The race was meant to start at 6:00 with registration at 5:00. It was 8:30 when we finally stood at the starting line.
Jaclyn had organized this 10K “Race for Life” to get her village exercising and then follow the event with a day of health games and activities to teach the community about HIV/AIDS. She invited 10 of us to run and help out with the post-race events.
I am a 5:00 runner. 8:30 in northern Botswana feels scorching in comparison. I also have never run in an organized race. I also didn’t realize they’d be driving us 10K into the desert on a giant bus with no available water. By 8:30 I’m parched and my stomach is in knots.
The bus stops on the paved road between Bobonong and Semolale. We file off and I watch as the men begin urinating on the side of the road, the women slip off their shoes and the makgoa (us whities) stretch our legs.
The makgoa are in running sneakers, nylon shorts, sports bras and t-shirts. The Batswana are in bare feet, skirts, slippers and tank tops (sans bra). It is not one group verses the other but the contrast is hard to miss.
Although nearly 200 people registered for the race there are less than 60 who attend. Jacyln has promoted the event to 3 villages and had an overwhelmingly positive response which, unfortunately, was foiled by the death of two villagers in Semolale.
Batswana bury on Saturdays. Only Saturday. At 6:00. Only 6:00.
The Semalole kgosi (chief) had wanted to run the race as well and petitioned the village to hold the funerals as early as possible so everyone could make it to Jackie’s event. But like all cultures, grieving can not be rushed. None of the 100 registered Semolole residents were able to attend the race. (A sad but vivid reminder of the event’s core purpose)
During training Peace Corps gave each of us a tiny, hand-held blow horn which they advised us to sound for our neighbors and then explain that the noise signifies we are in danger and need help.
I am highly amused by the fact that Jacyln’s emergency blow horn starts the race. (I’m sure the Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer would be slightly less amused)
Alright so, I run a 10 minute mile. I’m slow. I know. But—jeeze…
The men are literally a mile ahead of me within the first 30 seconds. Truly. It’s a long, flat stretch of highway but suddenly I cant see them anymore.
The women. The women are just hilarious. They sprint. Then stop. They laugh. They walk. They carry their shoes. They run beside us. Fall behind us. Sprint ahead of us. I’m purely entertained. My stomach ache goes away.
By 6k Jackie and I have out-run most of our female companions. I’m in a groove but bored with the desert landscape. Fortunately, I’ve given my camera to one of the nurses who keeps appearing in the village ambulance to snap photos and cheer us on with wild waving. His energy is contagious and hilarious.
In the final 2k Jaclyn turns and smiles at me.
We’re making pretty good time, she says (also a 10-minute-miler). For the end we’ll get to go through the village.
There are times here when I feel like a day in Africa could be any day in the States. There’s a routine. meals. friends. a job. a rhythm.
And then there are days—well, moments really—where Africa pours all over me with such style and simplicity that I seem to fall in love a thousand times.
2k through the village and I am falling falling.
The funerals have ended and the people come out of their roudeval huts to watch us run by. The donkey’s stare. The goats scatter. The kids are laughing and screaming hellohellohello. Someone hanging her laundry stops to wave.
The simplest of images but I am elated. Love is that way, isn’t it? The ordinary turned exceptional. The average, invaluable.
There is a hill that rises to the kgotla’s finish line. Two village men join us to sprint this last stretch and escort us over the finish line.
Girl 2! Girl 3!
We dole out sweaty hugs and snap a million photos and marvel at how we’ve placed among the girls at the crawl of 58:36 (the 40 men who’ve been finished and lounging in the shade for 20 minutes humble us).
Helluva first race. My adrenaline-buzz feels like it lasts for hours.
In the post-race activities there are swarms of children in frantic disarray. Fruit and cheese sandwiches are distributed (a h u g e struggle for poor Jaclyn to convince her village leaders that serving chips and soda at a HEALTH fair would send mixed messages about the nutrition) and then the children are ushered towards The Tent.
Now, don’t get me wrong—The Tent is a circus of fun activities and games and prizes but to the Confined Booth Workers it also resembles a torture chamber:
Africa sun + 200 excited kids + closed space = Sauna-Like-Temps
I stand at my booth for 5 minutes before recognizing how close I am to passing out. Someone lifts the flaps on the far side of the tent and a breeze makes its way through the humid space. I regain stability.
The raised flaps are essential but they do create a problem for my particular booth. I have been given The Most Fun of all the game stations and I’m very proud of this. The kids usher through the poster-HIV-quiz and then come to me before carrying on to the “Proper Condom Use” station (where they must correctly put a condom on a cucumber without being able to see their hands).
Still, despite the cucumber-humor, I win for general entertainment. At my booth they get d a r t s .
The challenge for the kids is to get the dart to pop a balloon and then answer the HIV-related question inside the balloon correctly. The challenge for me is to keep the kids from crushing each other in line, darting each other in their excitement or nailing someone outside the tent through the open flaps. Oh—and the balloons on the clothes line keep needing to be replaced… now remember… take the dart from the kids F I R S T before attempting to replace balloons (I manage to engrain this after nearly being dart-ed 10 times…)
I think the Run for Life pictures are my favorites so far from the Peace Corps Planet. The faces that day. The energy. I’ve looked through them a million times… from the barefoot runners to the balloon kids to the post-festivities bonfire and sangria.