Thursday, February 21, 2013

Perception vs. Reality -- Bonaventure

Bonaventure Uwizeyimana had tested three times with Team Rwanda, the first time was in 2011, again in early 2012 and the end of 2012 shortly before the Tour of Rwanda.  He did not become a member of Team Rwanda until he was chosen to ride for Team Akagera (the TRC "B" team), two weeks prior to the November Tour of Rwanda.  

This never happens in Rwanda....generally riders who test and do not make the team immediately, never come back.  Chalk it up to the fatalism mindset rampant in Africa and especially amongst the poor.  They figure, "this was my one shot, it is over, I will go be a farmer now."

Bonaventure came back again and again.

I remember the second time I saw Bonaventure test I thought to myself, this kid has "it".  His numbers were not off the charts spectacular, he was painfully shy, he never smiled, but something stuck with me.  This kid had "fight" whether he realized it himself or not.  This instinct, sadly, is not the norm in Rwanda either.  It is the most frustrating aspect of the Team I deal with personally.  Given a shot at an incredible new life, Team Rwanda, I see riders do the "just enough" to scrape by and stay in the team.  Rarely do I see greatness.  I see moments of good, but rarely moments which stick with me as pure greatness.  The "it" the "fight" rarely presents itself.

Bonaventure was different.

After the second test he must have gone to his club President, Felix Sempoma, and talked him into giving him a training bicycle.  Generally, these old school, mish mash of parts, bicycles are relics from a by gone era.  There are still down tube shifting bikes in use.  I wish I knew more how he got a bicycle, all I really need to know is this kid wanted to ride and wasn't going to stop until he did.

This summer, at an after training debrief meeting, I asked the guys who had won the sprints that day.  Every training session there are sprint preems to be had.  This particular day I get the response, "Bonaventure did, but he's not on the team, so Rocky won."

"Bonaventure, the kid from Gisenyi?"

Kiki says, "Yeah, Bonaventure, you know..." and he says this as he holds his finger up to his lip.  Bonaventure sports a significant scar from a cleft palate surgery.  

I said, "You mean, he's training with you?  He found you on the road, tagged along and trained with you?  And he beat you on the sprint?"

"Yes...but he is not on Team so Rocky wins."

"No Kiki, Rocky does not win, Bonaventure wins.  You find him and give him the money."

The guys sat on the coach staring at me like I had a purple horn sticking out of my head.  They couldn't fathom how I could give Bonaventure the money.  The next morning I told Felix, my Rwandan assistant about the conversation and to make sure Bonaventure received the money. 

Later I was talking to Kiki about Bonaventure.  Again, Kiki held up his finger to his lip, "You mean the rider from Gisenyi?"  

"Yes, Kiki, what do you think of him?  Good rider?"

Kiki says, "I think he is not smart in the head", continuing to touch his lip.

"Why do you say that?"

"You know..." tapping his lip.

Kiki was making a connection between Bonaventure's cleft palate scar and his mental capabilities which was a ridiculous me.

"You know, Kiki, he figured out when you were training, tagged along, figured out how to beat you in the sprint.  He's smart enough to figure that out which is better than most of you!  Call him and tell him to come to camp."

So began Bonaventure's tenure with Team Rwanda.  At the next camp we found him another bike and he continued to ride.  More importantly, our volunteer, Andy, who was teaching English started working with him.  This kid was hungry to learn.  He began making advances in English and leap frogging over other riders who had been with us much longer.  He wanted to speak English at every opportunity.  

I do not have favorites on the team, but I am drawn to kids who are willing to put forth more effort than others.  For Bonaventure, I just wanted to see him smile and to unknowingly teach the team about the dangers of stigmatizing someone based on a scar or a physical disability.  Every single one of the team members equated a cleft palate scar with a mental disability.  

I would not want to be disabled in a country like Rwanda.  It would be difficult enough in the US, but here?  Tragic.   

I do not know much of Bonaventure's story prior to Team Rwanda.  He was born in 1993, a year before the genocide.  Do I know about ethnicity?  I can only make an educated guess, for me, he's Rwandan.  He was born in Jenda, an area which saw additional post genocide violence in 1997 during the Insurgency.  It was not a good place to be.  I do not like to ask too many personal questions.  I never want the riders to feel I would make judgements based on the past.  To us they are simply cyclists.  

What I wonder is, who fixed his cleft palate?  During the time of his birth this country was in chaos.  I do not see many skilled surgeons today in this part of Rwanda.  I doubt there were any in 1993/4.  Bonaventure could have died from a cleft palate left unrepaired or died from complications of surgery especially in Rwanda at that time.

Bonaventure only attended a few years of primary school, but can read and write which is not true of all of our riders.  He also takes notes during the afternoon debrief meetings and is active in learning English, including doing English homework.  Most riders will not go to that level.

Little by little, Bonaventure began to open up, to talk and even to laugh.  Little by little, the team released their cultural based biases and stigma and recognized Bonaventure for who he was, a smart, strong rider.

Several weeks before the Tour of Rwanda, Jock brought back a bike which was donated by a fan who saw Rising From Ashes in Aspen.  This fan was in the market for a new bike and decided to donate his "old" bike to the Team.  To us it was brand spanking NEW!  To Bonaventure, it was like Christmas....

Shortly thereafter, Bonaventure was selected for Team Akagera at the 2012 Tour of Rwanda.  This would be his first race with international cyclists.  

In Stage 5, from Musanze to Gisenyi, Bonaventure broke off from the pack and tried to bridge to the breakaway group of five who had held the lead most of the stage.  He wasn't successful in the attempt, finishing alone in 6th, but he gave it his best shot while the rest of the team sat with the pack.  For his effort, Bonaventure received the Most Aggressive Rider jersey (red) for the stage.

Long after the Tour was over, we received some photos from a phenomenal photograher, Sonoko Tanaka, who had come on her own dime to cover the Tour.  Sonoko captured a moment we had never seen.  At the finish line of Stage 5, Bonaventure crosses with arms raised high in the traditional victory pose of all professional cyclists.  Did he know there were five others in front of him and he wasn't the winner of the stage?  I am not sure, perhaps?  To me though, it really doesn't matter because the photo says it all....look at that smile!

It's really not about the bike....


  1. Thank you for writing this brilliant and inspiring piece. How can we inspire more young people to do, like Bonaventure, more than "just enough" I wonder?

    For people who have only done a few years of primary school in Rwanda prospects are bleak and you would also be commonly written off by others. Adding in his disability and the assumptions that go with it makes his struggle even greater. It may be that his family were ashamed of him, did not encourager him (a common problem for many children sadly) and that is why he did not stay at school.

    For another example of what can be done by the maginalised in Rwanda (rural women) see the solar engineers of Karambi at

  2. Thank you for your comment. I want to know more about his story...some day. I hope I get to write many many updates about his life.

  3. Although many are fatalistic there are also others who will push for the chance to show what they can do. Well done to TRC for giving him that chance to do so and also importantly inspire others.