I remember in middle school when my feet first hit the pavement of the track. Sweat rolled down my chubby cheeks as I choked back tears, “who would ever do this for fun?!” As the years went on I learned to appreciate the sport of running. Spending 8+ years on a track team will kind of do that to you.
I mean have you ever had a bad day and just feel the need to clear your head? I don’t know if I’ve ever found anything more motivating me to run than for that very thing. I seem to always think better after a good run. But what if running was used for something more than clearing your head, losing weight, or even a friendly competition?
I knew before we left for East Africa that we would get to spend some time with a local girl’s running club. I have been part in partnering with a local organization over there in helping provide nutritious food, running shoes, uniforms, and vitamins to the girls on the team, but for the first time I was going to meet the girls and hear the stories behind it all.
Our second day in country we rode a taxi through the make shift roads and pulled up to a gated house. Inside we sat under a fan and listened as the coaches began to tell us stories—stories of triumph, stories of heartache, and stories of change.
Stories like Medina who is still in her early teens. She has spent most of her life working as a shepherd, watching over the goats and tending to their needs. One day she saw her cousin coming back from school and she decided she wanted to be educated as well. She went to her mom to ask for permission but she said no, “You have to look after the goats.” Disappointed, Medina went back to the field and decided she didn’t care what her mom said, she would attend school anyways.
But her rebellious spirit didn’t end there. After spending time in school and still tending to the goats she was in the field when she saw a few girls running by. She decided she wanted to run too. Again, she went to her mother and asked for permission. Of course, she said no, “You must watch after the goats, the school is enough.” Disappointed, but not discouraged, Medina decided to run anyways. It just so happened that they were holding a race in her town so she entered…and won!
The neighbors ran up to her mom telling her how well her daughter did and that she must let her run; she could be a star! Frustrated and tired her mother reluctantlylet her start running. Now Medina has a chance at qualify for the junior Olympics…if she stays in school.
You see, for the coaches the running club isn’t just about becoming good runners or learning sportsmanship, it’s about developing a life worth living. The girls are required to stay in school and work hard. And if they do not pass their exams to continue on to secondary school (high school) then they require them to go to classes that teach skills like baking and sewing.
You see, because it’s about teaching empowerment, education, and giving dignity to those who need it most. One of the coaches told us that most of the girls involved in the running club are what society would call the “trouble makers”. There have been many times when locals will come up telling them that they can’t believe the change they have seen in these girls because they were all known to be girls who get into trouble.
As one of the coaches said in another interview, "As part of this team, they are empowered. Empowered to say, out loud, 'I want to be the first in my family to graduate from high school.' Empowered to dream of being a pilot in the air force, even in a country with no air force. Empowered to say, 'I want to place second in this race, higher than the team thinks possible, higher than I have ever placed before.' Empowered to run through menstrual cramps bordering on childbirth pains because of female genital circumcision. Empowered to value hygiene and clean clothes. Empowered to stop, pull the thorn from the toe, and keep running. Empowered to aim at the Junior Olympics and to believe that racing there is truly possible. Empowered to believe in one's inherent honor, value, and dignity even after an attempted rape."
So next time you go out for run, think of these girls. Remember their triumphs, remember their hardships, but more importantly remember that they are strong. They are strong women who will one day change their country and hopefully the world.