Sunday, November 29, 2015

Mamas of Team Rwanda

Toughest people I have ever met in my life....Rwandan mothers.  Not new, young mothers, not the Kigali mothers with means, I'm talking about the mothers who have lived their whole lives in a small Rwandan village, raising way too many kids, doing way too much of the work, and most of the disciplining.  The Rwandan mothers who have lost husbands, sons and daughters in the genocide or who have been left without husbands due to prison terms handed down to their husbands who were part of the genocide.  These are the toughest women I know.  These women are my "go to" women when dealing with issues which arise with their sons on Team Rwanda.

Two weeks ago tomorrow, we had no team.  Team Rwanda had walked out on the prior Friday.  On Monday morning we went to try and bring the team together, it was our last ditch attempt.  After meeting with several of the riders and putting them in Felix Sempoma's car we headed back to the center.  Then we stopped for bags, then we stopped again, each time I was thinking, "This is it, they changed their minds, they're getting back out of the car."  The last time we stopped it was in front of Bosco's house.  Bosco had not been up in Sashwara when we met with the team.  He was with his mother at home.  I sat on the motorcycle watching Felix up ahead talking with Bosco and a woman.  It was Bosco's mother.  I'm praying...praying...praying...please Bosco, come with us, please...then he runs towards a house of the edge of the road and my heart sinks.  I get off the motorcycle and walk towards Felix and he says, 

"He is coming."

"Who was that woman?", I ask.

"His mother."

I need to meet her, to thank her.  The last hour had completely wiped out all my ability to keep the stiff upper lip.  I just started to cry and think to myself...thank you.  I walked up to the side of the house and Bosco comes out and introduces me to his mother, Odette.  I hugged her and cried and kept saying, "Thank you...Thank you...Thank you..."

Rwandans are stoic, relatively unemotional in the face of crisis, except when they're nervous or not sure what to do and then they laugh.  Odette just kept laughing.  Here was this crazy Muzungu crying and hugging her over and over and saying, "Murakoze, Murakoze cyane" (Thank you, Thank you very much).

When Bosco came back to camp I asked him the next morning, "Have you talked to your mama?"

He said, "Yes.  She is happy I am here."

Odette wanted her son to race and told him so.  And he did...and he won...and he will forever change his family's life.

Odette is young.  Way younger than I.  Bosco is the oldest at 22.  His father died in the 1994 Genocide.  Odette was probably 17 or 18 in 1994 and had a little baby, her husband killed, she running with her baby.  Bosco's birthday is November 4, 1993...he was 6 months old when the genocide started.  She kept herself and her infant alive during the worst 3 months in Rwandan history.

She wanted him to race, to have the opportunities never afforded her.  

He raced...he won.

Today, Mr. AM and I went to visit Bosco and Odette at their home just outside of Sashwara.  Bosco built a home for his mother and another home for himself which is not quite finished.  I baked her a banana bread which seemed way too insignificant for what she did for us, for the team, and for Bosco.  Odette with her support and encouragement for her son to rejoin the team and race the Tour of Rwanda, essentially changed the country.  The country rallied around her son.

My other favorite Rwandan mama is Mama Elizabeth. That is her name...Mama Elizabeth.  She is the mother of Rafiki and grandmother of Jonathan.  Her oldest child is 32 and her youngest is 6 or 7, the same age as Jonathan.  Whenever we've needed guidance on things with Rafiki and/or Jonathan we always call Mama Elizabeth.  She speaks zero English and zero French...only Kinyarwanda but that has never stopped our connection.

Mama Elizabeth is all of 4'10" and has a smile as wide as she is tall.  Do not mistake her size as a disadvantage.  This 4'10" Rwandan mama can deliver the biggest smack down I've ever seen.  She is fierce, beautiful and committed to the future of her children and grandchildren, a future she was never afforded due to life in 1994.

