I do not enjoy running. I do not understand people who enjoy running. But what does one do for exercise in rural Africa, in a place with no gym, no bicycles, no swimming pools? It turns out, you run. We are grateful to have about a 3 mile dirt road extending from the hospital compound out into the countryside. And about 3 times a week, Stephanie and I manage to get out and go for a run. Usually Stephanie goes in the afternoons with Heather, or with one of the many short term visitors passing through. However, it is not considered culturally appropriate for women to run in shorts, or even pants …. so they run in long skirts. Sound like fun?
John Cropsey and I go (weather permitting) 3 mornings each week before hospital rounds begin. When John is off curing blind people in Congo, I go by myself. We do not wear skirts.
So what is it like to run in Burundi? When we first got here, it felt a lot like having a heart attack. Given the almost 6,000 feet elevation, I managed to really stress those coronary arteries, and thankfully, after a few weeks, the chest pain went away, and now I am left only with my own sub-average physical condition to blame for my fatigue. The path is beautiful however, with gently rolling hills, alternating between wooded forests and open valleys of tea and vegetable crops. We are usually at some point spotted by Burundian children, who run after us screaming “Muzungu, muzungu!”. Occasionally you sneak up on a little one by him or herself who sees you and bursts into tears, running away from you as fast as they can. Muzungu means “white person” or “foreigner”. On some days, a group of ambitious children will start running with you, often in flip-flops, or even barefoot (even over rocky terrain). You may also come across a herd of goat or cattle.
When we first arrived in Burundi, on our drive from Bujumbura to Kibuye, we drove for about 1 hour up a steep incline, where I saw several large groups of men and women running (I presume, for exercise). Given the mountainous topography of Burundi, and I assume a similar East African genetic make-up, I was left wondering why it is always the Kenyans and Ethiopians who win the world’s major marathons. When I asked this question, the answer I got was “their poverty”. In order to make it as a marathon runner, you have to have some amount of money to enter races, to travel, or at least have someone with money to sponsor you. And that is what they do not have. We pray with time, this will change. Given the endurance of those little kids in flip-flops keeping up with the likes of a specimen like me, I have no doubt there is potential for marathon greatness out here in the mountains of Burundi.