Life on Two Wheels: Frederick Ndabaramiye and Christie Abel on a ride that resonates
August 19, 2016
Editor's note: For countless Summit County residents, a bicycle is more than a machine — it's a lifestyle. Every week during the summer, we'll ask our most adventurous residents, "Where has your bike taken you?"
This story — the story of how an adventurous Frisco resident who wanted to work with African mountain gorillas instead formed a relationship with Rwandan civil war survivors, spreading their story by bicycle despite severe physical handicaps — is indeed a circuitous tale.
But it's par for the course for Christie Abel, a graphic designer and traveler who's been lucky enough to follow her dreams and explore the world. Some of her best memories come from a seemingly unlikely bicycle journey across post-war Rwanda.
While she was lucky to take the journey, Abel says the real focus has always been the gloriously positive and outgoing Frederick Ndabaramiye, a young man from Gisenyi, Rwanda she first befriended on her initial journey to central Africa in 2002.
A few years back, Abel convinced Ndabaramiye to speak locally and share his story with Summit County, and the striking image of a young man who's missing his hands yet still rides a mountain bike has probably stuck in many people's memories.
To the Rwandan mountains
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Oddly, helping the many orphans and survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was not Abel's initial plan. This tribal conflict killed as many as a million Tutsi in a 100-day period, and left more than 2 million displaced.
"I had always dreamt of the working with the mountain gorillas, but after the genocide it was a place that you'd never really think of visiting," Abel says. "I had a degree in marketing and was working in graphic design, and I wondered how I could help."
Abel says her plans saw reality with the help of Brad Odekirk, the late Summit Daily photographer who died 10 years ago this summer. He had international travel experience and made some connections for Abel in Rwanda.
"I called him to talk and, five weeks later, I was on a plane to Africa," Abel says. "I'd rented my house, given away my business contacts to friends and was planning on spending six months on a project teaching kids the importance of animal species and how valuable they were to the economics of the country."
Despite a life-changing encounter with a group of 31 gorillas, the project Abel expected didn't materialize as she planned. Instead, she met up with an American ex-pat who ran the Imbabazi orphanage for war-survivor children.
There, Abel taught art and English to the kids, including Ndabaramiye — "an absolute bundle of joy with an infectious smile," she says, despite his many wounds. His hands were cut off during the atrocities and he spent many years building basic mobility and adaptability skills.
Abel returned home and kept in sporadic contact with Ndabaramiye and other former students. In 2013, Frederick got in touch and explained that he'd helped found I Am Able, a skills and education charity serving the street kids and underprivileged of Rwanda. It also helped him deal with the strong cultural stigma felt in the country for those permanently disabled by wartime mutilation.
"He'd initially had prosthetics but he'd actually learned how to play a guitar and ride a motorcycle without them, and he said that he wanted to ride his bicycle across Rwanda — a place they call the land of a thousand hills, and somewhere where roads are not paved too well," Abel remembers. "'You should come ride with us,' he told me."
Abel again had a window of opportunity to leave her work stateside, and, in November 2013, she returned to Rwanda to take part in the group's ride. She also helped a variety of participants — some missing legs, some with major hip dysplasia — travel to rural villages and share their stories.
"I had really wanted to see all the kids again and it was great to just watch them evolve over the course of two official rides," Abel says. "Wherever we would go, there would be hundreds of people surrounding us."
As the only Caucasian female on the ride, Abel says the cultural curiosity in most villages helped provide a counterpoint for Frederick and his fellow riders.
"Ultimately, the important thing was rural disabled kids being able to see other disabled kids," Abel says. "Frederick and his kids were able to collect money to help supply books and school uniforms, and teach the locals valuable handicrafts, all as a way of giving back to the community."
It's perhaps fitting that the name of Abel's local business, Laughing Hands Studio, offers a tribute to the courageous youngsters she worked with and continues to support from Colorado — where she's an active mountain bike rider and telemark skier.
For more information on the organization and other rides they have conducted, visit iamableucc.wordpress.com.
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