(The following was written by Sean Leech and his dad Tim. Sean was the winner of our 2014 Grand Prize Adventure Trip to Rwanda to visit Team Rwanda Cycling during the Tour du Rwanda Cycling Event.)
Our journey started on April 26th, 2014. It was a day after a rare southern California rain. Sean (12) and I had ridden the 10 mile course together the previous 3 years but decided to ride the 25 mile course in 2014. Sean is an athletic kid, does well in school and a fairly accomplished competitive swimmer for a 12 year old. He is bright and generally has a big heart. In 2013 we agreed that the 10 mile ride was not challenging enough and his current mountain bike would not serve the purpose for the more challenging rides. We had purchased him a new bike for his birthday, a Giant Trance 27.5, and he trained as much as he could leading up to the event. In addition to participating in the ride, Sean also helped fill rider bags on the Thursday as he had at least once before.
Sean rode extremely well in spite of all the muddy conditions and if you ask him, out sprinted the old man at the end of the course. The sprint has become our tradition at the end of nearly every ride. The “wins” are becoming more difficult for me to win legitimately as Sean grows and develops. Following the ride and father/son bantering about who won our sprint and why, we went home, showered, changed and came back to eat and participate in the raffle with no expectation of winning. As we all know now, the 50MR 2014 would be much different as Sean was the last man standing when the trip to Rwanda was raffled off.
Fast forwarding to the trip, I will be forever grateful that I was allowed to “chaperon” Sean, at my expense, due to his age. Neither of us had ever traveled internationally and for me personally, travel was never anything I really aspired to do but I had a keen desire for Sean to experience the effects of the 50MR full circle. While I would be happy to expound upon all the great things that are going on with Team Rwanda, I decided that those interested in reading would much rather see this through the eyes of a young teenager. After all, he did win the prize. I was merely there as a guest with the VIP. In hindsight, I am convinced that Sean winning this was not a random event and that the experience was as influential for the team as it was for Sean, because of his youth. Children simply have a way to attract and bond, with relatively few hang-ups, or preconceived notions about what should be or not. I hope you enjoy hearing about Sean’s trip and that his experience helps us all to do just a little more than we would have done otherwise. I have added a few comments to provide background or other information surrounding individuals, the culture, etc.
Dad: Sean you were the winner of the trip to Rwanda. What were your first thoughts when you were the only one left standing as the winner for a trip to Rwanda?
Sean: Oh my gosh, I am trying to remember. When the ticket was called, I couldn’t believe it. I really wasn’t sure if I would be going and had to double check the number to make sure it was me. I have wanted to go on mission trip somewhere in Africa. Even though this was not a mission, it had some mission like qualities and it was cool that it was in Africa.
Dad: What was it like getting ready for the trip?
Sean: I had to get a passport and vaccinations. One of the cool things that happened was the team sent me a couple of videos. The first one was really early on after I won. The video was individual interviews of riders. Each of the riders were interviewed saying “hi Sean”, Thank you Sean, I can’t wait to meet you Sean. One of the riders that were really funny was Rocky. Rocky was struggling a little. The team was laughing and so was Rocky as he struggled to say hello and my name. I got to meet Rocky. He is now the coach of the women’s development team and his English has gotten a lot better. I think he goes to the English classes that Kelsi teaches (Kelsi is Weston Pope’s wife. Weston is the Jr. Development Team Coach. Kelsi teaches English and life building classes like time management and money management to the riders. Part of the effort is to enhance the riders’ educational experience and prepare them for other areas when they retire from racing). The videos made me even more excited to go on the trip. Mainly because the riders seemed just as excited to meet me as I was to go and just being a kid and all. I still have the videos and watch them occasionally.
Dad: Did you ever have any concerns about the current events such as the Ebola scare or terrorist attacks?
Sean: I didn’t really have any concerns. I wasn’t nervous about anything. In addition to the videos, we also received email’s from Kim (Kim is Jock Boyer’s wife and pretty much keeps things pumping at Team Rwanda. The riders call her Michichu. It is an endearing and affectionate term for “old lady”; certainly not in the sense that we would think of it here in the States. Kim is a woman of strength. Passion for the team and the Team’s mission is an understatement. She is a co-leader with Jock not a detail goes unnoticed.) and had a conference call with her early before swim practice one Saturday morning. All of this made me feel like they were going to take care of me and that I would be safe. Besides, none of that stuff was occurring in Rwanda and I trusted that you and mom would not let me go somewhere that was unsafe. Watching “Rising from Ashes” and other video on the Team Rwanda website also helped me understand some stuff before we left.
