Thursday, November 28, 2013

Bona's Smile

The day Team Rwanda won Stage 2 at the Tour of Rwanda last week was remarkable not only in the win and the story of Abraham and Valens, but later the same afternoon Bonaventure and I visited with staff from Operation Smile. Operation Smile hosts one to two missions per year in Rwanda and the last one in September was in our hometown of Musanze.  They do much needed operations in the field of cleft lips and palates.  Bona was born with this condition in 1993.

In February, after only four months on the Team, I wrote about Bona's rise through the ranks of Team Rwanda.  I wrote about the stigma engrained even in our own team over a simple scar on his lip.  Over the year, Bona's confidence has risen exponentially at the same rate the team's ignorance has declined in regards to Bona's birth defect.  

Through a convoluted series of emails, Operation Smile was told of Bonaventure's place as a member of Rwanda's National Cycling Team.  On Tuesday last week they came to meet him.

Bona is initially shy, his English is fair, generally he relies a little too much on his best friend and riding partner, Janvier.  Get Bona talking, play some music, get him laughing and he's the paramount "goof ball".  Bona has grown with the Team and every day we learn more and more about him.

Bona's mother is dead.  We are not sure the story behind her death.  We do not pry.  Bona takes care of his older brother, father and pays for his younger sister's schooling with his salary and race winnings.  Bona lives at home with his family when he's not training and racing with Team Rwanda.

The Operation Smile team was so happy to meet Bona.  They were hopeful he would be interested in helping promote registration for their next surgery mission which will take place in 2014 in Musanze.  In Rwanda 1 in every 1,000 births results in a cleft lip or cleft palate.  With a country of almost 12 million people and a birthrate still near six per family, that is an extraordinary amount of children born with this defect.  It really should be no big deal.  Sadly, it still is.  Parents hide their newborn children, embarrassed by the deformity.  If the villagers saw their child, the family would be shunned.  Parents often do not bring their children to register for the free operation because of the stigma.  

When the team from Operation Smile asked when he had had this operation, I said he was born in 1993 so probably sometime around the genocide when western doctors were in Rwanda.  Felix Sempoma, one of the Director Sportifs for Team Rwanda, was there along with Bona's sidekick and teammate, Janvier.  As we started discussing the timeline of Bona's surgery, Felix said he had it done in Congo (DRC).  I looked at him and said, "Was he in Masisi?"  (Masisi was the large refugee camp in DRC where Janvier was born)

Felix and Janvier both laughed and said, "No…NOT Masisi!"

Felix then said he had it done when he was four.

All of a sudden I understood completely.  Bona was four in 1997, the year of the Insurgency.  Philip Gourevitch wrote about Gasore's family in his 2011 article, Climbers.  Gasore's father died in 1997 during the Insurgency.  Bona's family fled to DRC, where at four, Bona received his much needed operation.  

We do not talk about one side versus the other side at Team Rwanda.  To us, they are ALL Rwandan young men, Rwandan cyclists.  However, every so often conversations such as this smack you upside the head with the reality of 20 years ago.  Janvier and Bona, teammates, roommates and best friends were on opposite sides of a brutal time in history not once (1994) but twice (1997), both victims of circumstances beyond their control.  Children.

Bona was unsure when asked if he wanted to help.  Through miscommunication of translation he thought we wanted him to undergo another surgery.  He has had two, his last one done just a few months ago.  When we assured him no more surgery, he began to warm to the idea.  And then Operation Smile played the video of their 2010 Mission in Rwanda for Felix, Janvier, Bona and I.

As Bona watched this I could see it in his face….everything he had already experienced.  His eyes were glued to the screen.  As he saw the children go from deformity to where he is now today, he smiled.  After the video he and Janvier talked for a minute and he said yes, he would help.  We also decided to use the whole team as a support for Bona and these children.  If these children and families see a successful young man, a man who overcame his disfigurement and the associated stigma, a young man who has the love and support of his entire team, then perhaps these families will stop hiding their children and get them the much needed surgery.

Team Rwanda is so much more than a cycling team.  As the video played I stood there holding back the tears, so proud of the young men I am privileged to work with, young men who are changing their country in so many ways on and off the bike….and look at that SMILE!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Most Unlikely Hero

There has been no other rider in the history of Team Rwanda who has had such  steep peaks and valleys as Abraham Ruhumuriza.  In February 2012, Coach Jock Boyer wrote a poignant blog about this complex young man.  For several years frustration and tears consumed our contact with Abraham.  On Tuesday last week, during the 5th Annual Tour of Rwanda, those tears became tears of all consuming joy.

