Friday, June 4, 2010

A Year in the Life of Alex

A year ago this past weekend I witnessed a young Rwandan boy power across the roads covering the Land of a Thousand Hills in his first bicycle race, Tour of the Volcanoes. Only weeks before that day in June 2009, Alex showed up at the Team Rwanda house to be tested on the Velotron like all the other young Rwandan cycling hopefuls. Like is typical in a day in Rwanda there was no electricity to run the Velotron and on a leap of faith, Alex, a young kid that had not uttered one word, received a Scott CR1 road bike.

A year ago, Max and I watched this young man stay with the veterans of Team Rwanda during the race despite a crash and a key flat only 50k from the finish. I just remember saying over and over to Max, “This kid is good, he is really good!” and Max, three weeks of English immersion under his belt, kept responding, “Yah, he is good. No problem.”

A year ago I watched Alex take fourth in a two day stage race with the remaining nine places secured by the boys of Team Rwanda.

A year ago I watched Alex open his envelope of prize winnings, the look on his face of shock that he would receive an amount of money like this to ride a bike.

A year ago I hugged Alex when he was all alone in the middle of the crowd at the end of the race, no one there to congratulate him, no one there to hug him. I hugged him like I was never letting go.

I still hug Alex like that…..

Alex’s real name is Gasore. Gasore Hategeka. I cannot explain how we ended up calling him Alex. Somewhere along the couple of days of the race, through misunderstanding of English, Kinyarwanda and French he became Alex. Over the past year the name Alex has faded into a secondary nickname for him, and Gasore, this amazing bright light of a kid has emerged.

Like all important personal items such as names and birthdays in Rwanda, we never seem to get the right answer. The genocide eliminated all documents that we as Americans count on to prove our existence. There are no birth certificates, baptismal records, no baby books, no baby pictures. Weeks after the race last year, when Alex/Gasore came to his first training camp, he gave us his government ID card. Gasore….Gasore? How did we get Alex from Gasore? And his last name, told to us through an interpreter was Hategekimana, but for some reason his ID card said Hategeka. And his birthday? March 1…sadly just a convenient day picked by someone in government to be his birthday.

Gasore attended every single training camp. He was so quiet, so introverted. You just looked at him and wondered the horror and sadness that had engulfed every moment of his life since birth. Throughout the summer, with the passing of every camp, he improved on the bike. When we finally did get around to testing him he produced a 370 watt which is STRONG! He is a solid boy, a body built by hauling potatoes since he was six years old. By the end of the summer he was in a position to earn a spot at the UCI Training Center in South Africa.

In September, Gasore and Nicodem Habiyambere, the brother of veteran rider Nathan Byukusenge, were scheduled to attend the UCI Training Center. I was so thankful Nicodem was with him. Nicodem speaks a little English and is definitely a leader. I remember sitting in Rwandair in Kigali the day before their departure with a check Jock had left me to pay for the tickets and the inflexible, uncompromising employee telling me they couldn’t take personal checks. There was no money in the Team account and even if there was I didn’t have access to those funds. The “deal” we were supposed to get on the tickets had been rescinded due to some obscure clause in the “special” and I was looking at $1,456 as the final price to get these boys on the plane. I pulled out my parent’s “use only in case of emergency” credit card and charged the tickets. I considered the futures of Gasore and Nicodem an “emergency”. Luckily my parents did too.

Gasore and Nicodem left the next day for South Africa. Gasore secure under Nicodem’s wing and a mountain of prayers.

Gasore is an orphan. His mother died shortly after he was born, his father remarried, had more children and then he too tragically died when Gasore was about six or seven. If you do the math, that puts Gasore’s father’s death sometime around the genocide. We do not know how he died. Gasore has not said.

Gasore is illiterate. When I write that sentence, when I speak that sentence I become emotional, tears always flood into my eyes. He cannot even write his name. He never went to school a day in his life. He grew up like the thousands of kids I see every day on the side of the road hauling water, produce, baby brothers and sisters. Nothing makes me angrier in this country then seeing the hopeless futures.

I wish I could live inside Gasore’s brain for just a moment. What is he thinking a kid that has never ventured far from the fields of his tiny town, Shashwara? What did he think when he got on that plane? Every single thing completely foreign to him. Was he overwhelmed?

Gasore and Nicodem stayed in South Africa until the Continental Championships in November in Namibia. They returned shortly after to prepare for the Tour of Rwanda.

Gasore rode on Team Akagera for Team Rwanda during the Tour. He had improved during his time in South Africa, it was evident. However, what I noticed most was how much he smiled, how much he laughed, how comfortable he had become AND he was speaking English, albeit about as much as my Kinyarwanda, but he was making progress.

In January he attended his second international race, Tour of Gabon. His performance was okay but nothing like we had hoped. About that time Jock had mentioned to me that Gasore did not seem to be grasping racing. He was strong but his mental skills were lagging enough to possibly put his spot on Team Rwanda in jeopardy. Through an interpreter Jock told him he had to step up and ride. He set expectations and told him his place was not guaranteed. He needed to perform. I personally think, and I could be totally off base, but I believe it was the fear of losing his new “family” that jump started Gasore as opposed to simply riding for the Team.

