The view of Lake Kivu from the Serena hotel is interrupted by a public park, with trees so old if they could tell the entire history of Rwanda, if they could talk. You walk through the park to be greeted by a brown strip of beach, then the breath taking expanse of the lake, as far as the eye can see. Peace, calm, but not last weekend, when the world came to visit, and play beach volleyball.
That’s right beach volleyball. In land locked Rwanda. But, as President Kagame wryly observed at a recent conference on air links in Africa, “we are not landlocked, we are land linked”.
True, President Kagame is a tireless promoter of his country, who never misses an opportunity to talk up its advantages, and you might say that he would say that, wouldn’t he. But, as he has also said before, he does in fairness tend to speak as he finds, to tell it as it is, and he might retort that you need only walk through the park, and trust the evidence of your own eyes.
And had you been in Rubavu at the weekend, you would indeed have seen, a scene to banish all chatter of landlocked. Lake Kivu, its sun kissed waters shimmering, seemingly changing colours with every blink, now turquoise, now green.
Boats, including an ambulance boat, bobbing gently, a jet ski, now and again rudely trying to disturb the serenity of it all, then failing and giving up, to bob up and down in unison with the boats.
It’s a view to stare at and while away the entire day, and yet, no one was paying any attention to it. The reason for the neglect of such natural beauty was obvious on shore.
On the beach national flags from around the world, fluttered gently in response to the breeze from the lake. The beach was divided into sections that were now volleyball courts. On the practice courts, in their twos, players were warming up, stretching, chatting.
On the main court, both men and women’s teams from as far wide as Denmark, England, Japan, the Netherlands, are treating the locals to what has rapidly become one of the world’s most glamourous sporting competitions.
The courts shelter between stands, with so close spectators to the action, they can comment on the eyes of the players. The Rwandan flag stands proudly alongside its visitors, but, most members of Team Rwanda are sitting in the stands at the front, spectators. No one however seems unduly disappointed by this. No sooner had Rwanda been knocked out than the spectators cheerfully divided themselves into Dutch, Danish, English and Japanese supporters.
Like the coaches, the spectators are playing a long game. This is the first time the competition has come to Rwanda, it is a world championship, Rwanda will improve, relax, learn, enjoy the spectacle and have fun.
In fact, Team Rwanda, men and women, acquitted themselves well, a fact acknowledged by their competitors. The English pair of Jessica Grimson, and Victoria Palmer, who advanced to the bronze medal position at the expense of Rwanda’s Charlotte Nzayisenga, and Judith Hakizimana, praised their opponents for a competitive match. “They played very well, and with more competitions, they can be even more competitive”.
A sentiment echoed by the women’s coach Jean-Luc Mbonyuwontuma. “We didn’t come just to make up numbers, we expected to advance to the finals, but, we need more competitive matches beyond our own borders”.
Rwanda’s participation was in itself already a win. The International Federation of Volleyball, dubbed FIVB, requires federations in each country to have reached a certain standard, before their players can play in the world tournament. The standard is self evidently high. The Kivu tournament was a stage 1 competition, which means all players taking part were considered professional.
As coach Mbonyuwontuma put it, “Stage 1 means that players play beach volleyball, rather than playing volleyball in the sand”, something the rest of us might do.
The pinnacle of professional beach volleyball is stage 5. Even at stage 1, each pair of players will usually have played together for a number of years. The English pair had been together seven years. Mexine van Driel, and Iris Reinders of the Netherlands, who won the women’s gold medal were the exception, having been together only a few months.
Japan took the gold medal in a closely fought the men’s competition, disappointing Denmark, who like their countrywomen had to settle for a creditable silver.
For Rwanda, the target is more competitions worldwide, and a move to stage 2. For that, they will need sponsorship from the private sector. A call issued by the President of the Rwandan Federation, Leandre Karekezi.
“We need the private sector to come in and sponsor the teams” he pleaded, “and there is a lot the private gains with this sponsorship. By sponsoring us for instance, you can reach both the local, and international audience ”.
The Rwanda Federation expects to host more competitions, something every player supported enthusiastically. Rwanda they all declared, was to which you return again, and again.
All photos here