Dad: Were your teachers’ at school supportive or give you any special assignments?
Sean: I had one teacher that was really supportive. His name is John Hartl. He is my art teacher. A couple of weeks before the trip we started making masks out of clay. I had the idea of making a Rwandan mask. A couple of days before he rushed to get the mask into the kiln so I could take it to Rwanda. He also called you and mom the night before we left to let us know it was ready. I decided not to take the mask as I did not want it to get damaged and it wasn’t painted yet. I also wasn’t’ sure how a mask would be received because of the genocide. After we went to the Golden Monkeys I picked out a mask to take Mr. Hartl as a gift.
Mr. Hartl also had me take pictures using the rule of 1/3s. I took some pictures of the volcanos and countryside for my project.
Dad: What did you enjoy most about the Country of Rwanda? What surprised you most about the country?
Sean: What surprised me the most about Rwanda was how close the people of Rwanda seem to be to one another and how family oriented they are. At the compound, all the riders would sit together before and after the meals talk to each other. When you see people walking down the street they would often be holding hands or have their arm around each other as friends. We don’t normally see people doing that in the states.
I was also surprised to see how clean the country was. I had seen pictures of Rwanda and saw how beautiful it was but thought there would be more pollution. I really enjoyed how beautiful and green the country was. When we walked on the streets of Musanze where the Team Rwanda compound is, people (mostly kids) would come up beside you and ask you your name. They were really interested in us and friendly. The younger kids would run beside us when we went mountain biking or come up to us when we were hiking and were excited to see the muzungu which means “white traveler”.
It was kind of funny when I learned that “Oh Yea” actually means “No” in Kinyarwandan. The riders would ask us a question, and looked a little confused if we said “Oh Yea” because it would mean the opposite of what they expected to hear. Fortunately we learned this early on.
Dad: What was it like hanging around the Team Rwanda riders?
Sean: I got to hang out with the riders a lot and we ate with them at every meal. They would ask me a lot of questions about what it is like in America, what I like to do. They were really interested in learning about me and my family. I really enjoyed playing Connect 4 with Janvier Hadi and Jonathan (the rider, not Rafiki’s son) and hanging out like I was one of the guys. Jonathan is the Connect 4 champion. He is really good at it but I did beat him in a couple of games. All of the riders were all real friendly. One night before the prologue in Kigali I got to hang out with a bunch of the riders in Janvier’s room. We all asked each other a lot of questions and I helped Nathan with his iPod. They all seemed really interested in technology which I am also interested in. They enjoy listening to music and playing games and some of them are on Facebook or other social media.
Dad: What did you ask them about?
Sean: One of the questions I asked them was why they wanted to become cyclist. Their responses were like it was a better opportunity then working in the fields and would help them take better care of their families (Riders on the National Team receive $100 per month. The national average income is somewhere in the neighborhood of $250 per year. There is appears to be a significant separation in social class and as one would imagine there is really no middle class. Some of the riders have been able to build homes and take care of their family which can be as much as 10 or more brothers, sisters and others. Team Rwanda also supports locals that help around the compound as housekeepers, guards, groundskeepers, cooks and the like. In reading Kim’s blog over 200 Team Rwanda family members and locals are supported by Team Rwanda).
Dad: What did the riders tell you that had the greatest impact on you?
Sean: One of the riders said that they may not have a lot of money but we are all really close. I don’t want to say the names of the riders, but when one of the riders found out that I was a swimmer, he told me that he had a brother that drowned. I thought that was really sad. He also told me that 6000 franc could provide food for a month (6000 francs is equivalent to about $8.34 US Dollar).
Dad: Do you keep in touch with any of the riders?
Sean: I am friends with a couple them on Facebook and we send messages back and forth occasionally.
Dad: You got to go mountain biking. What was that like?
Sean: I rode a Scott. The riding was different as where we rode was not isolated like here. It was kind of like urban mountain biking. We did ride on some single track through fields and behind fields. We also rode on streets as well as on unpaved roads with Weston. People were working and active on and off the streets where we rode. I am sure there is definitely more single track but the trails were not as established as ours. (Team Rwanda will be hosting an international cross country mountain bike near the compound in 2015).
