Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Inaugural run

In retrospect it was an entirely ill-conceived plan--for someone who’s always been self conscious about her inferior running ability to sign up for a 10 K in a country legend for its disproportionate number of champion runners.   I was doomed from the start.  

In the US, I would have at least had reassurance that I’d be trailed in any race by people in worse shape than myself.  Behind me would be a bunch of overweight souls with a New Year’s resolution speed walking the race, some runners inspired more by the cause (it’s always a charity event at home) than by the fitness challenge, and some people who stupidly sign up for the race on a lark not having done much more training then a 10 minute commute to the train.  All these folks would be bringing up the rear along with my self respect.  Not so in Kenya.  Not so.

But several weeks prior to the first annual Busia half marathon and 10K, I started doing early morning runs with my new friend Daniele.  We’d be out by 6:15 and watch the sun come up in the cool morning air and chat about our lives.  I’d come to love these runs – just as much for the camaraderie as for the fresh air and exercise.  I always came home feeling better and more balanced about the day ahead.  But unfortunately these newfound endorphins led to an overconfidence that had me blurting out: “Sure, great idea.  I’m in!” when Carson (a marathon runner) encouraged us to join the 10K.  We figured we could always walk some if we got tired and there wasn’t much at stake.  (Well, except abject humiliation as I was to find out).

The day of the run we weren’t quite sure what to expect.  Carson has run other charity races in Kenya and told us that it’s always a good mix of abilities.  But this was Busia’s first every race and there was no cause, other than town pride, spurring it on.  Registration was 3 dollars, if you could find somewhere to register.  The online site had you fill in your name, and despite asking for no contact details followed with a promise to “follow up with more details.”  Not one of the oraganizers seemed to know either the start time or place, and it took several phone calls to suss out the details.  Clearly, there would be no “I ran the Busia 10K” t-shirts on offer.
All this disorganization lulled me into a false sense that we would not be confronted with very serious runners.  But the $1000 purse should have told me otherwise.  

After at long last uncovering the starting place, we arrived at 7:30 AM to this scene:  Intimidatingly professional looking runners and maddeningly unprofessional event planning.  Given that running is still not a popular pastime here, any rural-based Kenyan who has a track suit and new sneakers, you can safely assume is a runner with some professional skill and aspirations.   There were throngs of them.   We stood out like pasty, doughy jokes amid their athletic splendor, and were subject to even more leering that unusual.  
But there seemed to be no event organization whatsoever.  Participants mobbed tables to have their names recorded and to redundantly fill out the same waiver they did when they paid their registration fee.  We saw a grand total of one bus which was to shuttle some 600 runners to the start points, 10 and 21 km away. Finally, after at least an hour, someone started distributing numbers to affix to our running gear.  The numbers were on a “Coca Cola marathon” sticker that must have fallen off the truck on the way to another better organized race since we this was a half marathon race not sponsored by Coke. 

The professional runners, with no bodily insulation to speak of, stood shivering in the 70 degree weather, and finally took off to do some warm up laps during the long wait.  We spent the wait treating ourselves to shameless gawking at their muscular grace.

After waiting exactly 3 hours, we found ourselves 10 km from Busia in a small market center surrounded by other hopefuls and ready to start.  The10 k runners were definitely more amateur than the ½ marathoners.  There was a beer bellied mayoral hopeful, lots of high school students and first time runners.  The footwear ranged from shoelace-less loafer to none.  It was a lot less intimidating of a crowd.  There were a handful of obvious athletes and we struck up a conversation with Lulu (a University track star) who advised us to just pace ourselves.  “Most of these people will run out of steam after 2 km and you’ll sail past.” Perfect. 

In keeping a little too perfectly with the whole comedy of errors in the day, at first these was a false start, then after the runners were called back, the actual starting gun failed.  Finally, we were off. Or, at least everyone else was.  

Maybe it was the $500 prize or a total lack of appreciation that 10 km is a long distance, but the majority of runners shot out of the start line as if they were being chased by an axe murderer, leaving me and my running partner nearly dead last.  

So, the final joke was on myself.  As we’ve previously established, I’m not a particularly gifted runner.  But I’m OK.  That day, however, was a bad day.  After about 5 minutes I got a searing stitch in my side and was overcome with an unbareable need to pee.  After not so clandestinely crouching in the grass along the side of the road, we pulled even farther behind the other racers and I was in bad shape. Turns out I was on the verge of a incapacitating sinus infection which I would nurse for the next 2 weeks, so I wasn’t in top form.  I was in bottom form.  I let my partner run ahead since I was clearly keeping her behind.   

So, there I was in the glorious Kenyan country side, alone, dripping with sweating, struggling to catch my breath and the source of great amusement for the crowds of people who had gathered to see the runners, only to come across a panting, red-faced mzungu struggling along bringing up the rear.  Seriously, some people doubled over with laughter.  But when they were done with their fits of hysterics, they would half heartedly encourage me on with an “at least you’re trying” or some other platitude you give when handicapped people attempt athletics.  

But I got a second wind and pulled slightly ahead.  For most of the rest of the race I was neck and neck with a barefoot woman in a skirt.  For a time I also paced a team of high school girls who were propelled forward every time I approached by the sheer humiliation of being so close to the mzungu sub-athlete.  

As we got closer to town there was a dramatic increase in the number of bystanders laughing at my efforts.  And a lot more traffic.  

