Beyond the hills: the journey of Yves Sikubwabo


Source: Bradley Crawford forOUA Bradley Crawford is a freelance writer witha Master’s Degree in Global History and Development from theUniversity of Guelph. He is a former member of the Guelph Gryphonsfootball team.

With a bag full of books strapped tohis shoulders, and tattered running shoes on his feet caked in thered dust of Rwandan dirt, Yves Sikubwabo would run 11 kilometres toschool every morning, only to run back home in the afternoon.

With no other form of transportation, the Guelph Gryphon crosscountry and track star ran up and down the hills of his nativeKigali, Rwanda’s capital city, for three years in order toget to high school.

Yves ran past markets, memorials and mud brick houses, pastchurches, military barracks and the airport. He would passconstruction, street peddlers, and poverty. As he ran, each rollinghill would reveal the changing scenery of a developing but stilllargely impoverished city.

“When I started it would take me 45 minutes to get to school.Three years later, it would take me 34 minutes. I treated it like arace,” said the second-year runner. “I didn’tlike to see some of my schoolmates passing me sitting on abus.”

Yves was born in the capital in the spring of 1993, one year beforethe outbreak of the Rwandan Genocide, which left close to 1 millionmostly Rwandan Tutsis dead.

He had just had his first birthday when the Hutu militias beganhunting Tutsis on the streets of Kigali. Marriage between Hutu andTutsi was not uncommon in Rwandan society, though identity waspassed on paternally. Therefore, despite the fact that Yves’mother was a Hutu; he was a Tutsi like his father.

The biological parents Yves never knew were murdered by theirneighbours. Unlike hundreds of thousands of Tutsi children who weretargeted by the roaming militias, Yves survived the genocide withthe protection of his Hutu aunt, Floriane Nyirambabazi.

“She was my mom, my dad, she took care of me,” said thetrack star, elaborating that his aunt also raised “her owndaughter and other children. You would always see five or six kidsin our house, even if she didn’t have enough money to buyfood for everyone, she could provide everyone with shelter. Shebelieves that even the little stuff you have can be shared withother people.”

Widowed by the genocide, Floriane was left to provide for thechildren on her own. With scarce employment opportunities for womenin a poverty stricken country, she would sell bananas at the sideof the road to make money. Fortunately, Yves was eventually able toassist his aunt by contributing a small amount of income.

In Grade 4, the young Rwandan joined a running club coached by alawyer named Jean Dmascene who helped his athletes by paying fortheir primary education fees.

“I couldn’t beat any boys on my team,” remarkedthe Gryphon runner, “so I was put on the girl’steam.” Yves was teased by his young male friends and quit theteam in Grade 6 because he always felt embarrassed at practice.

However Jean would not let him give up so easily, offering Yves 100Rwandan Francs (C15¢) for every practice he attended. With thenewfound motivation of using that money to help his aunt, Yvesnever missed another practice.

As Yves prepared to write the national exam to gain admittance to aJunior Secondary School, he felt it was pointless. Even if he acedthe test, he would not be able to afford the more expensive JuniorSecondary School. “No one in my family had ever gone toschool past Grade 6,” said Yves.

Thanks to further assistance from Jean Dmascene, Yves would be thefirst member of his family to continue his education. The runningcoach paid for half of Yves’ school fees and a charitableorganization that assisted poor students covered the rest.

He began practicing twice a day and taking running more seriously.Gradually, he started to get better and began beating the boys whoused to tease him. However, it would take a greater challenge thanincreased practice time for Yves to become the elite distancerunner he is today.

The young Rwandan had an opportunity to attend a Senior SecondarySchool for Grades 10 to 12 at a school located 11 kilometres fromhis home.

Unable to afford the bus ride let alone the cost of living inresidence, Yves had no choice but to stuff a backpack with hisbooks and uniform, and run 22 kilometres to school and back fivedays week.

Yves used his long distance run over the mountainous landscape as atraining regimen. He timed himself each day, pushing himself to befaster than the day before. After three years, he had knocked oneminute off of every kilometer he ran.

The young runner began winning each race he entered, obliteratingthe competition. In 2009, he won Rwanda’s national 1500mchampionship.

Then one day in spring of 2010, after successfully defending his1500m title, Jean Dmascene said to Yves, “There is a WorldJunior Championship in Canada, we are looking to send the firstRwandan to it. We think you can go.”

Visit tomorrow for part 2 ofYves’ story.

Scott Harrigan
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