Running in the Congo: dodging goats, tasting freedom

Morning Exchange

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 Natural Science Research Center, which is the only significant landmark that exists in Lwiro besides 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 its sink laying upside down 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 connecting 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, and I’ve quickly learned that my presence will never be ignored.  Sometimes I’ll get an enthusiastic Jambo (Hello in Swahili), sometimes a less than friendly glare. But anonymity is definitely out of the question.

A group of young boys is definitely the worst. They slowly approach, all eyes staring straight through me. 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 of this, after a month without running, I was ecstatic when Ruth and Susan suggested a jog. The safest route we were told to take was all uphill, winding through the villages on the same path the women and children take to and from the fields and market area.

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 potholes. Now extract any reminisce of moisture. That is our path. There is nowhere to land that is flat or soft. It’s just a matter of 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 navigate-the baby goats being the most difficult and the pigs, the most unpredictable.

All of this, however, is somewhat manageable. But then the path narrows and you realize you’re 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 a baby or two in tow. I have definitely hurled myself into a ditch more than once trying to get out of their way, only to have them stop, laugh and cheer us on up the hill.

And then, there are the children. Out of nowhere, they start coming out of the woodworks, like hundreds of them (at least that how it sounds). 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 realized one of the workers, Luc, ran regularly and wanted to join us. We were finally free to roam a bit further, out towards the open fields and main road. Having a Congolese with us has helped keep the children at bay, allowing us to focus our efforts on dodging chickens and such.

But the long stretch of open road that I longed for holds its own set of challenges… mainly breathing. It’s still dry season here, which means the occasional UN convoy or random battered vehicle that passes by leaves us quite literally in the dust. And it’s the chalky, brown kind that goes straight for your eyes, and then the nostrils, until it settles into a gritty layer coating your lungs, replacing any thought of the 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 indeed white/Mazungu, and sometimes even join us. It’s usually the women who join in, matching our pace barefoot or in flip-flops, laughing and cheering each other on, clearly unaffected by all thing things I find so annoying. 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’m tired and my body aches. How can I complain to a man who does manual labor for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, eats less than I do and runs in a pair of old hiking boots split open along the souls?

And yet he runs, almost every day.

I’ve thought about this a lot. Why does he run when I know how exhausted and hungry he has to be. I can’t say for sure, but I think it might simply be because he can.

Running is the one thing that’s his, on his own terms. He can relish in the freedom- the power and strength he alone has cultivated…even if only for an hour a day on the dry, dusty road to Lwiro.

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