Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bush Trails

I have been running pretty regularly here for the past six months or so. I used to run a lot but hurt my achilles-tendons training for a half-marathin back in August 2009. I tried running again here a year later, but after a few weeks had to give it up, my tendons were not ready yet for running. I wrote about running in Juba in an earlier blog entry.
I used to walk all over Juba which I thought was good exercise but was probably, unbeknownst to me, continuing to aggravate the tendons injury. After the other American missionary left last April I "inherited" her car and started driving everywhere all the time. I do have a Sudanese driver's license, the obtaining of which would make for a humorous blog entry in and of itself. I remember when I was home last June so badly wanting to get pulled over by a policeman so I could show them my Sudanese license so I could see their reaction. But anyway, driving our little Toyota Hi-Lux pick-up truck everywhere made me incredibly lazy, but was in fact allowing my tendons to heal finally.
Around October of last year my tendons felt good enough to try running again. It used to be that I would wake-up every morning and as soon as my feet hit the floor my tendons would be so sore for the first 15-minutes of the day. But after all the driving by last October I could get out of bed pain free. I started lightly jogging around the compound and within a few weeks was back up to a few miles every other day. I have for years tried to limit my running to every other day, trying to give my body a chance to recover and to avoind injuries from overuse. I want to be able to run for life, not just a few months. It is tough with my nature, I keep wanting to push myself to run further and further, I really like distance running. I like runs of around 5-7 miles every time I go out but it takes time to work-up to that distance and I tend to try and get there too quickly.
I have been running really well now since last fall - well, it's always summer here, isn't it?! - even through the hot, dry season which started at the beginning of November. I prefer to run in the evenings after work. I refuse to wake-up early to go running. It's so strange, after 15-years of working night-shifts and early mornings I now rarely look forward to waking up but find myself sleeping in later and later every day! If it wasn't for the damned chickens waking me up every morning I'd probably sleep until 10am.
Running in Juba is not for the thin skinned. Very few Sudanese exercise, they consider it undignified. Also, many of them - mostly the women - work so hard I think they would be insulted if you suggested that they exercise and expend more energy. But running through the streets you get howled at, folks yelling all sorts of things, some insults, some just the equivalent of "look at the white man!!" Most people also just laugh at you. I think it was Paul Theroux in "Dark Star Safari," who said an Africans' initial response to something they didn't understand was to laugh and I know this well every time I run. People howl with laughter when they see me running. I also have a fair number of random people just start running with me. It used to frighten me at first, I'd just be running along and then some random Sudanese would just start running with me. I didn't know if they wanted to be friendly or kill me. I tried to picture how this scenario would play out back home if some random African American just started running with me. But the people have always turned-out to be ok, they just wanted to enjoy a funny moment with this crazy white man running. Children especially will run with you squealing with laughter and it's impossible not to delight in their joy.
During my recent month-long excursion out through Western Equitoria where I was conducting finance training, I took along my trainers (sorry: that's running shoes for those of you who don't live with Brits) and kit and managed to get in at least one run in all 8 of the dioceses I visited. I had a lot of fun running out in the country, especially when I got on bush trails running out in the tall grass away from civilization. But if I thought the people of Juba were unfamiliar with seeing me running, it was nothing compared with people out in the dioceses I visited. Entire towns of people would come out to see the crazy white man, everyone howling with laughter. In Maridi people were taking pictures with their cell-phone cameras, wanting evidence in case their friends could not believe their fantastic tale of a crazy white man running through town.
I am often tense when running through Juba. This is partly because I have to always be on guard against the careening cars which make all travel in Juba horribly dangerous. But also because although most people's insults towards me are fairly mild, and I normally ignore them although I have occasionally given single fingered salutes to the worst offenders (hey! I spent over a dozen years living in New York, some things you don't outgrow! fuggedaboutit) I'm always worried some drunken idiot will decide to escalate things by hurling a bottle or trying to grab me and my mind often plays out various scenarios of my getting into fights. I found in the country I could relax more. People living in the country here see fewer white people and my presence was more unexpected. People were more likely to howl with laughter when they saw me running, but they made fewer rude comments and in fact were more likely to yell "hellos" or give me waves than happens in Juba. In fact, I found it often hard to concentrate on my running because every person you pass - and walking is so common here that the roadways are always full of pedestrians no matter where you are - wanted to greet me.
