On Sunday, I asked 50 random people to give me the first thought that entered their minds when I said, “Rwanda.” All 50, without exception, answered with some variation of the word “genocide.” This speaks largely to the unfathomable horrors of what is known as “the Rwandan Civil War” between the Hutus and Tutsis, but it more strongly tells the tale of how little people in this country know about the nations on the African continent. Most are defined by tragedy, if known at all. At best, there is some knowledge of the United States’ and Europe’s complicity in these tragedies. But any sense of the positive: of the myriad strengths, contributions and accomplishments produced throughout the whole of Africa are unknown.
That’s what makes the deeply symbolic and utterly historic accomplishment of one single cyclist all the more important. Her first name, improbably and ever so cinematically, is Joan of Arc. In full, it is Jeanne D’Arc Girubuntu, and over the weekend she became the first Rwandan woman to ever race in a world competition when she competed at the 2015 Union Cycliste Internationale (International Cycling Union) Championships in Richmond, Virginia. Girubuntu was also the only woman from the entire African continent to make the cut and compete. She was one of four Rwandans (along with three men) to travel to Richmond for the race, all part of Team Africa Rising, an initiative housed in Rwanda that trains not only Rwandans, but two nations with their own recent history of conflict, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. It’s sports as a weapon of peace.
In a terrific radio piece by Catherine Komp for WCVE/PBS News in Richmond, Jeanne d’Arc Girubuntu spoke about her groundbreaking efforts:
It’s a very rare opportunity and I’m very glad that I am the first one to be able to do this and I know that by doing this I’m really opening up doors for other female cyclists within the country. It’s just not rare that I’m a female, but it is rare in itself to compete on an international stage especially with World Championships so I’m very happy that I get to be the one to do that.
Jeanne d’Arc was born in 1995, and her entire life was defined by her family’s struggles with poverty and the efforts to rebuild their lives after the 1994–95 Rwandan Civil War, until she found a home on a bicycle. Kimberly Coats, the public relations director for Team Africa Rising, blogged about meeting her in 2015.
As a young girl I remember reading the story of Joan of Arc. I loved Joan of Arc as I’m sure many young girls who read the story did. Joan of Arc was a symbol of strength and power, of religious conviction, of passionate belief, a belief you would die for. Jeanne d’Arc, Rwandan female cyclist, exuded no Joan of Arc like fierceness [when we first met]. She was pleasant, yet shy and her behavior very much in line culturally with how women, especially poor women in Rwanda present themselves. She would not look me in the eye, her handshake was a limp fish. She was a strong cyclist, you could tell, however, not so strong she would stand out beyond the borders of Rwanda.