Friday, February 15, 2008

The Benefits of Exercise

We have finally taken up running again. Though we consider ourselves runners, we had not laced up our running shoes in over two months. In fact, because I can wear leather sandals to school, I do not believe I have worn shoes for the last two months. It is not that we are opposed to exercise; in fact we really enjoy our running and find it to be rejuvenating. Recently our largest deterrents have been the added laundry that accumulates and the uncompromising African sun that has decided to shine relentlessly for the better part of the last month. The laundry really should not be an issue. Yes, we have to do it by hand, but either way we are doing laundry each week. The dry-fit clothing we run in is actually the easiest to wash anyhow. My attempts at rain dances at the top of our mountain have failed, so we are stuck with the blazing heat. The only respite we receive is in the predawn light of early morning and the last rays of sun in the late evening. If you know us, you know that predawn is out. Though I do not sleep until noon as I might have as a teen, 4:45am is too early unless I am hunting, fishing or playing golf. So we have opted for the waning light of day to reconnect with one of our favorite pass times. Fortunately for us we have a half marathon looming in our not so distant future that requires a bit of training.

Therefore last week we dusted off the cobwebs from our shoes (literally), dug out a pair of once white socks and made our way the front gate at a rather slow gait. The first few times out have been a bit rough. Apparently my body has not only lost its ability to sleep until noon, it has also lost the ability to recover quickly from a relatively feeble attempt at physical activity. Despite those frustrations it has felt great in so many other ways. I most certainly have more energy, which has been especially helpful as my workload at school steadily increases. It forces me to organize my evenings and I have been more productive as well; all the same arguments made in support of exercise, in all its forms, in every magazine and talk show from Runners World to Oprah. However, one benefit I had not considered, and which is usually not found in the 'get fit quick' guide, is that as we increase our distances during training, we make our way into the parts of our village we see less frequently. At this point we are part of the village and people know us. The surprise for them now is that we are out exercising or 'gyming' as some of my students like to call it, in their neighborhood at a new time of day. When our routine changes, the whole village knows and comes out to see.

Running is not a pass time adopted by many in our village. The youth are intrigued yet unconvinced that this is really a great idea. Old women smile and wave from behind their large black pots of steaming bogobe as their grandchildren run to the gate yelling our names and waving, not letting up until we say hello and wave back (towards the end of our run when we are short of breath this becomes more of a labor). Old men resort to the one finger wave with a slight nod of the head, commonly used between farmers in their trucks on gravel country roads back home. We pass the open field where men and women from the ZCC church gather for evening singing and dancing, as well as the bottle store across the street where men are always sitting. Both groups of people are always smiling warmly at us. Though one set of smiles is warm with faith and the other set warm with drink, each are happy to see us. We see people coming in from the fields with their cattle, women carrying enormous bundles of wood on their head, navigating winding dirt tracks yet not needing a hand for balance. Boys playing soccer are around every corner and sometimes we just have to run right through their game in the middle of the road. They do not mind at all, in fact they want us to stop and play. Just this week I was out on my own and a small group of boys took up a sprint alongside me and continued to stay with me for the last few kilometers of my outing. They were huffing and puffing their way down dirt and gravel paths littered with broken class and pieces of barbed wire stride for stride with me. One wore old Converse shoes, one flip flops, one his nice school shoes and the last boy was barefoot yet never once slowed down! I was amazed. They are all students our schools and they ask me now if I will be out running again each night. The village likes having us around and they show it when we are out on our evening runs. It is a great way to be visible in the community and we often find ourselves in conversation with neighbors as we take a cool down walk back to the house. It is possibly the best benefit I have gained from starting up again.

As the villagers have come to accept us, we in turn have accepted our position here and I frequently find myself forgetting that we are the only white people living here. Half way through my run on Monday I was passing by our every smiling friends at the bottle store when a truck slowed down behind me. I veered to the shoulder and kept pace, waiting for it to pass. Instead I heard a voice asking, in English, if I was ok. I turned to see a white farmer in his truck, most likely heading back to his farm for the night. My seemingly logical response that I was fine and just out for my evening run earned a rather puzzled look from the farmer. I followed up by mentioning that I live in the village. He shook his head in disbelief as he ground the gears into first and continued on his way. It took me by surprise that my presence was shocking to him, but it reminded my as I continued on my way that I was indeed a rare sight. I half expected the headline of the local paper the next day to read 'Tall White Kid Resides in Local Village!’ We move so easily in between town and the village that we sometimes forget we are the exception, not the rule when it comes to many interracial interactions. It makes it that much more enjoyable for me, knowing that I can be the person who will hopefully provide a bridge from one person to another, even if it all it takes is finally putting on a pair of shoes and stepping out the door. Who ever thought running could be so beneficial?


Brandon & Rachel said...

I have to say that I couldn't control the laughter as I worked my way through that entry, my favorite part being the newspaper headline.

Maybe I'll bring a video camera over to Seleka sometime and run behind you guys so everyone at home can catch a glimpse of the experience, cause I know words can hardly do it justice (although I don't think you could've said it any better).

Although Rach and I choose the 4:45am option for our running (since we are the type of people that can rarely stay awake past 9pm), we can definitely share the joy with you that is felt when finding that sense of belonging in your village. We often joke that you two put us to shame when it comes to local language, but it is true. And beyond that, I know that you guys are making ... and WILL make ... an incredible contribution to Seleka and the surrounding communities over the course of the next 19 months.

Heck, we're just two other Americans and we're sure glad you're here.

Vanessa said...

Paul and JJ- I always get so excited when I see a new entry on the blog. I enjoy reading the thoughts and insight from you both. Every day you guys inspire me! Keep on making the world a better place, all my loveeee! Vanessa


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