As surprising as this is, I wasn’t terribly inspired to run when I first arrived, especially after experiencing my daily walk to and from work. Our office is located in the Congolese Research Center for Natural Sciences (CRSN), which is the only significant landmark that exists in Lwiro, other than the dilapidated guest house that somehow still functions as the local bar, special event center, wedding venue and hotel (for those tolerant enough to endure questionable levels of hygiene and sharing a bathroom with a sink resting on its side on the floor). The rest of the landscape is cultivated land with the rare collection of banana trees sprinkled throughout and one main dirt road that connects all the small villages on either side of Lwiro. On my way to work, there is always a steady stream of villagers traveling from one village to the next. Regardless of who it is, I can never walk down the road and expect the passerby to ignore my presence. Sometimes I get an enthusiastic Jambo (Hello in Swahili), sometimes a less than friendly glare, but one thing is for sure-anonymity is out of the question. A group of young boys is most definitely the worst. They slowly approach, all eyes fixed on me as I walk towards them, and just as I pass, the cheekiest of the group will yell out god knows what in Swahili while the others burst out laughing.
Despite all this, after a month without running, I was ecstatic when Ruth and Susan suggested a jog. The path we were told was safe was all uphill, winding through the villages and on the same path that the women and children take to and from the fields and the market. I expected it to be dry, rocky and crowded, but adding in the ‘running factor’ was a whole different experience. Imagine walking on an uneven river bed, completely covered with jagged rocks, deep ruts and large pot holes. Now extract any reminisce of moisture; that is our path. There is nowhere to land that is flat or soft, it is just whether you want to choose the large, slanted rock or go for the collection of smaller jagged stones. And then there are the variety of farm animals to maneuver-the baby goats being the most difficult and the pigs, the most unpredictable. All of this, however, is manageable until the path narrows and you realize that you are not making life any easier for the poor women trying to make it down the same trail with twice their weight in tools, wood, sugar cane, produce, or any combination of all of the above balanced on their heads…usually with added burden of a baby in tow. I have definitely hurled myself into a ditch or two trying to get out of their way, only to have them stop, laugh and cheer us on up the hill. And finally, there are the children. Luckily, it is usually on our way down the hill that they start coming out of the woodwork, by the hundreds it seems, although we don’t dare look back. They all trail behind us, laughing and screaming at the top of their lungs, “Mazungu! Mazungu!” (white person, white person) the whole way down.
After a couple of weeks, we managed to recruit one of the workers, Luc, to join us. Finally, we are free to roam a bit further and out towards the open fields and main road. Having a Congolese with us has helped keep the herd of small children at bay, allowing us to refocus our efforts on dodging chickens and such. However, the long stretch of open road that I so longed for holds its own set of challenges- mainly breathing. It is still dry season here, which means that the occasional UN convoy or random battered vehicle that passes by leaves us quite literally ‘in the dust’; a chalky, brown dust that goes straight for the eyes, and then the nostrils, until it makes its way into a what feels like an impenetrable gritty layer coating your lungs, replacing any thought of fresh oxygen that was previously propelling you forward. Everyone else is traveling by foot, usually in small groups of men or women, and they all feel compelled to contribute in some way – cheer us on, remind us of the fact that we are white (Mazungu! Mazungu!) , laugh at us or even join us. Although I have noted that is usually the women who decide to join us, matching our pace barefoot or in flip-flops, laughing and cheering each other on, clearly unaffected (and certainly not complaining) by the cars, the dust, the rocks; all the things I find ‘uncomfortable’, they just take it in stride, enjoying the opportunity to run…simply because they can.
It is precisely the adversity of it all that inspires me to faithfully join Luc each week, even when I am tired or my body aches. How can I complain to a man who does manual labor 6 days a week for 10 hours a day, eats less than I do and runs in a pair of old hiking boots that are split open along the souls? Yet he still runs, almost every day, because he can, on his own terms-relishing in the freedom, power and confidence that are truly his…even if only for an hour a day on the dry, dusty road to Lwiro.