When the opportunity to travel to Kigali, Rwanda as an athlete ambassador for Right To Play was presented to me, I responded with a quick and resounding yes. From the moment we landed I was easily seduced by the beauty of the rolling green hills, lush vegetation and warm tropical breezes, but in the end it was the wonderful people I met that made me fall for the country of Rwanda. In a whirlwind five days I lived a thousand tiny moments and became a human sponge, soaking in all that I could – good, bad and everything in between.
It has been thirteen years since the civil war and resulting genocide in Rwanda killed nearly one million people in one hundred days. Staring out the window of our big, white bus, I often found myself trying to imagine the horror that played out in the streets of Kigali during the genocide. The imaginary scenes in my mind surely could not have happened.
But after we visited the Genocide Memorial and I saw the mass graves and learned that still bodies are found and brought there for burial it became undeniably and sickeningly real. Walking through the memorial I was struck over and over by facts and events that seemed impossible, disgraceful.
There was a darkened room full of broken skulls and piles of bones of victims, a testament to the senseless brutality and overwhelming destruction of human lives. Another room displayed the tattered and lost articles of clothing found on victims of the genocide. I stopped in my tracks when I saw a small, blue t-shirt that read ‘Ottawa, Canada’ punctuated with a red maple leaf.
No matter how much sorrow and shame I felt as I walked through the memorial, the pint-sized realist in me reluctantly accepted that the world is what it is and what happened in Rwanda in 1994, although avoidable, is history. However, the often naïve but ever present idealist in me also discovered that regardless of those tragic events, I found myself surrounded by evidence of hope and faith in something better.
The people I met, some of who lost their entire families in the war, have found a way not only to survive, but also thrive. Although there are many broken souls who may never recover, there are many who see that the future of the nation is in their hands and they are determined to do something about it. Enter Right To Play.
Athletes are drawn to Right To Play like moths to a flame. Children are drawn to play and games in much the same way. RTP’s philosophy that we should provide not only the basic necessities to those in need, but a chance at having a little joy in one’s life through sport and play no matter how dire the circumstances, strikes a chord with most everyone, but with athletes in particular.
The right to play in Canada, as children and adults, is so entrenched in our lives that the concept of never playing, ever, is incomprehensible to most. Each day in Rwanda we visited a different school or community centre that has partnered with RTP and saw the right to play justly planted in every child we met. The cultivation of inclusion, skill development, and fun were very real and their growth undeniable. It led me to make a perhaps obvious, but nonetheless powerful, observation.
In our safe and sheltered lives we grow up learning a baffling culture of “us” and “them”. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are heavily influenced by the media, propaganda, and our own perceptions of what “them” really is. Perhaps that is just human nature, as we differ from one another in many ways. But being there, on the other side of the world, the imaginary wall constructed by a lifetime of misinformation crumbled with each waking moment. The reality is, that no matter where you go, we are all the same.
Perhaps our languages vary, as do our skin colours, our values, and our cultures, but that is superficial. We all seek shelter, food, love for and from one another, and meaning in our lives. Children especially are the same wherever you go: silly, adventurous, and curious. One young boy was so enthralled by my white skin he simply could not let go of my hand and stared at it persistently. We saw the same kids who loitered in the streets come alive and shriek with laughter when they had the chance to come together and play. I always used to think that I believed we are all the same, but being there and living it was altogether different.
I was often asked before the trip if I thought it would be a life changing experience. I didn’t know what to answer. Can five days in Africa really change your life? This opportunity to visit Rwanda and experience Right To Play in action has indeed left me enriched in ways I may not realize for weeks, months or years to come. I will, however, no doubt continue to be a speed skater. Chances are I will still go to movies, drive my car, occasionally blow-dry my hair and continue reaping the benefits of what the sheer luck of being born in Canada has afforded me.
But I am changed, and the things I have seen, learned and experienced will stay with me forever. The dark eyes and bright smiles are eternally seared into my mind. The singing and laughter plays through my mind like a skipping record. I have a renewed and strengthened desire to contribute to this amazing organization.
There are a lot of people doing a lot of bad things in this world and I have witnessed the fallout of a human tragedy in Rwanda that will be difficult to shake. It is easy to feel blue and helpless in such a place. But it turns out that there are also a lot of people doing a lot of good things in this world too.
I met people from all over the world in Rwanda, doing what they can to help rebuild a shattered nation through the arteries of Right To Play. I met Rwandans who are committed to empowering the next generation with access to education, sport, healthcare and hope, some of whom are the most remarkable and inspiring people I have ever met.
I discovered that the human spirit is universal and indestructible, no matter the colour of your skin, the nationality on your passport or the balance of your bank account. Sometimes it is hidden or clouded over by grief and heartache, but along comes an organization like Right To Play that empowers those who have lost their way with a chance to learn and live again. And for that we should feel good about the wonderful and tangible ways that Right To Play is transforming the lives of children in Rwanda and all over the world.