Twenty years ago, in 1994, I had a golden summer. I scored 375 against England in Antigua, a Test record that stood for nine years, and two months later I posted 501 against Durham, which remains today the world record in first-class cricket, as my team Warwickshire achieved an unprecedented domestic treble. I was in my mid-twenties, and of course I was very happy, but I was also very aware that in another part of the world, a great tragedy was unfolding.
Every evening when I turned on the TV there were images of the genocide in Rwanda, and the contrast with my own feelings of euphoria haunted me.
It wasn’t until 2009 that I actually visited Rwanda, but when I did I knew I had to help in some way, and hearing the story of a young cricketer called Audifax Byiringiro helped me start to realise what I should do.
In April 1994, as I was gearing up for my golden summer, Audifax Byiringiro was a six-month-old baby in Rwanda. Audifax and his family — his mother, father and three siblings — sought refuge from the violence as nearly a million Tutsis were killed by their Hutu countrymen. For more than a month they faced death daily at rebel road blocks as they fled from the brutality, but by June his father and three siblings had been murdered and only he and his mother remained.
One day in the same month, on a field in a school in Kigali, 2,500 Rwandans were abandoned by UN peacekeepers and attacked by local militia with machetes, grenades and guns. The massacre took just a few hours, and by nightfall all but 50 were dead. The events were later depicted in the film Shooting Dogs. The title was intended to symbolise the madness of the situation: UN troops firing at dogs scavenging bodies of the dead, but not allowed to shoot at the human perpetrators because their orders prevented them from doing so.
Eight years later, by some strange turn of fate, that same field became Rwanda’s first cricket pitch. Many Rwandans had lived in exile in nearby countries like Kenya and Uganda, where cricket was played as a result of a British colonial past. When the exiles returned to their homeland following the end of the genocide, they brought the game back with them and a Rwanda Cricket Association was formed. The idea was that Rwandans of all backgrounds could try to forget their past by playing together — but sometimes it was hard to forget. Before a pitch could be prepared, the two-metre grass was cut, revealing the remains of many victims of the massacre. In the early games it wasn’t unusual for a fielder, when chasing after a ball, to find a human bone.
This is where Audifax’s story begins again — because in 2007, as a 14-year-old, he played his first game of cricket on that field, and it was there, two years later, that I met him during my trip. I was struck then by the way that cricket had changed Audifax’s life. He spent hours honing his skills with bat and ball before and after school, and it gave him focus and discipline. Over the next few years, he became a fixture in the national team, and in 2011 he was even asked by a cricket club in Cornwall to be their overseas professional for the season, although his visa request was turned down. He now coaches in schools, orphanages and universities across the country, sharing his love of cricket with Rwandan boys and girls from all different backgrounds while excelling in his own studies (his most recent exam results were the highest in the country).
Audifax’s story is just one of many. Since cricket first arrived in Rwanda, it has provided education and direction in the lives of thousands of young people and in some places has helped break down previously entrenched tribal and ethnic differences. An overachieving national team has even helped foster a sense of national pride.
So Rwandan boys love cricket, there’s no doubt about that, but the trouble is that there is still only one cricket ground: that small field in Kicukiro, the site of the massacre.
Here at last, was something I could do for Rwanda. In 2011, I and a group of cricketing evangelists from England formed the Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation (www.rcsf.org.uk), in partnership with the MCC Foundation, to build a high-quality permanent home for Rwandan cricket.
The policy of international aid organisations has quite rightly been to develop basic infrastructure, to lower child mortality and to reduce poverty, but cultural development is also crucial to help Rwanda become a developed nation.
Once built, the new ground will provide a place for the national team to train, for schoolchildren to be coached, for people who have never seen the game before to become hooked, the same way both Audifax and I did. There will be accommodation for visitors from around Rwanda and touring teams from abroad to stay.
RCSF is more than halfway towards the target of £600,000 to lay two wickets and build a small pavilion. And on Sunday 14 September at Wormsley in the Chilterns, I will lead out an invitational XI against a Warwickshire CCC 1990s XI, led by our captain from that era, Tim Munton, as we seek to raise more money for this fantastic cause.
The international community’s failure to act against the 1994 genocide will remain on our consciences forever. But 20 years on, cricket is helping the country to move forward, and I am proud to be able to help.
Tickets to watch Brian Lara’s international XI this weekend can be purchased via the RCSF website: www.rcsf.org.uk. Brian Lara is a former captain of the West Indies cricket team. Among other achievements, he set a record for a first-class innings – 501 not out – which has stood for 20 years.