Stage 7 ended at the Regional Stadium in Nyamirambo.  I hate this place.  Have always hated this place.  Rafiki says, "It is the place of thieves."  Considering this is where our 2nd and 3rd iPhones were stolen I cannot discount his assessment.  Security at any race ending here is bad, the Tour of Rwanda finish is horrific.  As Sterling pulls our team car into the completely chaotic, zero security controlled area, I brace for impact.  People are all over our car.  As I jump out to make it to protocol to make sure Bosco is okay (Valens had his helmet and shirt stolen under the tent in 2014), I see Mama Elizabeth.  She's screaming, literally screaming and jumps onto me.  She's jumping up and down, total and pure joy, exuding from this woman.  I hug her repeatedly and then she pushes me to protocol.  I feel her in the small of my back as I push through the dense crowd that simply would not budge.  I'm yelling at people to move and I hear Mama Elizabeth yelling in Kinyarwanda.  I don't think I've ever heard a Rwandan yell?

As I push through the crowd I yell at the Skol protocol guy to let me through.  I know Mama Elizabeth does not have an accreditation but I think to myself, doubt that will stop her.  I hit the barrier and am let through and behind me I hear a shouting match of Kinyarwanda and then there is Mama Elizabeth there to take her place with her Team Rwanda "son" Jean Bosco.  

Do not mess with the Rwandan mamas.

These women lived without hope...their sons and daughters are their hope and they are not about to let that slip through their grip.  

God...I love these women!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Aftermath of the Tour of Rwanda

The Tour of Rwanda ended a week ago tomorrow.  If you're not a follower of Team Rwanda to bring you up to speed...we won...BIG.  We took first, second and third in the General Classification.  We won three stages and took home the top team.  It doesn't get much better than this.  We did what we came to do.

I'm not sure if it's due to the drama the week preceding the Tour of Rwanda, the chaos of the event itself, the crashes, the sickness, the aggressiveness of the crowds, the three stolen iPhones, the one stolen pair of Oakleys off Jeremy's face after the final stage, but I have struggled with why is a sense of joy and celebration completely void in my world.  There is simply nothing....

I am proud of our staff and coaches who led these young men to victory.  I am proud of the boys themselves who pulled together after walking out on strike a week before the race.  I never thought we would do what we did.

Why then do I still feel...empty?

Throughout the entire tour I was praying we could simply keep it together.  I had no idea whether the team was still a team, we didn't have one 8 days before the event.  It was the proverbial wait for the second shoe to fall.  It didn't.  

We also had always finished with our complete teams.  This year we didn't.  Ephrem ended up in a crash on Stage 2 which caused yet another concussion, his second in two months.  He raced another 3 stages before being pulled by the race doctor.  

Valens collapsed after Stage 5, 166kms from Musanze to Nyanza.  In the race Valens came to our car and said, "Coach, I am not okay, no power."  Sterling just told him to hang in there.  In a show of solidarity his teammates, Bonaventure, Janvier and another Team Rwanda Karisimbi cyclist all gave Valens a much need hand to the back, a slight push, to keep him with the peloton.  In the end Janvier and Valens were both fined 20 seconds for the push.  We didn't care, that's just what these guys did to help their ailing teammate.  Unfortunately, Valens passed out for over 20 minutes at the finish and although he recuperated over the next couple of days, his Tour of Rwanda was over.  The 2014 Tour of Rwanda champion was finished.

On Stage 6 from Muhanga to Gisenyi, a very controversial crash happened only 800meters from the finish taking out Patrick and Joseph Areruya.  We heard it come over the radio.  Luckily it was in the 3km rule so as long as they both finished they would be awarded the same time as the group they were in.  When we got to the scene of the crash, Joseph was already gone, Patrick, however, was on the sidewalk with the doctors already attending to his gaping wound on his head.  Patrick was sitting 4th in the GC.  He just needed to finish and he would retain his time and position.  And so he did....

As the week went on, the pressure built as we had held the yellow jersey since Bosco's record breaking Prologue win on Sunday.  Finally, on Stage 7, Bosco sealed the win by riding away on the rain soaked cobbles of Kigali.  Stage 8, the final stage, simply became a formality.

And then...on a rain soaked Sunday in Kigali, around a 10 lap 12kms circuit, Team Rwanda won...again.

At the finish all the staff worked to protect the riders and the bikes from a crowd that had simply gone mad with enthusiasm.  Frankly, it was scary.  There was no Team Rwanda staff at the protocol to celebrate the win as they were all trying to find riders and bikes and keep the crowds at bay.  The Rwandans all celebrated and we collected transponders, found bikes, escorted riders to a waiting car....we did our job.  

