Centre ground: Cricket in Rwanda

SportsPro looks at the development of cricket in Rwanda and speaks to Alby Shale on his charitable work with the sport in the country.

Centre ground: Cricket in Rwanda

The construction of a new international cricket stadium in the unlikely location of Kigala, Rwanda is not only helping its ambitious national teams to pursue a place in the game’s higher reaches – it is also giving local people a small way of moving beyond their harrowing past.

By Eoin Connolly

Some venue projects are about building more than just stadiums. 

Rwanda is a small presence on the international cricket scene, but cricket is the fastest-growing sport in the central and east African country. The Rwandan Cricket Association has been a third-tier Affiliate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) since 2003. The number of active players in the country is rising towards 10,000, despite the expense of importing kit over landlocked borders and a chronic lack of facilities which ICC central funding cannot do enough to resolve. 

There are currently no grass pitches in Rwanda, let alone a stadium fit to stage international cricket. That is something that the Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation (RCSF) aims to rectify. But the significance of its project, inevitably, runs deeper.  

It is now over 22 years since the atrocities which will live with Rwandans for generations to come: the genocide of an estimated 800,000 members of the Tutsi community by the Hutu-led government and assorted militias in its command. Somehow, from somewhere, people are finding the reserves of optimism and courage to pursue reconciliation.  

It was in that spirit that the late Christopher Shale, a former army officer and Conservative member of parliament in the UK, was seeking ways to contribute on visits to the country almost a decade ago. He created a social action group, putting volunteer doctors, teachers, sports coaches and businesspeople to work on community projects. It was on those trips, accompanied by his son Alby, that he saw this “idiosyncratic, archaic game” of cricket being used to bring Rwandan people together.  

When his father died in 2011, Alby Shale decided to continue his work in the country by creating a place where cricket and communities could flourish. After years of fundraising efforts, which have yielded over UK£1 million, Rwanda’s first international cricket venue is almost a reality. 

The venue was designed by architects Light Earth Designs LLP and Killian Doherty and has been under construction on a 4.3-hectare site in Gahanga, a few miles outside the capital, Kigala, since June 2016. It might better be described as a national cricket centre: there is of course an international-standard playing field – essential to getting Rwanda games against high-class touring opposition – as well as practice nets, but there will also be dormitory accommodation, a gymnasium and a tennis court. 

“The stadium, at its core, is based on social enterprise,” Shale explains. “So we have a bar, we have a restaurant where we will employ local Rwandans as well as Burundian refugees. But also, it’s about giving a sport which has demonstrated its ability to unite divided people a platform by which it can flourish, and by that I mean act as an icon for cricket in Rwanda and therefore inspire a younger generation to not only take up the game but follow in the footsteps of people who are helping to rebuild communities in Rwanda through the sport.”

The RCSF project has secured high-profile patronage. Former British prime minister David Cameron is a supporter of the foundation, as are the BBC’s lead cricket commentator Jonathan Agnew, England women’s cricketer Heather Knight, and the great West Indies batsman Brian Lara, who first travelled to Rwanda for a coaching session in 2009. Former South Africa fast bowler Makhaya Ntini was among those involved in the groundbreaking in December 2015. 

Much of the early impetus, Shale insists, was inspired by his father. 

“He would not like the fact that I’m saying that, but it is true,” he says. “A lot of the initial support came from family and friends – people who bought into his vision and wanted to support it because he was a very generous and caring and popular man. But as we developed and we looked into growing the game, and we demonstrated what the game was doing on a grassroots level and also on a larger community level, I think the wider cricket base has become galvanised and is now supporting our project. 

“We’re now partners with Surrey CCC, with an amazing luxury travel company called Volcano Safaris, and a luxury property development company – namely Banda Development. So there’s a broad donor base but also a broad support base that has helped grow this initiative and the finishing line is in sight.”

In order to source a final chunk of funding, the foundation has changed tack. The project has drawn the attention of a range of media outlets – from specialists like ESPNCricinfo to mainstream titles like the Telegraph in the UK, and a documentary in the works with the Viceland TV channel – and Shale decided that “there was enough appetite out there” to cast the net wider.

“There’s a private equity firm called TLG that supported us in facilitating the operational costs of the crowdfunding campaign, and Homestrings is the largest emerging market crowdfunding platform,” he explains. “Their focus is primarily on financial investment, so we fit outside of their usual projects, but I think they fell in love with the narrative and the story of Rwanda cricket, and felt that through their extensive network with the African diaspora and western donors, they would be able to help us raise the final UK£250,000.” 

On this last push, Shale is hopeful of more local input, giving people not just in Rwanda but across Africa a reason to commit to “taking pride in their continent and helping us by contributing to the final fundraising round.” 

He is also able to call upon the support of Eric Dusingizimana, the captain of the men’s national team and now the general manager of the RCSF. In a May fundraising event Dusingizimana shattered Shale’s own world record for the longest individual session in a cricket practice net, “batting for 51 hours which was a Herculean feat and something quite remarkable to witness”. 

Not only that, but his involvement connects the foundation to “the heart of everything that is Rwandan cricket”.

As far as Shale is concerned, if the completed facility can help Dusingizimana and his teammates raise their global profile and even realise their long-term dream of reaching the Cricket World Cup, then all the better. Rwanda’s government is working hard to create an international image that can move the country beyond its harrowing past. Recently, it has tried to establish a sustainable nature tourism industry around the mountain gorillas that live in its national parks, with the revenues supporting the populations of those endangered animals and creating opportunities for locals. 

But the emotional power and reach of sport have their own part to play in the regeneration of Rwanda, bringing people together, imparting skills at home and giving people stories to tell overseas. Shale notes that the nation’s cycling teams “have demonstrated what [sport] can do in Rwanda in terms of getting them global recognition but also inspiring a younger generation to take up sport rather than taking up arms against each other”, and he believes cricket can do the same.

Completion of the stadium itself is expected in late 2017, with Shale unshakeable in his confidence that the final tranche of funding will come in and help the project to a successful conclusion. That, however, will be only the beginning of what can and must be achieved.

“What I see as the next challenge,” Shale notes, “is this transition of going from a charity that was based on fundraising and infrastructure and, essentially, capital build, and moving and transitioning into a charity that’s going to be delivering projects. So we’ve just signed a deal with UNHCR to take cricket to refugee camps, which hasn’t been done before. We’re also looking to partner with local NGOs in Rwanda to try and grow the sport but also focus on, for example, empower women through cricket with Women Win, and with an organisation called Surf we’re looking to promote reconciliation through sport – Surf represent all genocide survivors in Rwanda. 

“Don’t be under any illusions: there are still a lot of divisions in society and there’s a lot of survivors who struggle to reconcile with their neighbours. So if we can help these organisations by them using our facility but also using our sport that we understand how to coach with, that can help solve these social issues and hopefully provide some enjoyment for refugees and other people alike. Then I think we’ll have done our job. The next phase is completely different but also incredibly exciting.”