Dad: Tell us some of the other fun things you got to do when you were there.
Sean: All of it was fun. I went trekking to see the Golden Monkeys, riding on the back of a motorcycle with the team training ride and riding in the support cars with Jock and Daniel (Daniel is the Team Coach and will be traveling from Colorado to join us in the 50MR in April). Riding in the support car during the prologue was kind of like riding in a rally car.
We also rode on the back of motorbikes with a couple of race workers. They were from the UK. There names were Dan and Pete. They put the thrill in the ride. I know you said not to tell my mom how fast we went but it was pretty darn fast. Above any speed limit I have seen posted.
Also, it does not really fall under the fun category but I am glad I got to go to the genocide museum to learn more about some of the hardship the country has gone through.
Dad: You also got to meet some pretty important and famous people.
Sean: One day at lunch, I got to meet the Belgium ambassador and someone from the Rwandan Cycling Federation. During the prologue when I was riding in the team car with Jock, Kimberly asked me to sit out a turn so the Japanese ambassador could go for a ride. I was in the team car with Jock when Janvier raced the prologue. That was exciting especially since Janvier and I had become friends. (Janvier won the prologue and kept the yellow jersey through the first stage. For those who may not follow road racing, the prologue is a short time trial).
I also met a man named Bernard. Bernard won the first Tour of Rwanda. I am not sure how long ago that was but I know it was before the race was an international race. We saw him in Kigali at the prologue and also saw him at the end of the first stage which I think was about 90 KM from Kigali. He rode his bike there (Bernard’s bike was by US standards thrashed. Pretty interesting that to keep his tires from going flat he doesn’t run tubes. This is probably due to money or lack of availability or both. He runs a tire inside a tire. He is legendary. We passed him on the way back. He must have been riding his bike back home.)
Adrian Niyonshuti was at the race (Adrian is currently sponsored by MTN Quebeca and was the first Rwandan Olympian. He raced in the 2012 Olympics in Mountain Biking). We took a picture with him and Janvier after Janvier won the prologue.
I did not know much about Chrissie Willington (Chrissie is a 4 time Kona Ironman winner and is possibly going to help out with the Woman’s development team, she may also be at the 2015 50MR). We went to the Genocide Museum with her and had tea with her a couple of times. She was really nice and also took a picture with us.
Everybody on the compound wanted to help the riders succeed. I saw how committed they are. Some of them were volunteers. It helped me understand why you like to help out with the 50 mile ride, what it does for some of the people of Rwanda and makes me want to help out more.
Dad: In going there, you saw that Team Rwanda was having a much bigger impact than just a bicycle team or club. Can you explain?
Sean: Kimberly mentioned that it was a big deal that Team Eritrea and Ethiopia got to be in the race together because there has been political differences between the two countries. They were also at the compound together for 3 weeks. The riders from the different countries had a competition one night. That was funny to see them do traditional dances. Team Rwanda seemed like they were goofing off more doing “booty” dancing in stuff. It was really funny to watch Jonathan (Rafiki’s son).
I understand that there were over 2 million people that watched the race. The people lined the streets. It was actually pretty crazy to see how many people were interested and fun to be a VIP.
Dad: What were some of the influential things that happened to you while you were there?
Sean: How much work and how young some of the kids were when they start to work. When we were hiking to the forest where the Golden Monkey’s were, the guide stopped a kid that just happened to be my same age which is 13. He was carrying potatoes on his head. They weighed about 15 kilos. The guide told me that he does this every day to help support his family. I also got to put the potatoes on my head like he did and carry them a few feet. It was pretty heavy and seemed like you could get injured pretty easy especially since the ground was slippery from rain and uneven. A couple of people slipped and fell on it that were on the Golden Monkey tour with us.
Jonathan was like my little brother when I was there. He is really active, competitive and outgoing. He is Rafiki’s son and lives on the compound with his dad. We played a lot. He really likes bikes and riding. He is just a normal kid. I wanted him to come home with us. We also got to ride on the pump track that Weston built for the Jr. Development team.
Dad: In closing, is there anything else you want to say about the trip?
Sean: I appreciate Team Rwanda for giving me this opportunity. It helped me to understand that it is important to give to others that have different circumstances or maybe less fortunate and helped to inspire me to volunteer for this or other areas I am interested in.