everything…..

Some have taken a chance on us and to those people we are forever indebted to your gratitude. 

The other day we sent out a newsletter profiling one of our riders, Gasore Hategeka.  We hoped to fund his salary for the year.  We got zero.  Zero….I cannot even wrap my head around that. 

I’m angry…hurt, frustrated and fearful…..and very tired.

I’m also hopeful.  I see the good that is happening here.  I keep praying and speaking to the universe that God did not bring us this far to fail.  It is just part of the test.


Monday, October 20, 2014

How the KC Royals Trumped Ebola News

 In 1985, I was a college sophomore at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, a little over 200 miles from my childhood home in Overland Park, Kansas.  I moved to Kansas City in 1977 from Chicago, where I was born.  My parents moved us to have a better quality of life, better schools, safer, more opportunities.  One of my earliest childhood memories was attending, at the time, Kauffman Stadium to watch the Kansas City Royals.  Ewing Kauffman, a very successful Kansas City businessman, bought the Kansas City Royals in 1968 and was the face of the Royals for decades.


I spent my pre teen and teen years watching the likes of George Brett, Willie Wilson, Frank White, Dan Quisenberry….true greats of the sport.  From 1977 when I moved to KC until I left for college in 1984, the Royals were mostly up and down….until the 1985 season.

And now, 29 years later and 8,000+ miles from KC, I watch the excitement growing on Facebook and Twitter.  For my friends back home there is no Ebola, no ISIS, no threat of nuclear warfare, no starvation, no genocide, no political posturing and stagnation, there is simply HOPE that 29 years from the last World Series Championship, there will be another for this great Midwestern city.

See, that’s what sports do.  Sport has the power to bring people together, to forget about all the negativity of life, the hardship, the heartache and to give people from all walks of life, one common goal, for at least a moment, a few weeks or even a season.  This is sport.

Kansas City has never had the biggest payroll.  It is a relatively small market in terms of Major League Baseball.  Out of 30 teams, they are 19th in payroll, the bottom half.  KC has played and beaten the LA Angels ($155,692,000), the Baltimore Orioles ($107,406,000) and will face the San Francisco Giants ($154,185,000) in the World Series.  KC’s payroll….$92,034,000. 

It’s rarely about the money; it’s always about the heart, the camaraderie, and the teamwork.

Kansas City embodies our motto at Team Rwanda:  #TeamisTeam.

Doubt me?  Watch:


Team Rwanda did not exist 7 years ago.  Today, they compete on the world stage.  But more importantly, they represent how sport can transcend a tragic past, how cyclists can work together for the team when their families had been on the opposite sides of a war.

This is sport.

The other day I felt the need to write about the current stream of “shock value” media.  I was tired of the poverty porn and the outrage about three people with Ebola in the US, (never mind the thousands who have died in West Africa).  I was tired of seeing people mentally collapse, on Facebook no less, over their first world problems.  But that was the morning (evening in KC) when the Royals had done the unthinkable.  FB was filled with HOPE.  Could the Royals possibly be World Champs again?  KC is galvanized around sport, around some boys in blue smacking a baseball.  Through the fans of KC we see, the world really isn’t so crappy after all.  There are serious areas of big time crappy…but it’s not the ALL.  Today, KC stands together with one common goal, supporting their team. 

And really, what if we all did that, whatever our “team” is?  (Okay…maybe not the ISIS team). 

What if we focused on hope?  On teamwork (Congress are you listening?)

What if we believed in the underdog again?

What if we just forgot our personal petty problems?

What if we just cheered for some boys in blue?  Or some riders in a Rwandan cycling kit at an international race?  Or some German footballers (soccer) at the World Cup?

That is the power of sport…go PLAY!



Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Get Over Yourself Mzungu

There is this very strange phenomenon I have noticed among white people while working in Rwanda and Kenya (more Rwanda than Kenya).  At first, I thought it was just me.  I’m not a super “engager” type of person.  I do not give off warm, fuzzy vibes.  I’m more a focused, intense person.  But then a volunteer last year came in the office after walking to the compound and said, “What is up with white people in Africa?”  This volunteer is a warm, fuzzy person, non-threatening, non-intimidating mature woman.  It happened to her.  It has happened to other friends of mine working in Rwanda, white friends.  And, it has happened to Mr. AM, the nicest, most engaging person I know.