In February Gasore went to the Tour of Cameroon, and he WON! Gasore was the first Team Rwanda member to win a stage in an international race. He broke through. He proved he had the strength and power to win and could hold off the competition. He proved to the Team that yes, Rwandans can win. Later that race Abraham won three stages and Nicodem missed a win by inches.

As the months passed, Gasore became more and more engaged. Gasore put a down payment on a Project Rwanda Cargo Bike with pays his “loan” every time he has winnings or attends races. Gasore NEVER misses camp. He is the rider that helps with dishes, testing new riders, picks up around the house. And he smiles…and laughs…Team Rwanda has reached into Gasore and pulled a little piece of him out into the world.

Gasore’s English improves with every camp. His English teacher said he is the most improved. He still cannot write his name….

Last week I took Gasore to have his passport photos done. He is going to spend one, hopefully two months in Switzerland living and training at the UCI Training Center in Agile, Switzerland. Gasore has never seen snow. He’s going to Switzerland.

Before we stopped for the photos I had to pick up a new fuel tank for cooking at the house. The man at the station only spoke Kinyarwanda, not even French. I usually can figure out numbers in French but Kinyarwanda, that is not happening! I asked him how much and he said some number and I hear Gasore yelling from the back seat of the car, “Kim, 26!” Sure enough I get my receipt and the amount is 26,000 RWF. Nice work!

As I get back in the car, Gasore says, “Kim, no money at bank.” Jock had paid Rocky and Gasore their monthly salary at camp a few days prior and had given them 25,000 RWF each in a check. Gasore opened his wallet and handed me the check. Confused, I pulled into Fina Bank and walked in with Gasore and Rocky. I talked to the teller, and she informed me that the other day when they tried to cash the checks there was no internet so they could not process the check. Yes, all banking comes to a screeching halt in Rwanda when the internet is down, sometimes for days. The teller instructs the boys to fill out their names and ID card information on the back of the check. Rocky grabs Gasore’s check after completing his own and starts writing out Gasore’s information. Every single time I see the effects of Gasore’s illiteracy I am rocked. If there is one thing I want to see in Gasore’s life it is to see him write….write his name, write a note to his family, fill out a visa form, write a phrase on an autograph he is asked to sign. I will see this boy write!

Last weekend, Rwanda hosted the kick off event to Kwita Izina, Tour of the Volcanoes, a two day stage race from Kigali to Gisenyi and back. Sunday, the race started in Kigali and went to Kinigi, the home to the mountain gorilla national park. Across the line in Kinigi, Gasore was third. After an hour break the riders headed to Gisenyi. Shashwara, Gasore’s home town sits at the top of the last hill before the long descent into Gisenyi. Gasore was in the lead peloton and Max and I were following close enough behind to hear the chants, “Gasore, Gasore, Gasore!” as we rode through the town. The entire town knows Gasore, the orphan potato hauling kid now riding for Team Rwanda. The hair on my arms stood up. I looked back in my rearview mirror at Max. He had this really big smile on his face. I know Gasore was smiling.

The next morning the final stage headed out from Gisenyi to Kigali. Gasore was in fourth in the General Classification. Gasore has the power to be competitive; he just needs the tactics to win. I talked to Gasore as he sat in the car waiting for the start. I think he does understand some of the things we say. It was obvious he knew where he was in the race and what might be accomplished. He was very quiet, very intense.

The cheers through Shashwara on the return were even louder than the prior day. “Gasore, Gasore, Gasore!” He is this town’s hope. If a potato hauling orphan kid can make it maybe just maybe the little boys in tattered clothes and blown out flip flops believe they have a chance too. That’s all that really matters….if you BELIEVE you have a chance.

Unfortunately, we will never know what might have been in a race that was shaping up to be an epic finish. Two kilometers before the end, Obed staged a hill climb breakaway leaving Abraham, Nathan, Nicodem and Gasore wondering if he had the power to maintain the break. Just as Obed crested the hill, with the Team car close behind the riders, I panicked. The intersection, the major intersection had not been closed. At that point I was worried someone, one of the riders, was going to be hit. The police escort clipped the curb trying to get in front of Obed to block the traffic and went down. The group of five slowed, scattered and regrouped. By this time, the race was essentially over. Obed had lost the momentum and Abraham took over crossing the line in first. Gasore was second and secured a third place win in the General Classification.

I am very conscious about treating all the boys on Team Rwanda the same, with the same respect and effort granted to all of them to help them succeed. Gasore has touched me. He inspires me, he makes me smile, he makes me stop and appreciate the gifts I was given as a kid growing up in a two parent home in America. He makes me stay….there are many days, especially recently that I have wanted to leave and then camp comes and Gasore rides up on his bike and he smiles and waves and says, "Hi Kim!" and yells ZUUUUULLUUUUUU. And I give him a big hug like I always do, like the first time I hugged him a year ago and little does he know, those hugs keep me pushing forward.

1 comment:

  1. Loved your story. As Alex has been educated about the bike, we hope he can be educated to read and write. It's never too late.
    Proud of all you've done for this young man.