RWAMAGANA — At the corner of a dusty road, Jeanne d’Arc Girubuntu, 22, waits in the yard of her home near Rwamagana, in eastern Rwanda. Her handshake is hesitant and she looks away. Aside from a group of children staring at her in awe, it is almost hard to believe that we are standing in front of Rwanda's cycling champion.

But once she slips on her cycling jersey, the shy young woman is transformed. She puffs out her chest and her gaze turns confident.

"When I first started training in 2012, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to go back. But in the end, I love cycling so much. I like winning and being first.” It is this competitive spirit that helps her drive biases out of Kenya.

An exceptional racer

While Rwanda ranks fifth on the Global Gender Gap Report and can boast having the most female Parliament in the world (64% women), it still remains a patriarchal society, primarily in rural areas, where a girl’s future is in the house. Not outside, let alone on a bike.

Jeanne d’Arc, whose first name is taken from the French historical icon Joan of Arc, is an exception. She is an out-of-the-ordinary racer in a country where the champions of the male cycling team are considered royalty. One of them, Adrian Nyonshuti, star of the documentary Rising From Ashes, was the first cyclist from Rwanda to be selected to compete in the 2012 London Olympics. He was the one who inspired and led the way for Jeanne d’Arc.

She followed his rise and grew to envy the freedom enjoyed by the male cyclists on the “Tour du Rwanda”. Without a second thought, she joined the Adrian Niyonshuti Cycling Academy and start training. She became a member of the national team in 2014.

Training with the boys was hard, but it forced me to improve.

But the road was full of obstacles for the young woman. In her village, her love for cycling was not always well-received. “In the beginning, some people in the community told me I had to stop," she said. "Now these same people are cheering for me and telling me to keep riding!”

She also has to deal with loneliness. In training, she is surrounded by boys. In international competitions, she is the only woman cycling for Rwanda: “During the 2015 road world championships in Richmond, in the U.S., I was proud to be the only black woman competing. But cycling is a team sport. I’d like to have other girls by my side, to help and encourage me. Without them, I can't improve.”

Richard Mutabazi, director of the Africa Rising Cycling Center, wants to fight Jeanne d'Arc's loneliness. He launched a recruiting campaign in all of Rwanda's provinces, with the goal of creating a women’s cycling team. “Boys come to us spontaneously. We have to look for the girls. We still have to educate people to change the way they think, especially in cycling clubs. We want girls to have the same opportunities as boys.”

Jeanne D'arc Buruntu in her home town in Rwanda Photo: Julie Kasinski/LE MONDE

The pursuit of equality is paradoxically sought through a difference in treatment. “Families are reluctant when I call them. They wonder who this man is, who wants to recruit their daughter," Mutabazi explains. "We have to train and treat them differently so they feel comfortable. They need to be surrounded by other women.” The center plans to recruit female trainers, masseuses, and mechanics, fully devoted to Rwanda’s future women’s team.

Jeanne d'Arc says this is a mistake. “Training with the boys was hard; they are physically and technically stronger. But it forced me to improve.”

Despite the hardships and prejudice, Jeanne d’Arc only has one priority and passion: Cycling. Still, she says that if she ever decides to get married, she will stop racing: “But I’ll become a trainer. To help other girls cycle, discover other countries and be more free.”