My favorite runs were in Mundri and Rockon. In both places I was able to run on remote bush trails. These are narrow trails that meander through the tall grass. At this time of year, late in the dry season, the grasses are about 6-feet tall. The trails are all single file. I think it was Dineson in "Out of Africa" that commented on the African tradition of walking single file and it's true, I've seen it everywhere here. The trails are single file as they wind through the bush. When you are on them the trails seem not to be straight for more than a meter but seen from the air they often look arrow straight; it's an odd phenomenon. The trails meander about including going through family compounds. You'll just be running along and suddenly you are in the middle of a family's compound, a few tukels on one side of the trail, a few on the other. The families would be sitting there in the afternoons, chatting when I would just run through. They would always howl with laughter at the sight of me but offer friendly waves and whatever the local greeting was. There's nothing you can do but be equally friendly back. In Mundri this one young boy, well, not too young - about 10 or 12 - yelled in fright and dropped his armload of cut sugar-cane when he saw me emerging from the bush, a lone white man running from no-where. His family howled with laughter at the boy for being frightened, and howled at me for running through. In a lot of places I was sure I was the most entertaining thing that folks had seen in ages.
It felt during my trip that I would have one good run and then one not so good run. My run in Maridi was so-so, I was howled at more than usual and I was tired. But then next run in Mundri was great. Same again with Lui and Rockon. I think the runs where I was less certain of where I wanted to run, or where the trail wasn't that great made the efforts more taxing. But I was also training people all day before going out for a run so I could have just been tired, though I don't normally allow that as a possibility.
In Yambio this Ugandan soccer player who was out for his training run - unawares, we actually started near the same location heading in opposite directions and met at the mid-point of each of our runs - decided to turn around and join me. I don't normally like to run with people but he was friendly and we were pretty evenly matched, even though I was maybe twice his age. Anyway, we had a great run back to our starting point. In Ibba the bishop wouldn't allow me to run on the bush trails out of security concerns. I thought about ignoring his advice but it's hard to ignore a bishop. I ended-up having a tiring run along the main road through town a couple of kilometers out to the local airstrip. This was the only place I ever had a problem when a local cowherder shook his whip at me and yelled at me to get away from his cows. I was seriously tempted to pick-up a rock and throw it at one of his cows to start a stampede, but you always feel so outnumbered here that you cannot be your normal smartass self but have to always give-in.
In Ezo, in the extreme southwest of South Sudan, I wanted to find the border of South Sudan with Congo and Central Africa Republic (CAR). All three countries meet-up there and I wanted to run from country to country. As I was out running I did stumble into the local UN compound where I caught-up with this Canadian guy heading out for a run. There are a lot of Candians over here doing all kinds of work. This guy was from the Royal Mounted Police and was in Ezo training the local police. We ran together for a couple of kilometers. He showed me where CAR was - I'd already run past the border - and told me where to find Congo. I'm still not certain I found Congo, but I was really close, close enough for me to believe I ran in three counties in one evening!
That's one of the great things I love about running: it allows you to see so much more and at ground level and close-up. And in a place like South Sudan it allows you the chance to meet more people and - since I'm dressed only in running kit - in a non-threatening way that allows the locals to feel at ease. I mean, I look so silly in my running shorts and t-shirt, just an expanse of white flesh like what they are not used to seeing that it is comical and makes for a non-stressful encounter which gives me the chance to interact in a more intimate way than when I am dressed in work clothes.


  1. Lawrence of Sudan..
    I am SO happy to read your blogs.. SO HAPPY.. to hear what you're doing and how you are.. and that you're able to run about cheerily thru brush and bullet makes me belly laugh..

    I have your keys.. and cant wait to see you in person..
    From Alabama..

  2. OMG!!! I am so overjoyed to hear from you!! Thank you for following my blog. I have tried to follow other people's but since I changed my email address since I started this thing it won't let me subscribe to anyone else's blog, keeps saying i have an invalid email address. Computers can be annoying at times.
    Thanks you!!