Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Riding for the Women of Rwanda

I have been living in Rwanda since April 21, 2009, five years and hundreds of miles on the winding roads of this country, which is known as “Land of a Thousand Hills”.  My legs and lungs have felt at least half of those thousand hills.

Riding in a predominately conservative, traditional Christian culture as a white woman, an older white woman, has been and still is an unfamiliarity to the locals who blanket the roads, walking back and forth to town, to market, to the fields in endless momentum from sun up to sun down.  After five years in the same town, people still stare. 

Some days riding, my previous source of peace and solitude, my personal space to regroup is peppered with young children in tatters yelling “Muzungu” (white person) from the side of the road.  Then comes the “Muzungu Amafaranga” (white person money).  It is generally from the very young to the young adults who taunt me for a handout.   As my irritation rises I see the women.  Older women, women my age 40+, okay….closer to 50.  As I approach them I see the telltale signs of shock and wonder.  The smiles, the stares, not in a desire for anything but just in awe to see an “older” woman in spandex pedaling up the hill.  They are often carrying something, everything they need to sustain life, charcoal, grass, firewood, potatoes, and bananas, all on their heads.  Or they are holding hands talking amongst themselves, often with a Mukeciro (respectful term meaning old lady) hanging on their arms.  Their smiles are radiant across their weather worn and tragic past filled faces.  They point, and as they do, I smile and wave, “Good morning, ladies!”  They laugh.  I bust out my very minimal Kinyarwanda, “Muraho, amakuru!”  (Hello, how are you?).  They laugh and wave.  They watch and often clap as I pass.

These are the people I ride for.  The Mukeciros, the women who have seen more than any person should witness in several lifetimes.  These are women who have raised many babies, and have lost many babies; they may have fled the genocide or witnessed their husbands arrested for genocide.  They toil day in and day out in the fields barely scratching out an existence.  These women for a split second on a sunny morning in Rwanda have a good laugh and talk about the Mukeciro Muzungu.  I am everything they never had the chance to be.

I ride for the Mukeciros.  I ride to give their daughters a chance at a better life, a life their mothers could never have.  Their daughters can be educated in a country free from strife.  I am living proof their daughters can do and be anything they want to be.  If a woman in Africa has a bike she has a future.  She is less likely to marry before the age of 18, less likely to have children before 18 and more likely to stay in school. 
Jean d’Arc is one of these girls.  Yes, her name is translated, Joan of Arc and she is as fierce on the bike as the legendary warrior.  

Jean d’Arc is 17, tall, boyish in appearance and the fastest girl on a bike in Rwanda.  She wins every local race and this past December she was the first woman to compete from Rwanda at the Africa Continental Championships taking a very respectable 5th in the road race.  Last week I saw her inRwamagana at the Qhubeka bike distribution for school children through Adrien Niyonshuti’s Cycling Academy.  I spotted her from a distance, standing tall amid the crowd.  As I came towards her she smiled and yelled “Coach!” and gave me a hug. In all honesty I have done very little coaching with her other than telling her to ride with and beat the boys.  But I am a woman who rides a bike, with the boys, and that is simply enough for her. 



In a country like Rwanda where very few woman ride, who have never been given the opportunity to own a bike, to learn to ride, we, the collective “we” of women throughout the world must ride for them.  We must empower them and give them a vision of what they can be. 

Because we ride, they can ride.




Support the women throughout the world and especially in places like Rwanda, Eritrea and Ethiopia with your pledge and commitment to get women on bicycles.   It will change a life.  Pledge forms and info below.

***The women above are from True Vineyard Ministries, an amazing organization which gives widows, genocide survivors and women who have survived "life" in Rwanda an opportunity to provide for their families.  When I told the women about the program they all cheered and said they need to get their daughters and granddaughters into riding.  



Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Single Story -- TED Talk

Living in Rwanda I understand what Chimamanda Adichie speaks about in her TED Talk.  When you say the word Rwanda, immediately, thoughts of a genocide which happened 20 years ago this April, come to mind.  Team Rwanda is helping to write a new story, the full story.  Someday when you say Rwanda, people will think cycling, and a team which altered "the story".  

This talk is a good reminder for all of us.  Are we viewing our world through a single story?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Keep Floating

Keep Floating….

Wednesday last week I woke up from a fitful night’s sleep.  My eyes were swollen and puffy from the prior night’s meltdown.  Mr. AM and I did not talk about me leaving.  We got up, I made coffee and talked and laughed with our friends and their young son.  Life just seemed normal.

I am a first born, type A, overachiever.  Guilt over not adding to the daily GDP is an ever present shadow in my life.  I said to my friend, Tania, as we were having our coffee that I really should get ahold of Chantal and Ingvild, the two women who were planning our Thursday night fundraiser screening of our film.  I feel guilty.  I should be helping them.  Tania looked at me and said, “You have (can’t remember the exact number) X minutes to feel guilty and then you’re done.”  I know she did not give me more than 5 minutes.  I took the whole allotment of time.

