August 15, 2012
Cyclist Adrien Niyonshuti Rides to Change Attitudes About Rwanda
Today I read in the Wall Street Journal about an athlete that didn’t win a gold medal in the recent London Olympics. In fact, he didn’t even place. He would have loved to win a medal, but was really there to compete as the first athlete to ever represent his country in cycling at the Olympics—and thus give his nation of Rwanda hope.
When I think of Rwanda, I think of genocide. Adrien Niyonshuti wants to change that. He survived the genocide of Rwanda in 1994. He lost most of his family in the killings that many liken to the Nazi regime in number and brutality. He was just 9 years old, too young to be able to understand why people would kill their fellow countrymen so brutally. Actually, it’s hard for most of us to understand as well.
It was years of hatred between the Tutsi and the Hutus that led to the genocide. Although they are nearly identical looking, speak the same languages, are nearly all Christian, they have been two distinct groups for centuries. They have even been counted on census records separately. The Tutsi generally kept cattle; the Hutu were farmers. That created a class distinction where the Tutsi were wealthier. The Hutu outnumbered the Tutsi and had control of the government. In 1972, the Hutu turned on the Tutsi, killing between 80,000 and 200,000 of the Tutsi.
Hutu began killing the Tutsi again in 1994 after the Hutu President of Rwanda and the Hutu President of Birundi were both killed. The plane they were in was shot down. Although no link to Tutsi was ever found, the Hutu turned on the Tutsi again. Over the course of 100 brutal days, Hutus killed between 800,000 to one million Tutsi in Rwanda. Conservative estimates put that around 20% of the population!
Adrien and his family lived in a small hut when the horrors began. Adrien said, “Mum and my father came and called me. ‘The people are now coming to our place! We have to move now!’ We went into the bush. We stayed there for a week, and then heard the news that the killing is coming to the bush. We went further. If you are not running, they kill you. Like that. My father said I have to leave and go to another place. This scar on my leg is from that day.” Six of his brothers were killed that day, but Adrien and his parents somehow survived. Adrien said, “The most important lesson that I have learned early in my life, is that life is never only about oneself. Everything you do and say has an effect on the people around you. Having lost most of my family I fully realize that I have a huge responsibility to help support the remaining members of my family.”
Rwandan people get around on wooden bicycles. They are completely wooden; seats, frames, even wheels. They are heavy and sturdy to carry the cargo to and from the marketplace. It makes sense that this culture would produce excellent cyclists. Adrien found that he forgot the horrors of the genocide when he was biking. It became an escape, a refuge, and Adrien discovered he excelled at it.
After winning a local competition on a borrowed bike, Adrien was discovered by American Cyclist Tom Ritchey. Through Ritchey, Adrien and other Rwandan’s formed a cycling team, received racing bikes and gear. Through team travels, Adrien experienced many new things, like seeing the ocean or visiting an aquarium for the first time. At hotel rooms, he discovered hot running water and beds so comfortable, he didn’t want to mess them up, so he slept on the floor. Adrien kept training and qualified for the 2012 London Olympic Games in the mountain bike competition. In the opening ceremonies just a few weeks ago, Adrien was honored to carry Rwanda’s flag.
After the horrors of the killings, a new government was formed in Rwanda which stopped identifying people as either Tutsi or Hutu and brought peace among the people. Citizens are hopeful that they can maintain a stable government and rise as a strong united nation. And they want to put the brutal past behind them.
No wonder Adrien is hailed as a hero. He is giving a new meaning to the country of Rwanda. Instead of first remembering the horrific genocide that occurred there, hopefully the world will think of Adrien Niyonshuti, the courageous survivor turned Olympic mountain bike racer.
Adrien came in 39th in his Olympic race competing against the best bikers in the world. But at least he finished. After the race he said, “It was really hard. I feel … broken. I think it’s a good experience for me, and very good for my country.”
Adrien is an ambassador for peace now. He said, “Sometimes I dream about my family. I think it’s not only me; a lot of people in Rwanda dream about that, especially during April (the month the killings took place.) We have whole days to remember about that time and what happened. But now people have to work together, and not be separate.” Adrian wants people to think of Rwanda as a country with a bright future. Because of his hard work and determination as a cyclist, he’s helping make that happen.
Our lives aren’t just about ourselves. Like Adrien, we can make a big difference in the lives of others, especially our family members.
“Adrien Nyonshuti: Hero of African Cycling” Pactimo.com 14 Sept 2010: n. pag. Web. 14 Aug 2012.
Gay, Jason. “A Long, Amazing Ride to the Olympics.” Wall Street Journal 13 Aug 2012:B10. Print.
Johnson, Brigette. “Why is there conflict between Tutsis and Hutus?” About.com n. pag. Web. 14 Aug 2012.
Powers, Angus. “The Survivor: After Living Through the Rwandan Genocide, Adrien Niyonshuti is now the No 1 Mountain Biker on the Biggest Cycling Team in Africa and Will be, Without Doubt, the Most Extraordinary Athlete at the 2012 Olympic Games.” Sports Illustrated April 2011:90-97. Print.
“Rwanda.” Wikipedia Web. 14 Aug 2012.