And then that was it....

In the end I wondered why had no one even taken the time to simply say thank you.  I struggled with that immensely.  I know this is my job and I don't do it for anyone other than, in the end, the riders, but nothing...

And then today, Mr. AM read me this from Oswald Chambers:

We have a tendency to look for wonder in our experience, and we mistake heroic actions for real heroes. It’s one thing to go through a crisis grandly, yet quite another to go through every day glorifying God when there is no witness, no limelight, and no one paying even the remotest attention to us. If we are not looking for halos, we at least want something that will make people say, “What a wonderful man of prayer he is!” or, “What a great woman of devotion she is!” If you are properly devoted to the Lord Jesus, you have reached the lofty height where no one would ever notice you personally. All that is noticed is the power of God coming through you all the time.

And on Monday we start camp again....

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Concrete Falling on the Casket

A little over two weeks ago I stood in a cemetery in Rwanda, the light drizzle slowly becoming a steady rain, and I watch as a small community of Rwandans buried a cyclist.  His name was Yves Iryamukuru.

As I walked through the family's house at the viewing, his mother was wailing, "It's not's not him" as they opened the top of the casket, a window into the world of the already gone. It wasn't him. He was gone.

A 22 year old young Rwandan man with hopes of being on Team Rwanda killed in a local race just kilometers from the finish.

I wasn't at the finish. I heard about it hours later. Why did no one call me to tell me? Janvier came upon him after he had hit the bus. I cannot imagine what he saw. We still have not talked about it.

I did not know Yves personally, but his loss still darkens every corner of my existence.

In the misty cemetery all I can hear is the sound of the concrete hitting the coffin. A loud slushy thud on the white wooden casket. A young girl looking up at me in the rain. I cannot see the grave, I am several levels removed. The girl and her friend are trying to open a lollipop. the shovels bury this rider....I look down at the girls and smile. Did they know Yves? They are ready to toss the wrapper on the ground. I hold out my hand....thud...thud...I take the wrapper and smile. They call up Team Rwanda to lay the wreath on the grave. I walk to the front and lay the wreath on the freshly laid concrete stepping my black cowboy boot onto the grave. I am lost.

On Sunday afternoon he's racing to be known by Team Rwanda, by Monday evening he's under concrete.

And we keep going.....

Two weeks later my "family" of riders walks out of camp.

14 riders go on strike a week before the Tour of Rwanda.

My family walks out on a rainy Friday night....very similar to the night we stood in the cemetery.

The why is not important, the details irrelevant.

They were gone. I didn't care about the race, the bikes, the preparation. I just wanted them to still have a future.

After days of back and forth, people making demands on both sides, people simply letting them vent with no guidance. I did what a mother would do.

Monday morning I woke up, grabbed a coffee and looked at Mr. AM and said, "We need to try one more time. I dreamt about it this morning and if I don't see the team, talk to them and encourage them to come back I will know I didn't do everything I needed to do. If they don't come back, they don't, but they will know I love them anyway."

An hour later we were on the motorcycle on the way to Sashwara. We stopped about a kilometer from the town and Mr. AM made a few phone calls and when he hung up I said to him, "Let me do the talking. There's simply too much "male" in this group. I just need you and Felix to translate for me."

As we pulled into a parking lot in Sashwara I saw Bona. He was standing alone. I jumped off the motorcycle and walked straight toward him. He just stood there. I stood right in front of him and then put my arms around him and said, "I love you. You are like a son to me and I will love you no matter what happens. If you stay on strike or you come back, I will ALWAYS ALWAYS love you. That will never change."

And then Mr. AM and Felix rounded up most of the rest and I knelt down and told each of them the same thing. I told them how I needed to hear from each one individually.

And some of them came home....and then the rest.

Like a family we came back together, resolved our issues, forgave and came out the other side much better people and a much stronger team.

Everyone had ideas and thoughts about everything going on around the riders, pleading, meeting with them, sympathizing, commiserating. In the end, while I was hugging one of the rider's mothers as we were picking up her son to bring back to the center, I knew...only a "mother" who loved unconditionally but still held them accountable could have moved the needle.