Tania had taken a day off work and scheduled a spa morning for us.  There is an amazingly beautiful spa inPretoria we frequent.  I normally love spa day, but wasn’t feeling it.

Our first “treatment” was the Flotation Pool.  When Tania told me about it via email I thought it sounded a bit “foofy” and little too spa for me.  I’m more the sport massage, pedicure girl, simply because I have permanent African dirt embedded in my toes. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

We entered a small room with a circular pool with a dark bottom, making it look endlessly deep.  There were candles on the circular walls and lights like stars on the ceiling.  The pool was filled with warm salt water causing you to simply float.  As I lay back in the water, my ears sinking below the surface and listening to the music, the water enveloped me and lifted my tired body.  I floated.

As I floated next to Tania, I let go.  I let go of the stress, the anger, the sadness, the guilt, my tears flowing back into the salt water.  I prayed.  I tried to close my eyes and rest as the spa woman had suggested but I couldn’t.  I just wanted to look up at the stars and pray.  Tania prayed for me too.

I forget how important beauty can be in life.  Simple beauty like the calmness of a spa.  Beautiful, clean, tile and stone beneath my feet.  Peaceful music.  The expanse of land before us on the balcony of the spa.  A flotation pool.  Beauty can rejuvenate.  Is that why the poor always look so exhausted?  Because there is no beauty in their struggle for existence, in their mud huts in Africa, their children clothed in rags? 

After a morning at the spa and a lunch of sushi and nice South African wine the weight around my neck began to feel a little less heavy. 

When I talked to Mr. AM after lunch, I found out our cycling Federation president made a few phone calls and sorted the utility issue.  He’s more powerful than E.F. Hutton!

I then sent Chantal and Ingvild a note:

I apologize for being "disconnected".  I have been having a difficult time in Rwanda and the stress simply has reached the level of unmanageable.  I have an acute case of compassion fatigue and I am literally hanging in there trying desperately not to leave.  It's not any one thing but rather an accumulation of everything which has finally reached the point of checking out.

I knew when I asked you to do this Chantal and then having you join, Ingvild, that the team's fortunes were in good care.   I know this event will be incredible and Jock and I and the team will owe it all to you.  Thank you for picking up the ball and running with it when I was just too tired and mentally exhausted to go another meter

Chantal responded:

It's been a huge honour for Ing and I to work on this project. We've had a blast with it and for me in particular I've had a hard year finding my purpose with work - and at least for this month I have found it again... have some ideas for future contributions and we can chat about that when the time is right. We love what you guys are doing with TRC and TAR and it's hard for you to see it when you are so overwhelmed with daily tasks, but you guys have so many people who want to use their talents and energy to help you reach your goals - we are just two of them... but I'm sure you know that :-)

And there it is…..everything I needed to hear.

I have a very difficult time being taken care of.  I am the caretaker, the enforcer, the soldier, the Mukeciro.  I drink from a massive Wonder Woman glass and have some skewed view that being taken care of equals some bizarre completely off base sense of weakness.

I started letting people take care of me…Mr. AM, Tania, Chantal, Ingvild.  I let go.

In order to take care of others, you must first be taken care of.

Wednesday night we had dinner with two of our board members who are also our dearest friends who always reenergize us.  One lived and worked in Rwanda.  He knows exactly what is extracted living and working here. 

Thursday night we screened Rising From Ashes for the very first time in Johannesburg.  I’ve said before in previous blogs, how much I love South Africa and South Africans.  Thursday night proved once again why I love this place.

I have been to many screenings, many fundraisers for the film, and this event was top of the list.  The energy, the vibe, the fun, the Burger truck, the wine/beer bar, the coffee bar, the volunteers, the sponsors…the night was electric.

As I was standing at the Burger truck I spotted Janvier, Bona and Patrick.  They are in South Africa for a few months training and racing at the UCI World Cycling Centre.  I melted.  Janvier and Bona hugged me so tightly and Patrick, his first time in South Africa, had a smile which was radiant.  They are good.  They are happy.  I am good…I am happy.

After a screening filled with lots of laughter and many people in tears, we all emptied out into the lobby of this funky Science centre venue reclaimed from an old Joberg warehouse, and continued the party.  More drinks, more mingling, more t-shirts and jerseys sold…simply a lot more love!

I did not work the event.  I enjoyed the event.  Which was exactly what I needed.  I needed to enjoy the moment.

On Thursday there was power at our new place.

Jamie, our mechanic, met us in Kigali when we arrived home from South Africa.  He looked exhausted.  While we were gone they held a training camp.  Felix was also busy sorting out the move.  He looked like me before I left.

Jamie said to me that when you take one of us out of the loop it makes it so difficult.  Jamie said, “I know the garage, the mechanics.  I do not know coaching and your job.”

The two weeks prior to leaving for South Africa, Mr. AM and Jamie were on a motorbike trip up to Rwanda from South Africa.  For two weeks, there were two of “us” out of the loop. 

I laughed with Jamie…..we cannot do this to each other. 

Mr. AM and Jamie left two days ago for 26 days racing in Algeria.

Pray for me.


