17 Jul 2012

Rwanda to Suffolk – an Olympic bond

Out of Africa, into Bury St Edmunds – how the legacy of London 2012 has linked a Suffolk town to the nation of Rwanda.

Yannick Fred Sekamana Rwandan Olympic judo competitor (Warwick Lowe)

Athletes from around the world are converging on London. But some are not flying in to Heathrow but travelling from around the UK where they have been preparing for their moment of Olympic glory at one of 200 pre-Games training camps.

Making their way to the Olympic village from the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds are four athletes who will be representing the African country of Rwanda.

“Compared to France or GB, we are very small, but that makes you very close,” 18-year old Yannick Fred Sekamana told Channel 4 News. And the modest size of the team has not dampened the enthusiastic welcome they have received in Suffolk.

“I didn’t imagine that people could get so interested in a small African country,” Yannick said.

(Picture courtesy: Warwick Lowe)

Accompanied by their chef de mission, the team have been out training with local sports clubs. Marathon runner Jean Pierre Mvuyekure and 1,000m runner Robert Kajuga have been made honorary members by the St Edmunds Pacers, while swimmer Alphonsine Agahozo has been practising alongside the West Suffolk Swimming club.

Fifteen-year old Alphonsine, who will compete in the 50m freestyle heats on 3 August, trained for years in a small outdoor pool at her local sports centre in Rwanda before winning a scholarship last year to study and train in France.

King Edward VI schoolchildren celebrate their links with Rwanda

As Warren Smyth, CEO of Abbeycroft Leisure, explained: “The Rwanda National Olympic Committee chose Bury St Edmunds because they felt at home here, they wanted to be part of the community when they train and were pleased that people would support Rwanda as their second team.”

Since Bury St Edmunds signed the deal to host the training camp in 2009, there has been a big push to educate school children about the country most famous for the notorious genocide of the 1990s.

Rob Walden, assistant headteacher of the King Edwards VI School, told Channel 4 News that the project “has opened children’s eyes and given them confidence to work alongside people from other countries.”

Children have studied the country’s landscape and culture, learned songs in the Rwandan language and even dressed up as gorillas.

Rwandan schoolchildren playing sports

The school has also raised a third of the £15,000 collected by local charity Sport for Rwanda which aims to develop training and sports facilities. Looking forward, King Edward’s, which specialises in the development of student leadership and sport, is working with the British Council to send a group of sixth formers out to Rwanda next summer to train teachers there.

Rob Walden, just back from his first visit to the country (pictured below training other teachers during the trip), says the whole experience has left him feeling “privileged and lucky” and has given him a passion for the study of Africa and sustainable development.

Rob Walden training Rwandan teachers in sport

For one parent – a resident of Bury St Edmunds for the last 15 years since arriving from Rwanda with her English husband in 1997 – the whole experience has been particularly transformative.

Letitia Stevens first found out that the Rwandan team was coming to town when her teenage daughter Melissa came home talking about “Rwanda week” at school.

Now for the first time in a decade and a half, she is delighted to find that mentioning her roots doesn’t always draw a blank: “for 15 years when I met someone they asked ‘where do you come from’ – and when I said Rwanda, nobody knows [where it is] – now they do, oh yes, they know Rwanda”.

Letitia has enjoyed the civic hullabaloo staged to mark the team’s presence; including a service of welcome at the cathedral attended by the Bishop of Kigali Louis Muvunyi and a civic reception with the mayor.

Rwandan garden unveiled in Bury St Edmunds

St Edmundsbury Borough Council’s Cabinet member for Culture and Sport, Cllr Sara Mildmay-White, said: “The organising committee has been a public, voluntary and private coalition of volunteers, and the value of goodwill has been apparent from the start, because our focus has been on fund raising not spending.”

But it’s not just about giving: the London 2012 organisers offered grants of up to £25,000 to national Olympic committees to cover the cost of the training camp; Olympic money that is being spent in Suffolk.

According to Councillor Mildmay-White: “Sharing our community celebrations, our business opportunities with the Rwandans, and bringing our young people closer together has embodied the true Olympic spirit.”

As for Yannick, who has previously competed in international judo competitions at a junior level, he just wants to do his country proud: “I hope no-one is disappointed in me and that I give a good impression of Rwanda”.