Given the scarcity of roads in this part of the country there was no way the race route was going to be closed off for a few hundred runners for the better part of the day.  The race disorganizers simply put a few motorbikes holding branches–yes branches, not flares or brightly colored flags, branches--at the front and back of the race to serve as a signal to half asleep long haul truckers that they might want to watch out for stray runners.    And anyway, the final branch barer had long since moved ahead of me.   So, when we turned onto the Busia road I added dodging traffic and sucking on fumes to the fun of being the butt of a town joke. 
I wish I could tell you I entered some kind of euphoric runner’s zone, blocked out the chaos and triumphantly finished the race.  But my house is actually tantalizingly located the 8 km mark of the race, and by that point I had my fill of public humiliation and near death from oncoming vehicle collision, and my creeping sinus infection was cresting to a migraine.   So, I held my head up high, turned off the race and went home.  Not my finest moment, but there it is.

 But after I caught my breath and my allowed my face to turn from cherry red to a nice shade of pink, we went back out to watch the real athletes come in from the 13 miler.   You couldn’t miss the front runner.  Not because he was such a spectacularly graceful champion, but because he was surrounded, literally enveloped, by a gang of cheering motorbike spectators, giving him a few feet berth to run.  If he fell he would have been squashed.   We stood watching with our jaws to the ground in disbelief.  Some of these runners have traveled around the world running in major events – the kind that give participants free t-shirts and clear the road of traffic.  We guessed they were pissed.  
Either way, it was absolutely inspiring to watch these world renowned runners sprint down the street in front of my house.  Maybe it’ll even inspire me to run another race.  And maybe even to finish it. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Harambe harumph

Yesterday I got an invitation which had me as on the list as a guest of honor, next to corporate sponsors and area churches, for a fundraising event.  It was hand delivered by someone I’m not sure I know.   Nor do I know the “Reason Theater Group,” but their fundraising goal of producing an “educative movie” that “aims at highlighting and suggesting solutions to major problems in our society” is vague enough to be totally suspicious.

But there I am on a list of “guests of honor” nonetheless.  And this all epitomizes so well the uncomfortable role we play being conspicuous Americans (read “wealthy Americans”) in a small Western Kenya border town.  It’s also a great example of the culture of tight inter-dependence, into which we are unavoidably enmeshed.

 You can’t escape it.   We are in a part of the world in which people ensure their survival through depending on an extended network of support.  Simply living here ties us inextricably to that web of inter-reliance.  And nothing demonstrates this as well as the pervasiveness of harambes.  

Harambe literally means “all pull together,” but it’s really a fundraising tool which has evolved with the times to include engraved invitations and guests of honor who purpose is to announce their support and encourage others to contribute.  Vast sums of money are raised this way making things like college education and lavish weddings possible for people who would otherwise struggle to meet the several years salary price tag.    

People organize harambes for everything from funerals to church building to (I’m now learning…)  movie production costs, and a week never passes without some kind of request.  Last week a field officer of mine asked me to contribute to buying new musical equipment for his church.  He had little color coded business-card sized donation cards each with a different amount for me to pick from.  The week before it was for someone’s brother’s cancer surgery.  Then the vegetable vendor I buy from told me her sister got into med school and had a donation sheet.  The practice extends through all social strata.    

It’s very easy for Westerns to feel glaringly on-the-spot, put-upon and simply irritated by the number of requests for assistance.  Our assumption is often that we are somehow being taken advantage of, and we bristle easily at being put in the uncomfortable position of having to say “no” and assumed presumptuousness of the requester.  I admit used to feel this way.  

I think that deep down this knee-jerk defensiveness is rooted in our relative wealth and the guilt and obligation associated with living in a place where most others have relatively so little.  It makes us feel uncomfortable and we lash out.

But I’ve come to reframe the whole thing.  They are not coming to me because I’m a mzungu or the wife of the country director.  Well, I’m sure that’s part of it and probably secures my place as a “guest of honor.”  But they are coming to me along with scores of other regular Kenyans with similar requests.   

My Kenyan friends and colleagues handle these unending requests with a combination of good nature and resignation at total odds with the wazungu anxiousness in the face of requests for money.  At home, a request for money – especially from strangers – is a rarer occurrence often tinged with embarrassment on both ends of the request.  Here, there are so many requests circulating that everyone understands that not everyone is going to give all the time.  So, Kenyans might not take it so much to heart when they have to say “no” or receive a “no.”  The whole dynamic is simply more part of life.  
Not that it's not a draining part of life.  It is.  Economists and sociologists argue that these webs of social obligations are precisely what keep people from accumulating enough wealth to break out of poverty.  And I know this is true.  I recently read a study that showed that people in Cameroon took loans solely so that they could then dismiss requesters with a simple: “I wish I could give you something, but, you see, I have this loan I need to pay.”    

But this reciprocal dependence also keeps people surviving in the absence of any kind of government funded safety net.  So, that’s how I’m reframing it. I’m looking at my many harambe contributions as kind of a social tax.  I give when I have with a lighter heart this way and say “no” when I need to. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Why did you just get an email from me about this blog?

Well, that's because I'd like to opine about a lot of things that might not be best shared with the entire InterWeb.  And I'd like to keep my job.  I know it's an extra step and I don't want to exclude anybody.  So, I'm trying to figure out how to expand the allowable number of visitors.  But hopefully the main people reading this thing - hi mom - won't be deterred...