Bekoji: The Town of Runners
By Joseph A. Whelan (Bekoji 2012–)
Most mornings, I rise with the sun in the village of Bekoji where I serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer to the sound of rapid footsteps stampeding past the walls of my compound. Without a visual through the aluminum, I often have difficulty determining whether the sound is a product of feet or hooves. I make my way out the front gate and jog a half-mile to “the forest” — ground zero for running in these parts. On any given morning, somewhere between 50 and 100 track-suit-clad men and women gather in a large, ovular area atop a hill that overlooks the small patch of eucalyptus trees and rugged, root-filled soil. I shoulder-bump those I know, and sometimes those I don’t, and go through the standard set of Ethiopian greetings.
Every couple of minutes, a fleet-footed train, typically comprised of 5-10 runners, takes off and descends into the naturalist training center, first at a boxcar pace and gradually building toward Accella Express.
I arrive not knowing exactly what to expect. The language barrier hardly prevents a flood of invitations — it seems I’m quite the novelty, with groups often competing for my company — but it does leave me in the dark when it comes to knowing how far or how hard we’re going to run.
We typically start with a couple snake patterns through the trees before heading out to surrounding fields and dirt roads that form a sort of clover leaf with the forest at center. The good thing is we don’t stray very far, so it’s easy for me to find my way back if I conk out, as I so often did while adjusting to the air at 9,300 feet over my first month at site. In all, the runners are very patient and quite attuned to my need for a reduced pace. They will often wait or circle back as I catch my breath, refusing to “hidu.”
“Berta, berta,” they insist. “Izo!” I dig a little bit deeper and fall back into the pack. Whatever direction the group leader chooses for the day, all treks ultimately return to the forest. The pace intensifies for one more circuit, building toward a crescendo of speed intervals around the oval. I give it everything I’ve got, which prompts a chorus of high-pitched trills and cheers, but I’m inevitably left in awe as the prize horses disappear in a vapor. After a standard set of cool-down exercises, we all sit in the grass awhile, soaking in the sunshine and sharing a few laughs before dispersing to go about the day.
The north may have rock-hewn churches, heaven-scraping obelisks, 17th –century castles, and various other fascinating markers of Ethiopia’s past, but there’s a spot on the map some 230 kilometers south of Addis that’s currently carving out its own piece of the country’s extensive history. Like those popular sites in Lalibela, stories coming out of this small highland town are of remarkable structures being chiseled on the side of a mountain. The difference, however, is in the sinew itself rather than architecture forged as evidence of brute human strength. As the title of a recent documentary aptly depicts, the “Town of Runners,” Bekoji, lays claim to such high-caliber speed-demons as Fatima Roba, Derartu Tulu, Keninisa Bekele, Tirunesh Dibaba, and the 2012 London Olympic Marathon champion, Tiki Gelana. Judging by how tightly the community embraces its running culture, the list of common-Ethiopians-turned-world-class-athletes with roots in this town is destined to grow faster than the eucalyptus itself.
I may be here to help improve the quality of English education in local public schools, but I certainly don’t mind having a unique vantage point from which to observe the development of Bekoji’s running youth. I’ve been calling myself a runner for the past decade or so, having completed eleven marathons and countless other distance events in that span. Prior to setting sail for Ethiopia, I volunteered for two years with Students Run Philly Style, a Philadelphia-based non-profit that uses running as a catalyst for fostering mentor relationships between volunteer adult leaders and inner-city youth. I was also a tour guide for City Running Tours, an Ambassador for The San Francisco Marathon, and maintained RegularJoeRunning.com. Bekoji and I make a pretty nice pair, the advent of which came by way of a chance pre-departure conversation wherein I learned of Running Across Borders, a non-profit working to establish and further the professional competitive career potential of local runners. I pitched a Bekoji assignment to my Program Director, not knowing at the time whether a Volunteer would even be placed here, on the basis that it would expedite my integration and offer a wealth of opportunities for secondary projects.
So far, my case has proven itself. I hit the ground running, literally, by showing up at the forest on my second morning, and have been known around town as the running “ferenji” ever since. I may be the slowest of the pack, but I could start charging admission for all the attention I garner. Running has been a terrific platform to spread the word about my purpose as much as it has been about quickly becoming a familiar face throughout the community. I am regularly greeted by my actual name, rather than some of the less desirable titles, as I run into athletes all over Bekoji.
I even get a tip-of-the-cap greeting and firm shoulder bump from Coach Sentayehu whenever we cross paths; he’s the man responsible for starting the careers of those notable athletes who are the pride of Ethiopia. And there’s plenty of room for overlapping my interactions with the running community and my work as a PCV. The runners benefit as much from our English exchanges as I do from sharing strides. I joke that we’ve established a running-for-English exchange program, but I have already talked seriously about some one-on-one tutoring time. There’s also an incredible need for resources, starting with the shredded slabs of leather and laces that barely distinguish these incredibly talented feet from those of the legendary Abebe Bikila. I have a feeling I’ll be teaching a few people how to write letters to companies like Saucony or Brooks for sponsorship requests. These things will take time to develop, but we’re off to a running start.
Follow along with Joe in Bekoji on his blog, hewhoknowspatience.blogspot.com