I am going to use White and Black because that is simply a statement of fact.  I am called Mzungu in Rwanda.  Although the word has a more interesting history, today it means “white skin”.

I am white.  I grew up in Kansas, the white bread capital of the US, or so it seemed amongst my 651 strong graduating class, 648 white/3 black.  Diverse wasn’t a word used to describe my Kansas City suburb in 1984.

Today in Rwanda those tables are turned.

When you are walking down the street and you see another white person, being white yourself, the natural tendency is to make eye contact and say, “Hello”.   Sometimes I think to myself, are they American?  Are they from Europe?  Again, it’s not a race thing, it just is.  We gravitate to our natural comfort and cultural zones.  We are human.

But there it is, the glance away, the avoidance of eye contact.  Not saying hello.  You say hello and they mumble or completely ignore you.  What is this?  I get more love from saying “Muraho” (hello) to the random Rwandan walking down the street on their way to market or town.

Some of us long term expats have a few theories.  It has been written about on expat websites.

One of my theories is a hierarchy of assistance, an importance scale if you will on whom or which organization saves Rwanda (insert any other African country) the best. 

First, let me set the record straight.  Rwanda doesn’t need “saving”.  It surely does not need a white person thinking they know best about “saving” Rwanda or Rwandan children, villages, widows or orphans.  Rwandans actually do know what is best for them based on their culture.  This is a country that rebuilt after a genocide, yes, with some much needed assistance to get back on its feet, but now it is one of the most progressive, safe and advancing countries on the continent.  Does it have problems?  Yes, like every other country in the world.  Could the people use assistance on some things?  Yes, just like poverty stricken Americans need help; education, housing, access to good medical care. 

You, Mzungu, working at an orphanage is no more or less important than our coaches and staff working with the national cycling team.  In fact, if you are not here for the long term (and long term to us is measured in years), your effect is minimal despite what you believe.

Learn to be polite and say hello.  Perhaps you could learn something from our years of experience in country.  Perhaps I could have a fresh perspective on an old frustration.

The other theory I have, and the one that most disturbs me and makes me want to smack you upside the head white person, is the theory….It’s all about YOUR experience masked in doing good for Rwanda (insert any other African country).

Don’t believe me?…read on…EAW with the village children photos.

I do not do selfies.  I personally hate to have my photo taken.  Most photos of me exist because someone captured me doing what I love most, working for this team.

My favorite photo is one from the National Championships in 2013.  I remember that moment like it was yesterday.  I remember what I was saying to Janvier.  I am grateful this moment was captured.


Here is what I think….if you spend 2 weeks in Rwanda and a significant portion of time is spent taking photos of you with child, village, group, working, etc., then blasting over to the Muhubura Hotel for internet to upload, then it’s about you and not about the work you do.  Period.

One volunteer insisted on taking photos of herself in a bikini with the team, the team holding her, her holding our guard’s night stick etc.  Guess where she is?  Not here.

A few days ago I was riding my mountain bike up a dirt road just having left a small village.  I was approaching the tarmac.  Coming down the dirt road there they were; the Mzungu entourage.  Five of them, sadly, classically American (overweight and shockingly inappropriately dressed), cameras around their neck and a swarm of village children gathering around them.  Mr. AM was in front of me.  I see him nod and say hello.  I smile and say hello….there it is, the glance away, the self important unacknowledgement of another white person.  Do you fear by acknowleding me your experience in Rwanda might be less African?  Or are you simply rude?  Did you fear I might call you out on your hootchie mama shorts grossly out of place in this conservative culture?  Would it lessen your experience to acknowledge that you are NOT the only white person in Rwanda?  What gives Mzungu?

Perhaps it is just the years under my belt living abroad.  It could be I was the same way in the beginning.  Something changes after year 1, 2 and beyond.  I realize every day how little I know about the Rwandan culture and how much I need to learn, adapt and give up to continue working with this team. 


