It’s super gloomy out, my body hurts and I’m sleep deprived. These all seemed like perfectly valid excuses to skip my run this morning.
But now the guilt is starting to set in, so I suppose the least I can do is write about this moderate obsession of mine that I’ve frequently risked life and limb for… in the most unlikely of places.
So for the rest of you who chose leisure over physical excursion this morning, you can suffer vicariously through my brief tale of another adventure trying to save the chimps in the Congo.
You can donate directly to the sanctuary here to support all the work that goes into protecting the chimps and other wildlife in danger of extinction.
I haven’t gone more than two days without running for most of my adult life. There have been a handful of exceptions, most of which were related to precarious travel circumstances…which I usually found a way to circumvent.
This scenario, however, has taken a little bit longer to navigate. More accurately, the motivation factor has been lacking, especially after experiencing my daily walk to and from work.
My office is located in the Natural Science Research Center. This is the only significant landmark that exists in the village (Lwiro) besides the dilapidated guest house that functions as the ‘fancy’ hotel, local bar, special event center, and wedding venue (for those tolerant enough to endure questionable levels of hygiene and a bathroom with the sink in pieces on the floor).
There is one main, very dusty road that snakes through the heart of Lwiro, connecting to the small villages on either side. The rest of the landscape is cultivated land with a few random collections of banana trees.
Every morning on my way to work, there is always a steady stream of villagers traveling from one village to the next- men strolling along, women hauling unfathomable loads of anything and everything on their backs with children, goats, pigs, and cows trailing behind.
I don’t exactly blend in, which is always acknowledged in some fashion- sometimes with an enthusiastic Jambo and sometimes with a less than friendly glare.
Regardless, anonymity is not an option.
This brief walk admittedly elicits more anxiety than it should at this point, but I’m gradually adapting…except for when I have to pass a group of young boys. Without fail, they approach, avoiding eye contact. Then, right when I think I’ve escaped ridicule, the cheekiest of the group yells out god knows what in Swahili, and they all bust out laughing.
Despite all of this, after a month of never lacing up my shoes, I was beside myself when the new volunteers suggested a run.
We were told the safest route was the main road that winds through the villages. I knew the path well and was prepared for dry, rocky and crowded. But adding in the ‘running factor’ was a whole different animal…with lots of them to dodge.
Imagine walking on an uneven, very dry river bed, completely covered with jagged rocks, deep ruts, and large potholes. 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 small, piercing stones. Then add in a variety of farm animals to navigate- baby goats being the most stubborn, pigs, the most unpredictable.
All of this is somewhat manageable until the path narrows and you realize you’re not making life any easier for the women trying to make it down the same trail balancing twice their weight in tools, wood, sugar cane or any combination of the three 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. They descend out of nowhere, dozens of them trailing behind us, laughing and screaming, Mazungu! Mazungu! (white person) the whole way back. Not exactly the stress-release I was hoping for.
After our first couple of runs, two of the guys we work with, Luc and Simone, asked if they could join us. This has proven to be a gift. Having locals with us means we can roam further out of the village, and they keep the children at bay so we can focus more on dodging chickens and such.
But this long stretch of open road I’ve been craving 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 literally in the dust. And this dust is not to be taken lightly- a chalky, all-consuming version that goes straight for your eyes, forges its way up your nose and settles into a gritty layer coating your lungs, replacing any thought of the fresh oxygen that was previously propelling you forward.
Everyone we pass feels compelled to contribute in some way – cheer us on, remind us 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 the elements I find so annoying. They just take it in stride, enjoying the break from their monotonous journey.
But, it is precisely the adversity of it all that inspires me to join the boys each week, even when I’m exhausted and my body aches. How can I complain to men who do manual labor for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, eats less than I do and run in old hiking boots split along the souls?
And yet, they run, almost every day.
I still wonder what motivates them to run when I know how exhausted and hungry they must be.
But I think I get it. I think they run for the same reasons I do. Running is something we choose to do. We embrace the challenge and stamina it takes, both mentally and physically, to keep going. Even when we are tired or sore or the countless other excuses we conjure up, we do it anyway.
I also know that when I’m struggling- my confidence is low or I feel defeated- running is the most empowering thing I can do. Luc and Simone have little control over their circumstances and next to no prospects for improving them. I would imagine, as I’ve often felt, lacing up their shoes gives them a taste of freedom and sense of power they don’t have in other areas of their lives…even if it’s only for an hour a day.
…even if their path never takes them any further than the dusty road back to Lwiro.
I wanted to share a brilliant, spontaneous reaction to my running tale written by the very talented anonymole.
“Girl, you bein’ chased?”
“Why you runnin’? You late for somethin’?”
“Why you runnin’? You got to go, you know..?”
“Why you runnin’ den?”
Because I can.
“Ah, alright den. You keep runnin’ den. You sure you ain’t bein’ chased?”