Dr Joe Olzacki is the special advisor in genocide and holocaust education at the College of Education of the University of Hartford in Connecticut, in the US. Olzacki first came to Rwanda in 2009, to participate in a human rights dialogue organized by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). During his ten-day stay in the country, he took time off to indulge his other passion – rugby; something that has seen him return to Rwanda several times.
Tell us about your first trip to Rwanda in 2009
At the UNESCO human rights dialogue, I lectured about a program that I did in the United States where I used to teach, which is called the Identity Project. The project started in 2006, to ask the question: What happens if someone strips you of everything that makes you?
Knowing I would be here in ten days, I wanted to meet up with the rugby guys. Then I put an e-mail out to the old Rugby Federation Administration and said I was in town. I went to play rugby and met lots of guys there and that’s also when I saw how much they needed, so from then, every time I am in Rwanda to do projects with the Rwanda Education Board and the education ministry like is the case now, I bring back many things for the rugby boys because I know that they don’t have a lot of money, yet my friends have extra. In rugby we share.
How did you end up in rugby?
I started playing rugby in college in 1997. I played for my school team and was actually president of the University of Hartford’s rugby team.
Then I went to play with the Hartford Wanderers, a division one team, then with Newport Rugby team, which I still play with. I also got invited to play on a tribute team for this man who was killed by a car while training for rugby, so I played in the national tournament and we won that. Then I got invited to join Gypsy Rugby International, which is a worldwide rugby club of men, women and old boys who get to travel to different tournaments about four or five times in a year.
Gypsy is winning team that usually comes in first or second place, because we have people from England, Ireland, whales, France, Malaysia, Canada and the US, and now even in Rwanda.
Alez Araire, the president of the Rwanda Rugby Federation will be travelling to England this September to play with the Gypsies.
And what really is rugby all about?
Rugby is family, period! No matter where I go in the entire world, I just pick the phone, text everybody that I’m coming over, and everybody meets me there. It’s an extended family. I go into Washington DC for a meeting, and put it out on Facebook that I’m coming into Washington for a meeting. Four or five gypsies appear and we have dinner. I go into New Orleans, to Montana or into California, and it’s all family. Psychologically, it’s good because no matter where you are, you have friends to watch out for you.
When you think of what President Paul Kagame says all the time, it’s always about the vision of tomorrow, and that’s what rugby does. Rugby is the vision for tomorrow. It’s always about family, getting better, doing things for community, doing things for other people -so we all get better together.
One thing you can never do is you can’t lie to a rugby player because what you see is what you get. There is no lying, and I respect that. I respect honesty and non corruption and that’s why I’m easily drawn to Rwanda because of its stance against corruption. I’ve met your president, ministers, judges, and people at parliament.
You’re lucky as Rwandans to sleep under a wonderful umbrella that the government provides because it wants to see its people get better.
That’s why I absolutely adore your president.
I think he is one of the most honest men in the world.
You have all these examples of goodness, of devolution, of expectation all mirrored by the Rwandan government. You don’t get to see that often elsewhere.
Rugby vs soccer
Soccer is a very individual sport compared to rugby, because you are there but are sort of part of the team. Rugby only functions if you’re all good. You can have one star on a soccer team, but you have 15 stars on a rugby team. That’s a big difference.
Rugby and wrestling
Wrestling is an individual sport played by individuals, and rugby is a team sport played by a family against another family. And afterwards, it’s all forgotten because we all get along. What happens on the field, stays on the field.
Where else do you see that? It’s good, pure exercise, mental activity, and positivism all rolled in one. How much better does that get?