87. You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

87. You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

The secret of cross country is to do everything we do on the track and take it into the bush.
 ~Mike Koskei, former national coach of Kenya

“Do you think you’ll pack shorts to run in?” Recently I’d received a string of messages from this strange girl who had found my blog online. At that point, we didn’t really know much about each other, but it didn’t really matter. We had one monumental thing in common: we were about to embark on an incredible journey as US Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) in the tiny, primarily Muslim, West African country of The Gambia, and we needed to know exactly what to fit into the two allotted suitcases we would live from for the next two years. After doing a little more research and discovering that a woman showing her knees in a village is akin to showing up to a dinner date topless, I decided that I would bring one pair of shorts for running in the “city” near the coast, but also a pair of three-quarter length synthetic work-out pants to be on the safe side. After all, everything I had read about The Gambia never failed to mention the hot season highs reaching 120 degrees in some parts of the country.

We arrived as Trainees to a large coastal town in The Gambia at the beginning of February, in the midst of the “cold season.” The combination of an orientation session in blustery Washington, D.C. with thirty-six hours of travel left me and a couple of other Trainees anxious to expend some of the energy that had been accumulating for the past week. What better way to do that, while exploring our new surroundings, than to go on a run?

Along with a few casual runners like myself and Shorts Stranger, my group happened to include a triathlete and a guy who ran for Team Nike before coming to Gambia. I remember our first run vividly. A more experienced PCV offered to take us on a route she enjoyed when she came down to the Kombos, the semi-urban area near the coast. When Shorts Stranger and I showed up at the meeting spot wearing the exact same, single pair of shorts each of us brought, it was friends at first run, despite ultimately being placed on opposite sides of the country. It was 6 PM and approximately 90 degrees… cold season, huh?

I was perturbed by the ridiculously large quantity of sand on the roadside. I sought solace in the assumption that the surplus of sand was a result of the proximity to the beach and that once we moved to our villages, there wouldn’t be as much. Obviously, I’d missed that National Geographic series on West African topography. But then we were taken down a path that placed the Atlantic Ocean in our periphery and as the sun began to set over the cliffs on which we were running, I knew this was one hobby not getting left in the dust.

Here is what it’s like to be a runner in West Africa, more specifically, a young, white female in a reserved Muslim country. Imagine if you will, you are in a public place, perhaps a shopping mall or supermarket, with many people going about their purpose. But your purpose isn’t to shop. Your purpose is to go for a run and you have no choice but to run around the store in front of all these people. This causes confusion among the shoppers, many of whom will choose the wrong brand of bread as a result of staring at you while you pass. What’s more, every hundred meters or so, a dollar bill falls out from the wad of cash you forgot to remove from your pocket. Each time, without fail, a handful of shoppers make it their mission in life to get your attention by shouting “Runner!!! Heyyyyy, RUNNER!!” the only obvious name which represents who you are to them. They will shout this over and over, whether you acknowledge them or not.

On top of that, some wise guy decides he’s going to recreate that running scene in Forrest Gump and before you get the chance to turn down his question to join you running, he’s trotting along beside you, asking “You a’right, mate?” and “From which country?” However, some of the shoppers think what you are doing is equivalent to saving small children from a burning building, so they take it upon themselves to be your personal cheerleader, shouting such phrases as “Keep it up, boss lady,” “Strong girl,” and my personal favorite, “Champion sport woman!”

In the villages where most PCVs serve it is almost unheard of to see a woman running. Women pound rice and millet with mortars and pestle the size of livestock, with babies strapped to their backs. They wash basin after basin of their family’s clothes by hand, each bucket of water arduously fetched. They cook all the meals from scratch, hand filleting boney fish upon boney fish after 20 minutes of sifting through the previous day’s pounded rice to remove unwanted debris, but not before chopping firewood. The fortunate girls get to attend school in addition to the aforementioned. They don’t run for pleasure or exercise. Running is something only boys do, most likely wearing plastic jelly sandals, not even proper tennis shoes, when training for football.

Despite the Peace Corps protocol of placing each volunteer in separate villages to work with host country counterparts, I managed to maintain a series of running partners. During our first three months of language, culture and technical training, before swearing in as a volunteer and moving to a permanent site, I lived in the same village as Team Nike. We stayed in separate compounds with Mandinka host families, one of the predominant Gambian tribes. One of the first Mandinka phrases Team Nike and I learned, besides “It’s hot” and “My stomach is paining me,” was “I’m going running.” Our evening runs into the African bush became somewhat of a therapy session in which we contemplated our new environment while challenging homesickness and the struggle of maintaining our American identities.

Nothing brings you closer to a running partner than amoebic dysentery, at which point we would once again take advantage of our newly acquired language skills, and make light of our unusual situation. When I moved to a larger urban town at the start of my placement, I began running with the PCV whose job I took over, as she had decided to remain in Gambia for a few more months in order to work with another organization. Unwanted attention in that town was much more rampant than in the smaller villages, especially with the excitement of seeing not one, but two white females race by on the main road. Once again, though, time spent in motion together proved fecund, as we discussed relationships, developments and the bureaucracy behind the NGO with which I was now working.

On the other end of the spectrum, running in the Kombos was a bit different than running in village. In addition to the young boys who think it is the most entertaining thing to tag along with you, older men see it as an opportunity to “make a friend.” One thing I have yet to mention about Gambia is its disreputable sex tourism industry. Oh yes! For a small price, even you can have your very own “bumster,” a young male escort whom women will pay to accompany them on their vacation, who will serve as your personal tour guide, and show you a very intimate side of the Smiling Coast, a nickname given to Gambia by the Ministry of Tourism.

Apparently, bumsters also like to run. I mean, besides doing push-ups and callisthenic exercises in very little clothing on the beach, how else are they going to attract the middle-aged ladies? So, every once in a while, I would get my very own personal running buddy, in the form of a bumster. I never could quite tell which was more aggravating: those big, buzzing flies that also accompanied me, or the relentless bumsters.

Why did I run? Why did I put up with the constant stares and frequent shouting of “toubab,” a West African reference to a person with my pigmentation? Why did I tolerate unwanted running partners and an endless sea of sand, all under a sweltering sun? Because not too much compared to watching that sweltering sun melt behind a shimmering, rust-colored savanna in village and, ultimately, the vast, azure-hued Atlantic. Because living thousands of miles away from home was no reason to stop logging hundreds of miles. Because I was a runner before and aspire to always be. And, because sometimes you just have to show a little knee.

~Courtney Gilman

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