During the very difficult and longest stage of the Tour of Rwanda (156km), from Rwamagana (hometown of Adrien Niyonshuti) to Musanze (hometown of Team Rwanda), all 15 members of Team Rwanda (Karisimbi, Akagera and Muhabura) raced as one.  The tactics the coaches, Jock, Felix and Travis, laid out the night before were being played out in confident precision as we raced up and down the steep hills towards Musanze.  With about 12kms to go, the yellow jersey, Jay Thompson, from South Africa made a break.  Abraham and Valens, a 19 year old upstart racing for Team Rwanda in his first Tour of Rwanda, went with Jay.  This was exactly according to plan.  Jay being a larger cyclist, we knew we would have the advantage on the steep 4km climb to the finish in Musanze.  They raced along the flat road prior to the final climb putting time between them and the peloton.  By the time they hit the base of the climb they had enough time on the peloton to hold off being reeled in by the group.  As we listened to the radio in our team car, I prayed.  I prayed they could ride Jay off their wheel and I prayed for a win in our hometown.  As is always the case, we seldom hear the final finish results until we have parked our car and raced to the finish on foot.  As we arrived we heard the news, Valens had taken the stage win with Abraham directly on his wheel in second.  Jay Thompson was a distant third.

But that is not the story….

Last year Valens Ndayisenga was 18 and too young to race the Tour of Rwanda.  The month prior to the Tour he had come out of nowhere and taken third place at the Tour of Kigali City, our National Championship race.  Valens was the new phenom on deck and he packed a very large ego with him.  
Valens, Hassan and Abraham

Valens went to the Tour of Amissa Bongo (Gabon) in January where he had a crash.  It apparently was his first significant crash and he sat on the ground nursing his wounds until he was pulled off the ground by the support crew and put back on his bike, finishing the race on his own.  At the time his injuries were nothing out of the ordinary, some bruising, some road rash, nothing broken.  Upon arriving back in Kigali several days later he complained of pain in his leg.  He was told by Team Rwanda staff and a Federation representative to go directly to King Faisal in the morning and be treated.  He defied orders, went home to Rwamagana, to a local clinic and received some medicine.  To this day we have no idea what he was given.

The next week Valens was to leave for South Africa for the UCI training camp.  Every year we get one or two slots for this camp from the UCI at a value of $3,500USD per rider.  We simply pay for their insurance, plane ticket and visa to South Africa.  It was imperative Valens was 100% before leaving.  

Unbeknownst to us, Valens condition deteriorated.  He missed his first flight due to confusion over the date and time of departure between him and the Federation.  He sat in the Federation office for an entire day prior to boarding the next flight to South Africa.  Never once did he say anything about the pain in his leg.

At 11:30 the next evening we received a call from the coach at the UCI center in South Africa.  Valens was in the hospital.  His leg had gone septic and he was being pumped full of IV antibiotics.  He was hours away from losing his leg.  Because he never mentioned the continuing problem in his leg prior to leaving Rwanda, the insurance company refused to pay and we were left with a $2,500 medical bill.  After a few days, Valens was out of the hospital and ready to begin training.

And then he fell and hurt his arm.  He fell while walking in his cycling shoes on tile.  Something he has been repeatedly warned not to do.  Valens was being sent home.  Two weeks, $3,500 slot at the UCI gone, a $2,500 medical bill and a kid with a bad attitude.  Valens was done.

As the year progressed, so did Valens.  After a talk with his mentor and role model, Adrien, he slowly began to be coachable.  He began to listen to our instruction, he participated in English lessons, and he became a bit more humble and respectful of the veteran cyclists on the Team.  By June he was back on salary. By the Tour of Rwanda he had earned his spot on Team Akagera.

On Tuesday, November 19th, Valens Ndayisenga became the youngest Rwandan to win a stage at the Tour of Rwanda.

As I approached coach at the finish line that afternoon amidst the chaos and energy of one of the biggest finishing crowds to date, I saw his eyes filled with tears.  My first thought was, "What has gone wrong?!"

A reporter from RFI, Olivier, spoke with Jock at the finish to tell him as Abraham and Valens sprinted to the finish, Abraham pointed at Valens and told him to go, told him this was his day and GAVE him the win.  As we pieced the details together from various sources at the line that afternoon, Abraham had told Valens, he was an old man, he had many wins, it was Valens's day to win…..and he let him go.  Abraham, the initial prima donna of Team Rwanda, nicknamed Punda (donkey) for his stubbornness, had let the new generation stake its place on Team Rwanda.  Abraham was the real hero of Stage 2.

The next morning as I checked Facebook I saw I was tagged in this photo….

The second I saw it I started crying….there is Abraham pointing at Valens…there it is, in front of thousands of cheering fans, Abraham selflessly giving Valens the victory.

Mjrka is not only an amazing photographer, but a dear friend to all of us at Team Rwanda.  This was his fifth Tour of Rwanda, he has been here every year documenting our life, the progression of this race, our worst moments and on this day our best moment.

Coach walked up to Mjrka the morning of Stage 3 and told him, "It was a perfect photo."

Mjrka, a true humble spirit, said, "No, it was a perfect day.  I just took the photo."

Team is Team