These months are some of the cooler months of the year here in South Sudan. Although the temperature is hot in the middle of the afternoon (90 degrees or so), when the almost daily rains move through, the heat disappears. The other day it actually felt as if there was a bit of fall crispness in the air! At that moment, I found myself thinking about football and wondering if you were experiencing the same thing at home. I’ll enjoy it while we have it, though, because I know that much hotter weather is just around the corner. In order to take advantage of the rather cool mornings, I have started running again. It certainly does help that the darkness of the night is completely gone by 7:15, ruining any chance I have at ‘sleeping in’ (which is definitely relative!). It is quite a nice change to be woken up by the sun rather than an alarm clock!
By the time I have donned my knee-covering shorts, tennis shoes, and iPod and head for the road, most of the students here are up and working. They often multi-task and brush their teeth while sweeping the compound in order to remove debris that has collected overnight. They greet me and wish me “a good exercise.” I head out to the road, giving a two-handed wave to the students who will doubtless greet me again when I return.
I have learned already that a run here is never dull. The streets are always full of people making their way to their destinations. They often stop and greet one another on their way to work or to school. Women walk in groups carrying vegetables to the market and men sit on motorbikes waiting for their next taxi customer. As I run, I pay close attention to my feet and search to find places in the road that were not washed out by the rain of the previous day while seeking to avoid rocks that threaten to trip me. I answer the many children who call out “Kawaja, how are you?” with the standard “I am fine.” I smile as I pass people who have stopped to watch the foreigner running by and wave to those who shout encouraging phrases like “good run” and “keep going.” These things, although very different from my experiences running in my quiet neighborhood in Kettering, have all become part of the routine. However, I always look forward to the “fun” part of my runs; the part where something completely out of this routine happens. Luckily, I rarely complete a run without at least one of these offbeat occurrences.
One such occurrence took place the other week when I was approaching a hill. I had been trying to gear myself up while looking for a path around the two small boys who were walking and laughing in front of me. Just as I was stepping around them, they stopped without warning. I nearly ran into the Tweety backpack one of them was carrying and just nearly missed a huge puddle. When both the backpack and my feet were safe, I looked up to see that EVERYONE on the street had stopped! Here I was completely confused and quickly slowing to a jog and then a walk before stopping and removing my earbuds. I wondered what on earth could possibly be happening as I looked around for any clues. When I made eye contact with a middle-school aged girl, she saw my obvious confusion and filled me in by whispering “flag” while nodding to the school yard just ahead. It was amazing to see the street ahead of me filled with more than eighty people of all ages, all stopped and silent to honor their country. Then, just as suddenly as everyone had stopped, the street was again filled with movement and noise. The boys with the Tweety backpacks passed by me, laughing again, and things were back to normal. As I, too, began to move again, I wondered how it was possible for all of them to be so attuned to the seemingly silent signal to stop while I was so completely oblivious. As I finished my run, I made a mental note to try to be more aware.
The local people liven up my runs in many other ways, also. Last week I passed a group of young men headed to work, and like often happens, they cheered me on while laughing with one another. One of them, the one who was wearing a suit, tie, and flip-flops, went as far as to run over beside me. He stood up tall (all 7-foot of him), held his head high, and laughed as he jogged effortlessly beside me. He looked around from side to side and continued to laugh. I returned his laughter and picked up my pace. If I would have been thinking, it would have registered that my American legs were no match for his Dinka stride, even in suit pants and flip-flops! I pushed it with all I had in me and went the remaining hundred yards or so to my compound (grateful for the downward slope of the road), both of us laughing all the while. He shook my hand when we arrived and then jogged back towards his friends. It’s hard to know if he was making fun of me or just having fun, but I have decided it’s best to join in with the laughter and enjoy it rather than to take it personally and be offended by it.
Other runs have often been spruced up by boda-boda (motorbike taxi) drivers slowing their bikes beside me asking “Aren’t you tired?” and “I’ll give you a ride if you want it.” or “You can be finished and I will just return you home.” I have to say, these offers are certainly challenging to resist, but up to this point I have always found it within me to keep running. Just yesterday I ran past a five-year-old girl who seemed to be walking home from town. When I entered her peripheral vision, she burst out in a fit of giggles- she sounded much like my niece Lauryn used to when you discovered her in her hiding place. She must have been so surprised (and maybe a little frightened) to see my white skin, but her giggles filled me with such joy! I can now say, though, that I can actually understand how she must have felt. Earlier this week I myself was startled at the sight of another light-skinned American. I caught a glimpse of him, his white tee-shirt, and comparatively pale legs out of the corner of my eye. The stark contrast between him and all of the dark skinned people I have become accustomed to seeing caught me completely off guard. I laughed to myself at how quickly we become used to and comfortable with our surroundings!
Although I’ve run many, many miles and tried for years to learn to love running, I’m not yet convinced that it will ever happen for me. However, I have come to love the relationships it is allowing me to build with the culture here. So I’ll continue to lace up my running shoes and try to happily anticipate the next surprise of the road.