Bona's Smile

By Kimberly Coats

The day Team Rwanda won Stage 2 at the Tour of Rwanda last week was remarkable not only in the win and the story of Abraham and Valens, but later the same afternoon Bonaventure and I visited with staff from Operation Smile. Operation Smile hosts one to two missions per year in Rwanda and the last one in September was in our hometown of Musanze. They do much needed operations in the field of cleft lips and palates. Bona was born with this condition in 1993.

In February, after only four months on the Team, I wrote about Bona's rise through the ranks of Team Rwanda. I wrote about the stigma engrained even in our own team over a simple scar on his lip. Over the year, Bona's confidence has risen exponentially at the same rate the team's ignorance has declined in regards to Bona's birth defect.

Through a convoluted series of emails, Operation Smile was told of Bonaventure's place as a member of Rwanda's National Cycling Team. On Tuesday last week they came to meet him.

Bona is initially shy, his English is fair, generally he relies a little too much on his best friend and riding partner, Janvier. Get Bona talking, play some music, get him laughing and he's the paramount "goof ball". Bona has grown with the Team and every day we learn more and more about him.

Bona's mother is dead. We are not sure the story behind her death. We do not pry. Bona takes care of his older brother, father and pays for his younger sister's schooling with his salary and race winnings. Bona lives at home with his family when he's not training and racing with Team Rwanda.

The Operation Smile team was so happy to meet Bona. They were hopeful he would be interested in helping promote registration for their next surgery mission which will take place in 2014 in Musanze. In Rwanda 1 in every 1,000 births results in a cleft lip or cleft palate. With a country of almost 12 million people and a birthrate still near six per family, that is an extraordinary amount of children born with this defect. It really should be no big deal. Sadly, it still is. Parents hide their newborn children, embarrassed by the deformity. If the villagers saw their child, the family would be shunned. Parents often do not bring their children to register for the free operation because of the stigma.

When the team from Operation Smile asked when he had had this operation, I said he was born in 1993 so probably sometime around the genocide when western doctors were in Rwanda. Felix Sempoma, one of the Director Sportifs for Team Rwanda, was there along with Bona's sidekick and teammate, Janvier. As we started discussing the timeline of Bona's surgery, Felix said he had it done in Congo (DRC). I looked at him and said, "Was he in Masisi?" (Masisi was the large refugee camp in DRC where Janvier was born)

Felix and Janvier both laughed and said, "No…NOT Masisi!"

Felix then said he had it done when he was four.

All of a sudden I understood completely. Bona was four in 1997, the year of the Insurgency. Philip Gourevitch wrote about Gasore's family in his 2011 article, Climbers. Gasore's father died in 1997 during the Insurgency. Bona's family fled to DRC, where at four, Bona received his much needed operation.

We do not talk about one side versus the other side at Team Rwanda. To us, they are ALL Rwandan young men, Rwandan cyclists. However, every so often conversations such as this smack you upside the head with the reality of 20 years ago. Janvier and Bona, teammates, roommates and best friends were on opposite sides of a brutal time in history not once (1994) but twice (1997), both victims of circumstances beyond their control. Children.

Bona was unsure when asked if he wanted to help. Through miscommunication of translation he thought we wanted him to undergo another surgery. He has had two, his last one done just a few months ago. When we assured him no more surgery, he began to warm to the idea. And then Operation Smile played the video of their 2010 Mission in Rwanda for Felix, Janvier, Bona and I.

As Bona watched this I could see it in his face….everything he had already experienced. His eyes were glued to the screen. As he saw the children go from deformity to where he is now today, he smiled. After the video he and Janvier talked for a minute and he said yes, he would help. We also decided to use the whole team as a support for Bona and these children. If these children and families see a successful young man, a man who overcame his disfigurement and the associated stigma, a young man who has the love and support of his entire team, then perhaps these families will stop hiding their children and get them the much needed surgery.

Team Rwanda is so much more than a cycling team. As the video played I stood there holding back the tears, so proud of the young men I am privileged to work with, young men who are changing their country in so many ways on and off the bike….and look at that SMILE!


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