Team Rwanda

Interview with Kimberly Coats, Team Rwanda's director of marketing and logistics

Interview with Kimberly Coats, Team Rwanda’s director of marketing and logistics

Team Rwanda’s Marketing Director shares the dedication of all those involved with this singular cycling team.

Can you tell us about the history of the Rwanda Cycling Team?

The Rwanda Cycling Team started in 2006 when Tom Ritchie invited Jonathan Boyer to come over and help run a race. That’s when they saw Adrien Niyonshuti and a couple of other riders. Boyer liked what he saw at the race in 2006 so a year later, he came back and tested riders and that was the beginning of Team Rwanda.

And what brought you to Rwanda, originally?

I came to Rwanda in April of 2009 as a volunteer for the organization Project Rwanda, which is about the bicycle as a tool and symbol of hope. So that’s when I met the team and Jock Boyer. I started trying to help wherever I could and since I had a business background, that was useful. Then Project Rwanda offered me a paid position so I decided to stay.

And what is your position with the team now?

Technically, I’m the director of marketing and logistics but I also do laundry, make meals, do yoga, handle nutrition, fundraising, passports, visas… Anything Jock Boyer doesn’t do, I do.

What was your idea of Rwanda when you first came and how has it changed?

I didn’t have a real impression of Rwanda because I had never really traveled very much before coming here and I had only been to Africa once before this. I had read an excellent book by Philip Gourevitch about the Rwanda genocide, but that’s was it. I had no idea what to expect, and I still don’t. Every day something new comes at me. What I’ve realized is that I can’t help the world. I can’t change Rwanda. All I can do is focus on changing it for one person. And if I do that—whether the person is Adrien or Nathan or Rafiki—and their life is better, then I’ve been successful. And that’s it. I think that as Americans, we have this grand ideal that we can change the world, we can lift everyone out of poverty and change their life for the better… that’s a complete misconception. I think you just have to focus on what you can do for one person. And if I can do it for one person, then the next day I try to do it for another person.

Can you tell me a little bit about the history of Rwanda? I know that people in Rwanda find it difficult to talk about it… 

Well, Rwanda has a long history. Actually, they are just celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of their independence, that is, the end to colonial rule from Belgium. And this week they are also celebrating Liberation Day, which is when Kagame’s forces came in and restored order to the country in 1994. The Belgians had a systematic method of separating the population and they separated them into two main groups, Tutsis and Hutus. And over the years, there were conflicts between these two main groups—conflicts whose causes I think that none of us totally understand—and in 1994, after the Hutu president was assassinated, the genocide started in April and in one hundred days, almost a million people were killed. And in July of 1994, Kagame came in and restored order. But since then, the country has totally evolved. Conciliation is a word that you will hear over and over again. It’s safe here. I’m not Rwandan and I don’t know what will happen but I hope it continues to grow the way it has because it is an amazing country to work with. We have a Cycling Federation here that is top notch and that makes doing our work really easy. They are also very helpful and supportive of the team. They help us when they can with plane tickets and we get a lot of support from the Minister of Sports as well. Not a lot of financial support, but they do support us because this team has really become the Rwandan team. This is their team, their riders, their boys.

Tell us a little bit about Rwanda and sports. Do you consider Rwanda a sporting nation?

Well, they love football—soccer, that is. And really, cycling. This is a cycling crazy country and it’s become even more so. Every year at the Tour of Rwanda, there are more and more spectators. Last year, there were three million people who came out for it. So I think it really is a sporting country and I’m just really happy that cycling is part of that.

I’d like to talk a little bit about bicycles in Rwanda. Is it easy to get bicycles in Rwanda? I’m interested in both regular bikes and racing bikes.

The answer is no to both. Getting bicycles into Rwanda is really difficult–I’m talking about the kind of bicycle that any American just goes into Walmart and buys. The bicycles here are generally cheap single speed bikes imported from India or China. And they carry around hundreds of pounds of cargo! I said they were cheap, but in local terms, they are really expensive when you consider their quality. And it’s really the only option. There are no bike stores here. If you want anything other than your regular working bike, you have to bring it into the country yourself. For the team, all of the bikes and all of the tools we have pretty much all came here in somebody’s suitcase… from America or South Africa! So it’s really difficult. European and American riding teams have no idea how good they have it. If something breaks, it’s fixed within an hour. If something breaks on one of our guy’s bikes, it might take three months to fix while we wait for someone to bring us the part! So that’s the brutal reality of it.

What motivates the team?

Good question! Every rider is different. Adrien rides to forget. When he gets off the bike, that’s when his problems begin. The headaches. Because that’s when he starts to remember the genocide. I think that’s why Adrien rides. Nathan rides just to have a nice life. He just built a beautiful house and he’s really good with his money. In terms of cycling, he knows that he’s never going to make the Tour de France; he’s already thirty-one years old. Now some of the younger kids like Jean de Dieu dream of being the first black Africans to ride in the Tour de France. They talk about it. And I think that all of them do it to take care of their families. Because culturally here, if you are successful, you take care of your family. One of our youngest riders just bought a house for his family. And he’s twenty! It’s a tiny little house that eight people sleep in. But he built that house with his earnings from Team Rwanda. So they all ride for different reasons, but one thing they all have is the desire to take care of those around them and share their success.