I do not save these riders, their families, their communities or this country.  I simply open a few doors into the world of professional cycling, training Rwandans to do everything in the process to do it on their own.  That’s it.  That’s my job.  My greatest moment during the past 5+ years was Bona winning the stage at the Tour of Amissa Bongo (Gabon) last January.  And I wasn’t even there.  He won with a Rwandan Director Sportif, a Rwandan mechanic and a Rwandan soigneur.  Not a mzungu in the bunch.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

True LOVE

True Love

Written on August 10, 2014…

Recently I received a hand written letter from a volunteer who had spent a couple of months with Team Rwanda.  In five years, this is the first letter I have received, a letter that will remain in my journal to be read and reread during the low points of my life in Rwanda.  This letter will be a ragged piece of tissue paper in the next few years.

The letter spoke of love and happiness.  This woman gave as much love as she received in return. 

“…love comes in all forms and produces the same effect of warmth, gratitude and inspiration.”

On Wednesday evening I was on another Brussels flight out of Kigali heading back to the US.  As I opened the inflight magazine there they were, the boys of Team Rwanda.  As I stared at the photo I felt to the core of my soul….love.  I became all verklempt, sniffling and trying to hold back my leaky eyes.  I did not want to leave. Yes, me, the one who does not have a “heart for Rwanda”, the one who has pretty much given up cycling because I cannot take the hassle on the roads anymore, me, the one who sometimes is so angry and frustrated I want to run screaming from this country. 

That’s the funny thing about love; you often end up in places you never thought you’d be because of love. 

I never had the normal life, the husband (make that two), children or job.  I tried the traditional job route once.  I was miserable and I was miserable to others.  I didn’t have children because frankly, I’m just not a fan, especially a fan of the bald, drooling, crying babies. 

People used to tell me I would never really know love until I had a child.  They were wrong. 

This morning I woke up at 3:00am to head to the airport again, this time heading from Boston to Vegas.  I saw I had a message on Facebook.  It was Janvier.  Yesterday, Janvier, who is currently in the US racing and training with a good friend of ours, Scott Nydam, won a local race in New Mexico.  It wasn’t a big race, in the grand scheme of professional cycling, it was a blip…..a blip he won.  Janvier became the first Rwandan to ever win a professional race in the US.  I had spoken to Janvier the night before and he was so happy.  He called to give me his new US cell number.  After the call I sent him a short message on FB, “GREAT job today.  We are so proud of you!”

This morning I read Janvier’s message….

Thanks you Mukecuru every thing is bacouse you if you're not in Rwanda I can never now USA, Thanks lots you and coach to send me here I'm very happy because
You and Jock!!!

Recently I read a devotional called the Trademark of a True Christian.  Yes, I love the baby Jesus more now too….

“One of the most important facets of love is unselfishness, which is characterized in Romans 12:16 as the willingness to adapt and adjust to the needs and desires of others.  People who have grasped the meaning of this Scripture and applied it in their lives have learned what it means to be reduced to love.  They are not selfish.  They have learned to be adaptable and to adjust to others.  On the other hand, people who think more highly of themselves then they should find it difficult to adjust to others…..They selfishly expect others to adjust to them, but they are often unable to accommodate others without becoming angry or upset.”

Everything I do I do for this team.  To see Janvier and Valens sitting in 1st and 2nd at the Commonwealth Games ITT in the first group, to hear Bona’s voice on the phone from France where he rides for a new team, to welcome Gasore home from Scotland and seeing him holding his little boy and loving his family to hear Jonathan praying for his Tanto and Mukecuru and thanking God for guacamole.  For all of these moments I will happily give up comfort, convenience and money.  As I see people go through the motions of their lives, telling me they “wish” this, that and the other always selfishly holding on to the life they think they need instead of selflessly pursuing they life they want I wish they could live a day in my shoes.  95% of that day would feel like you’re beating your head against a concrete wall, the other 5% would be filled with a sense of hope that things are better that we are making a difference.  I live for the 5% of my day.

The ironic cliché is the more you give you get.   It just might not be in the ways you expect.

The greatest compliment I have received besides being a force to be “reckoned with”, is that my selflessness does not go unnoticed although I do not wish it to be noticed.  If I can lead a life that inspires others than I will have had a good run of decent days.

I never set out to inspire or influence a group of Rwandan cyclists, a team or a country.  I just fell in love with a group of young men who have become like sons to me and who I would gladly give up consistent water, electricity and quality of life for over and over again. 

I know this volunteer is forever changed and is a part of our family and feels the love from all of us even though the thousands of miles from Rwanda separate us.  We all hope she follows her selfless heart and returns to continue the work she has started and continue the impact and inspiration she has planted.