and a dusty cross-cultural setting
04.04.2017 34 °C
The pastel yellow dust billows behind the truck as it careers towards me like charging rhino, taking over the marram road. I get out the way by running into the ditch, being careful I don't trip on the rough surface. The cloud makes me disappear for a few seconds and I try not to inhale. Still, I feel the grains of dirt in my mouth and taste the earth. My puffy hair makes a good dust catcher as I will discover in the shower later on.
In the UK, I feel quite proud of myself when I pound the streets. As I race down the Edinburgh pavements, I feel part of something bigger, a culture of health and fitness. As I jog along Portobello beach, struggle up Arthur's seat or disappear down one of the network of cycle tracks criss-crossing the town, I am one of the thousands trying to push their bodies to get a little fitter. It is popular wisdom that running is an excellent lifestyle choice. There are races up and down the country of varying distances, running magazines giving advice on training schedules and specialised running shops.
Running in Africa, though, is a very different experience.
In Africa, I feel like a TV show, an entertainment for whole villages as I run by. People turn their heads towards the strange sight. I feel the eyes of everyone following me, the ghost moves by, panting and sweating in the 30 degree temperatures. Little kids with ripped t-shirts and dirty faces pause while collecting firewood to shout 'Mundu' as I pass, cheering and waving. Often, the shouts turn to chants of 'Mundu, how are you, I am fine' repeated over and over and over. I am convinced they are taught this chanting at school to practice if they are ever lucky enough to encounter any strange 'whites'. As I near the kids, some will dart away into the long yellow grass, holding up their shorts with terrified faces, scared that I might eat them. If I have the extra energy, I will chase the scared kids further into the bush and act like I am going to catch them. This gives me morbid pleasure and some brief relief on the hot run.
At other times, though, I feel like I'm a hero in a marathon as peoples' faces light up, broad smiles on their faces and they shout 'Well done'! Recently, one lady wearing a scarf and selling vegetables at the road-side started clapping loudly.
Most of the time, I try to keep focused on keeping a good rhythm on the run, rather than get distracted by the innumerable staring faces or laughing youth. On one run, I counted how many times I greeted people and it was over 200 times! Otherwise, though, I am very thankful for my iPod dance tunes that insulates me from the crowding in of others. At the end of the day, this is supposed to be my 'leisure' or 'escape' time, even if it doesn't feel like it. Before coming to live cross-culturally, the missions training encouraged us to consider what hobby or activity you would do to keep yourself healthy. In a stressful environment, it is very important to practice self-care spiritually, emotionally and physically. Running and exercise is part of that self-care for me, but is more challenging to practice here.
It feels weird running here as it is so counter-cultural. What is the point of expending that extra energy? Most people, especially the women, are doing plenty of physical labour just to survive, digging in the fields, carrying 30kg bags of charcoal on their heads or fetching water. By necessity, most people often walk miles and miles and have dirty cracked feet to show for it. I sense pangs of guilt thinking that I am privileged enough to have to work off my extra calories from the chocolate cake Emma made, in an environment where some people might only eat one meal a day and their calorie intake might barely be enough to sustain themselves. This is a context where over 10.9 million people are food insecure across Uganda this year due to poor rains and poor harvests last season. It is also in a context where South Sudan, only 2 hours drive away is suffering from war-induced famine in some areas and critical food insecurity otherwise. It is sobering thought that is a privilege to be a leisure runner and know I have some responsibility with God's help to support others who are not so privileged. This is a burden that is always in the background of life here in Arua, even while I am running along dirt tracks.