Out of Africa: Sierra Leone Marathon Our man heads to Sierra Leone for a marathon designed to make a difference to its community
“Abato! Abato!” The screams of children cheering us on by the side of the road just manage to overcome the desperate thirst in the back of my throat. I’m only a few miles into the Sierra Leone Marathon and already the cloying humidity has left me a drenched and bedraggled sight. It’s not as if they haven’t seen an ‘abato’ (white person) in a while.
In fact, 140 of them are ahead of me, though it doesn’t diminish their enthusiasm and I return my appreciation with a line of high fives that bring out huge grins. These kids are a reminder of why we’re slogging our guts out in 90 per cent humidity.
One of the poorest countries in the world, Sierra Leone was once a prosperous mining centre and growing tourist destination. Ten years of civil war that ended in 2002 left the country torn apart, its infrastructure destroyed and, most tragically, thousands of children displaced and separated from their families.
The plight of Sierra Leone’s street children prompted the formation of the charity that carries their name. Streetchild’s aim is to help take children away from such hardship, putting them back into school and reuniting them with their families. It launched the Sierra Leone Marathon in 2012 with the dual purpose of putting it on the fundraising map and exposing runners to the valuable work they do.
What makes the event unique is how rounded your whole experience is during your few days stay in the country. Most runners and volunteers fly out three days ahead of the race with the time used by Streetchild to immerse you in the projects in Makeni and surrounding areas. It also affords a much-needed opportunity to acclimatise to the humidity and painfully/wonderfully slow pace of life (if you’ve not experienced the concept of ‘Africa time’, it’s a big adjustment).
Despite our early morning arrival, the charity is super-keen to plunge us into their work right away with a visit to a project in Magburaka on the outskirts of Makeni. As our coach pulls up at the school, we are met with a wall of sound and dancing as the children pour from the building to greet us, throwing their arms around us and shaking our typically British reserve in the process.
The centre opened in 2011 working to develop education and take children off the street. It started with just 69 children supported by 57 families. As the charity explains for the 105 street children at the school removed from their terrible environment, intervention has changed their lives. The scale of the task is huge. According to the latest national headcount, 50,000 children still live on the streets throughout Sierra Leone. We hear from several children who explain their journey from the street to the school with stories of hardship you can’t even comprehend.
Not that my sense of hardship is properly in perspective when I see my hotel. I’m cursing editor Danny and his email that simply read, ‘Fancy going to Sierra Leone for a week?’ In reality I’m cursing myself for unthinkingly replying in the affirmative. I use the term ‘hotel’ loosely. If the lack of water and sporadic electricity was already ringing alarm bells, the strategic placement of the hotel next to a stadium that belts out music until 3am every day certainly prevents it from a full five star review on Tripadvisor. It has a certain rustic charm that grows on me as the days go by.
It’s fair to say this trip is like no other. It has a distinctly backpacker-adventurer air about it - in a good way - with long periods of waiting or driving around punctuated by a series of bizarre and surreal experiences.
One such incident arises after my innocent request for a bucket of water. Within minutes, a female hotel employee is threatening to walk out and I’m being pointed at furiously by different staff members until everyone storms out onto the street to continue the argument. I’m left waiting rather awkwardly on the balcony, unsure what I’ve done, when the front gate of the hotel is flung back open and the female member of staff returns. She glares at me, turns on her heel and darts over to the corner of the hotel’s forecourt. I’m not sure what she’s doing until I see her lift a hatch on the floor and start pulling something from it. It turns out this is the hotel’s well. I’ve just interrupted whatever she was doing to fill a bucket of water for me from a well. Now I see. And, looking at her, I’m positive she’s carrying a bump... (She eventually gets her own back when she makes me give up my finishers T-shirt in exchange for a post-marathon bucket of water. The importance of holding all the cards.)
I escape on an excursion to a remote area of Sierra Leone called Tambaka. Although only 100km from Makeni, we’re driving for over four hours due to the complete lack of infrastructure along a road more akin to a footpath and across a river on a ferry powered by local children. It’s one of the reasons Streetchild operates in the area; many charities and NGOs simply will not go to Tambaka as the lack of roads and accessibility make it too logistically challenging.
We visit three schools in turn, built by Streetchild funds and now thriving in communities that had no education. The schools may be little more than basic structures but the infrastructure of teacher training put in place to sustain such localised education is formidable. It needs to be, as the charity’s founder Tom Dannatt explains Streetchild’s aim is to open 50 schools by the end of 2013 with 200 teachers in training.
The school kindly offers us up a meal of goat curry served to us while the chief is in full swing. In honesty, vegetarians aren’t really understood in Sierra Leone. Considering this a delicate subject and not wanting to offend their hospitable gesture I discretely ask the man doling out the curry if he wouldn’t mind awfully if I just have rice. He looks at me blankly and looks at the plate. Then, turning to the chap sat next to me, he scrapes the meat onto his food and hands the plate of goat curry-soaked rice back to me. I struggle with what to do next. My guilt is alleviated when I’m able to pass the meal onto some very appreciative children from the school.
