Oct 24, 2013
With a bag full of books strapped to his shoulders, and tattered running shoes on his feet caked in the red dust of Rwandan dirt, Yves Sikubwabo would run 11 kilometres to school every morning, only to run back home in the afternoon.
With no other form of transportation, the Guelph Gryphon cross country and track star ran up and down the hills of his native Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, for three years in order to get to high school.
Yves ran past markets, memorials and mud brick houses, past churches, military barracks and the airport. He would pass construction, street peddlers, and poverty. As he ran, each rolling hill would reveal the changing scenery of a developing but still largely 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 a race,” said the second-year runner. “I didn’t like to see some of my schoolmates passing me sitting on a bus.”
Yves was born in the capital in the spring of 1993, one year before the outbreak of the Rwandan Genocide, which left close to 1 million mostly Rwandan Tutsis dead.
He had just had his first birthday when the Hutu militias began hunting Tutsis on the streets of Kigali. Marriage between Hutu and Tutsi was not uncommon in Rwandan society, though identity was passed 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 their neighbours. Unlike hundreds of thousands of Tutsi children who were targeted by the roaming militias, Yves survived the genocide with the protection of his Hutu aunt, Floriane Nyirambabazi.
“She was my mom, my dad, she took care of me,” said the track star, elaborating that his aunt also raised “her own daughter and other children. You would always see five or six kids in our house, even if she didn’t have enough money to buy food for everyone, she could provide everyone with shelter. She believes that even the little stuff you have can be shared with other people.”
Widowed by the genocide, Floriane was left to provide for the children on her own. With scarce employment opportunities for women in a poverty stricken country, she would sell bananas at the side of the road to make money. Fortunately, Yves was eventually able to assist his aunt by contributing a small amount of income.
In Grade 4, the young Rwandan joined a running club coached by a lawyer named Jean Dmascene who helped his athletes by paying for their primary education fees.
“I couldn’t beat any boys on my team,” remarked the Gryphon runner, “so I was put on the girl’s team.” Yves was teased by his young male friends and quit the team in Grade 6 because he always felt embarrassed at practice.
However Jean would not let him give up so easily, offering Yves 100 Rwandan Francs (C15¢) for every practice he attended. With the newfound motivation of using that money to help his aunt, Yves never missed another practice.
As Yves prepared to write the national exam to gain admittance to a Junior Secondary School, he felt it was pointless. Even if he aced the test, he would not be able to afford the more expensive Junior Secondary School. “No one in my family had ever gone to school past Grade 6,” said Yves.
Thanks to further assistance from Jean Dmascene, Yves would be the first member of his family to continue his education. The running coach paid for half of Yves’ school fees and a charitable organization 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 who used to tease him. However, it would take a greater challenge than increased practice time for Yves to become the elite distance runner he is today.
The young Rwandan had an opportunity to attend a Senior Secondary School for Grades 10 to 12 at a school located 11 kilometres from his home.
Unable to afford the bus ride let alone the cost of living in residence, Yves had no choice but to stuff a backpack with his books and uniform, and run 22 kilometres to school and back five days week.
Yves used his long distance run over the mountainous landscape as a training regimen. He timed himself each day, pushing himself to be faster than the day before. After three years, he had knocked one minute off of every kilometer he ran.
The young runner began winning each race he entered, obliterating the competition. In 2009, he won Rwanda’s national 1500m championship.
Then one day in spring of 2010, after successfully defending his 1500m title, Jean Dmascene said to Yves, “There is a World Junior Championship in Canada, we are looking to send the first Rwandan to it. We think you can go.”
Visit OUA.ca tomorrow for part 2 of Yves' story.