When it comes to telling a story, Philip Gourevitch doesn’t spare a detail, even if it means eating up acres of paper. In the title of his book on Rwanda alone, Gourevitch immediately displays his generosity on words. The title is: ‘We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families’. Quite a mouthful, to describe the 1994 genocide.
So, when I saw his article on Rwandan young cyclists, I was not surprised that it was not your usual two-page affair. I knew I was going to enjoy a bundle of pages but, even then, I hadn’t guessed that I’d so intimately connect with it. ‘Igihwerahwere’ was the last thing on my mind.
As I’ve always said, ‘igihwererahwere’(or ‘igicugutu’ these days) was a kind of improvised bicycle that we used to make out of wood. I used to have problems describing it and few people understood what I meant. That’s why I’m amazed at how Gourevitch renders it alive in my imagination, in such few words.
He calls it a “Flintstonian scooter from machete-hewn planks and beams, fitted with machete-whittled wheels.” To understand it, though, you’ve to have watched that American animated cartoon, ‘The Flintstones’. ‘The Flintstones’ was about a working-class Stone-Age man’s life with his family and his neighbour. Cars of the time were made out of stone, wood and animal skins and powered by the passengers’ feet.
So was it with our ‘scooters’, then. We used to ride them only downhill, as uphill we had to push them. To ‘start’ them, we gave them momentum by pushing them and, to stop them, we pressed the soles of our feet against the wooden wheels. We rode them in the 1960s in D.R. Congo, but you know that here in Rwanda they came later. Very telling on our Stone-Age existence and erstwhile leaders who never aspired for modernisation.
Now, imagine coming from that Stone-Age cycling era and exploding onto the international cycling-race scene today! Please, meet Gasore Hategekimana!
Like me, Gasore was born into the age of ‘manufacturing’ wooden scooters that he’d use to cart harvest, water, firewood and myriad other things. Unlike me, he was born in 1988 and is growing up in a community that’s not shy of confronting the beast of modernity. So, after carting things for a fee, he was able to save money and fulfil the dream of his life – owning a bicycle.
Having lost his father at an early age, Hategekimana had no chance of getting an education and advancing in life. So, on getting his dream bicycle, he knew he had to use it, not only for his riding bliss, but also to fend for himself. He became a cycling taxi-man, mixing business with pleasure. Then one day a cycling-race team swished by him, dazzling him with their helmets and tights.
And thus, another dream was born: to one day race in this team. From then on, he started training every morning before work, racing up and down hills and racing after the cycling team whenever they passed through his area. After 8 months, he was able to join local races until one day “he turned up with his taxi-bike at a national race.” Gasore caught the eye of the national team coach, who drafted him into the team.
The coach of the Rwandan national team (Team Rwanda) is an American from California called Jonathan Boyer, nicknamed Jock. Jock’s parents separated early in his childhood and he grew up generally on his own as a young lad. After teaching himself how to ride a bicycle, he also took to it like fish to water and, with time, he became a world racer. He was a regular on Tour de France until hard times fell upon him and he returned to USA.
In USA, times were even harsher and Jock became a dejected man. Until he met an American friend from Rwanda, who invited him to this country that he knew nothing about. Says Jock: “All my life, I’ve rarely looked at TV, never read magazines, never listened to the radio. I knew what was going on in my world and that sufficed. I did my thing.” Still, reluctantly, Jock accepted to visit Rwanda, whence he was hooked.
Team Rwanda riders are based in the northern town of Ruhengeri, in Musanze District. Jock, assisted by girlfriend Kimberly, feeds the team in the morning to prepare them for an excruciatingly hard day of training. After a ten-mile warm-up ride up the hill to the main road, he splits the group into three teams to compete against one another. Each member of the winning team wins a thousand Francs, a none-too-mean motivation-builder for a day.
As we speak, Gasore and three other team-mates are competing in the Tour de Rio de Jeneiro, the first Africans in the South American race. They have raced in many countries in Africa, Europe and the Americas.
In Team Rwanda, Jonathan Boyer is giving hope to young Rwandans. And young Rwandans are giving meaning to the life of an American. Thank you, American Philip Gourevitch, for giving expression to the interesting goings-on of Rwanda!