What you’ll find in abundance on the trip are inspirational stories. One of our group, David Hellard, raised over £13,000 for Streetchild from a series of events culminating in the Sierra Leone Marathon. With such a princely sum behind him, he’s perfectly entitled to quiz the charity founder Tom as to how much more he’d need to raise to have a school named after him! It is the good thing about being out in the field and seeing first-hand the effect of the cash on the community; we know his fundraising efforts will single-handedly open a school where one didn’t exist before. How powerful is that?
Race preparation takes on a whole new meaning in somewhere like this. For one reason or another, the marathon briefing doesn’t start until 8pm the evening before, by which time the advice about bringing your own electrolytes is rendered a little useless. Rumours abound there is a course map and race profile in circulation but no-one I speak to sees a copy. It’s another 4am start and rightly anticipating no electricity, I pack everything the night before by the light of my mobile. I feel like Ray Mears.
The atmosphere at the start line is electric despite the early hour. Runner numbers are swollen by an influx of locals for the three races being staged (a 5km, half marathon and marathon). The mood is further buoyed by the arrival of the president of Sierra Leone who plans to run the 5km event, showing that the event has become a big deal not just in Makeni, but across Sierra Leone as a whole. The significance of attracting the president to start the race isn’t lost on the runners. He explains the importance of Streetchild’s work and wishing us good luck proceeds with the countdown. In the few minutes before the starting gun fires, the sky brightens sufficiently to feel more like it's daytime. And then we’re off.
That early start now seems hours away. As the day draws on and the humidity takes its toll on the field, the pace takes a distinct dive, coupled with the fact the course is a lot hillier than we expected. As the pace evens out, I find myself overlapping with another runner and, as we pass the halfway point we decide to tackle the rest of the race together.
My new running partner Cecile and I engage in a strategy of walk-run depending on the steepness of the hill we’re tackling as the terrain turns from wide country road to trails winding down past field and villages through forest cover. The locals’ enthusiasm is infectious and our reduced speed is rewarded with warm welcomes and a particularly frightening moment when a horde of kids carrying pickaxes decide to run along with us. Losing a leg on a marathon wasn’t my intention.
Oddly, I’ve run in hotter conditions that this. The Sahara at midday can be a pretty warm place, but it’s a dry heat. This is different. Humidity hits 90 per cent and it’s a whole new ball game. It was a shock when we stepped off the plane when we arrived at 4am. The trite goodbye to the cabin crew was the last gasp of clean, crisp air I felt before hitting the impenetrable wall of moist air that hasn’t abated. For days, you’ve been able to sense the palpable unease among runners thinking ‘I didn’t think it was going to be quite this humid’.
In reality, we’ve been lucky with the weather. For the first time this week, it has been overcast and the sun has only peeked through the cloud to offer a fleeting glimpse of just how awful this run could have been. At least I do not have to worry about sunburn, just dehydration. Which is obviously much nicer.
The challenge of the humidity becomes hideously clear when we’re confronted with the sight of a runner rolling on the floor trying to fight off help from medics attending him. “Can either of you speak German?” someone barks at us. I look at Cecile - she’s French so I figure she’s going to be more of an expert than me. She tries a few words, but the runner is in a bad state and not listening, so we carry on and leave him to the professionals. Seeing that Cecile was feeling bad she couldn’t help out more, I try to reassure her. “But I’m a German teacher,” she says, sheepishly. Oh. (The runner was fine and the only incident of the race).
The course winds leisurely back towards the finish as the villages turn to suburbs and dirt track becomes tarmac. Finally, we’re spat out in the heart of Makeni’s smoky, crazy-busy town centre assaulting the senses with noise, bike fumes and colour. Barely able to breathe, we’re on the home straight and make it to the finish to generous applause from the runners who’ve already finished.
Crossing the line I expect a medal to be thrust round my neck. It doesn’t come as it turns out they’ve run out, such was the rush to snap up last-minute marathon places the day before. I seems a little churlish to complain about something as a trivial as this considering the setting and the fact it’s a hand-carved gem of a piece. I ponder how I’m officially too slow to get a medal (although David heroically offers me his) but I’ve had fun. Yes, I said it. With searing humidity, a shocking marathon time and looking like a drowned rat I have to admit it has been one of the most fun marathons I’ve ever run.
This is the race to leave all expectation at the start line and go run it for what it is. If you want timing chips, goody bags and all the amenities expected of the modern marathoner (like a course map), Sierra Leone is probably not for you. If you want a race experience to savour and genuinely rekindle a sense of what is important for a wholly worthwhile cause, this is one of the most inspiring and fulfilling experiences you could have.
For more details on running the Sierra Leone Marathon in 2014, go to www.sierraleonemarathon.com
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