I am still here.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

I am Broken

“I am Broken”

In the film, Rising From Ashes, Adrien Niyonshuti is interviewed about the Cape Epic mountain bike race, the first race for Team Rwanda in 2007.  He says at the start of the interview that he “may not live to finish the race”.  Adrien does finish the race and in the Top 20, however, he also says at the conclusion of the interview, “I am broken, really broken.”

Last night when I sat in the Sci Bono Theater in Johannesburg, South Africa, watching Rising From Ashes for the 25th+ time and heard those words I understood what I have been feeling for weeks.

“I am broken….really broken”

There is never any one event or situation, which drives me to the edge, rather the insidious accumulation of all the components of life in Rwanda, in a country, which is still evolving from its broken past.

I compartmentalize.  There are things around me every day which I see but I cannot internalize or acknowledge.  To do so would open the flood gates of emotions.

There is a Bible verse John 12:8, “You will always have the poor among you….”

I know this.  I see this.  I live this.

The Team always struggles for money.  Struggling for money is one thing on a personal level, but a much different burden when you have so many young people whose future rests on your ability to provide.  This is a family of 20, with an extended family of hundreds. 

I do not personally struggle with money thanks to zero debt and a frugal way of life.  However, I do struggle with the American view of money determining your worth.  After a week of camp in which Mr. AM was gone along with our American mechanic I figured out I averaged $6.46 per hour.  I don’t think I will do that math again.  I was tired, in a bit of an exhausted spiral, $6.46 calculations did not help my attitude.  I love what I do.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I just need to let go of what you make dictating your worth in the world.

The hours, the stress, the 8.5 weeks, the Muzungu Amafarangas the daily obstacles, which really are daily and in multiple forms, chipped away at my compartmentalized dam. 

And then it sprung a leak.

An associate, someone tremendously passionate about the team, the cycling federation and the sport in Rwanda, caused the dam to burst. 

I asked him to help Jimmy assemble some bikes for Adrien’s center.  I did not tell him how much I would pay him or even if I would pay him.  I just asked for his help and he did.

105 bikes assembled in 5 days.

Jimmy said he couldn’t have done that many without this young man’s help.

We stopped at the Federation to see the bikes and to pay him.  As I counted out the money, a completely fair wage in Rwanda (drastically underpaid in the terms of the Western world), he looked at me astonished.  As he took the money for his 5 days of work, he said, “This is how much I make in two months.  Thank you, Mukeciro, Thank you!”

And then it hits…..this overwhelming rush of “Oh shit here it comes!”  The tears are there like geysers ready to erupt.  I smiled and looked at Mr. AM, same look on his face.  “We need to go now!”

I get in the Land Cruiser and I start crying and it’s not going to stop.  Poverty doesn’t make me sad anymore it makes me very angry!  I do not have that “oh, isn’t that sad, that poor person/child/situation, sentimentality”  I have that “FUCK this, this is wrong, this person has done everything right in his life, loves the team, would do anything to help any of us and he still eeks out his existence.  I HATE this world!”

Immediately, every injustice, every bit of poverty our riders, staff and committed Rwandan fans face becomes my self imposed burden.  What can I do more of?  Why is it like this?  As we pass fancy SUV after fancy SUV on the road out of Kigali I just become more and more angry.  I realize, in the grand scope of life, there’s actually very little I can do.   

A few days later I head to South Africa and not a moment too soon.  My $6.46/hour allows me to escape, to get on a plane, to reenter the first world to get my hair cut and colored, to spend half a day at a spa. 

I am not in a good place.

We land Monday night in Joberg.  Tuesday morning I have a little quiet time in my friend’s gorgeous, peaceful home in Pretoria where we are staying. I do a little yoga.  I read.  I try to regroup.

Tuesday night, after a nice dinner with the Rwandan Ambassador and his First Secretary and the two incredible women who are putting on our fundraiser later in the week, I check my email before bed.  Bad move.  I know better. 

There’s an email from someone who misread an email.  Some days I hate email.  He says he’s disheartened by my us vs. them mentality and reminds me Team is Team.  Are you kidding me?  You’re really going to go there?  Could you just give me a swift kick to the head while you’re at it?!

There’s an email from Felix….if we don’t pay the full quote from a company we didn’t use we don’t get utilities for our new place until June.  Seriously?  We have to be out of our current homes in 34 days.  We have 3 days to pay this quote.  We are in South Africa for the next 3 days.  Can they do this?  Is this legal?  We are going to have to pay for something we did not get?  We are already thousands and thousands of dollars in the red of money we don’t have in the budget.

There it is….the final obstacle, the final challenge thrown in my path. 

“I am going home.  I’m taking Zu, Shaka, Kongo and I’m going home.  That’s it.  I cannot do this anymore.  I am finished.  I know you will never leave but I must leave”

Mr. AM lets me just cry and talk and then says to me, “If you go, I go.  It would be no fun without you.”  He doesn’t try to talk me out of it.  He just lets me leave in that moment with the reassurance “we” are more important than anything else in our crazy lives.

He holds my hand as I eventually fall asleep.


I am broken….really broken.

..to be continued.