Feel-good racing: the first Sierra Leone Marathon
You can see a photo gallery to accompany this feature here.
'Small, small,’ says the woman dressed in vibrant twists of wax-printed cotton, as she leaves her house to run beside me. That means ‘slow’ in the Sierra Leonean Krio language – and she’s really not wrong there. On a red dirt track dotted with discarded mango stones, we’re inching uphill together. The humidity is stifling, the thermometer’s pushing 33C and we’re running through what feels like power-shower sunshine: oppressive, relentless, driving. Then out of the heat haze, a man wearing a fur-trimmed Puffa jacket roars past on a motorbike and on into the bush. Welcome to the surreal scenes of Sierra Leone’s first ever marathon.
Racing for charity is not new, of course, and thanks to the rise of the destination race holiday, neither is the idea that a long-haul flight can form part of your race prep. But the Kiln Sierra Leone Marathon is something different, organised entirely by workers (most of them volunteers) from the charity Street Child of Sierra Leone (SCoSL). It’s one of a new breed of races that combine charity and travel, so competitors venture out, shake hands with the recipients of the money they’ve raised and see funded projects in action. There’s no minimum cash requirement, although most runners do aim to raise around £1,000. You can then stay for up to seven nights, with a packed schedule of visits to schools and Street Child projects leading up to race day itself. For even the most jaded runner, it’s an excellent reminder that there can be more to the sport than dropping those last few pounds or chasing a new PB. First things first: it’s time to leave behind any memories of drug-fuelled rebels toting Kalashnikovs on the evening news. Since the civil war ended in 2002, Sierra Leone (known locally as Salone) has marked itself out as a surprisingly safe and open-hearted country.
Yet the scars of war remain: 70 per cent of the population still live below the poverty line, and 3,000 children sleep out every night on the unpaved streets of the country’s major cities, amid open sewers, stray dogs and malaria-carrying bugs. In Sierra Leone, the infrastructure – roads, hotels, hospitals – often ranges from makeshift to non-existent.This may be why plenty of locals first thought that the idea of a race in their back yard was completely bonkers. Waiting for the ferry from Lungi airport to the capital, Freetown, I chat to Maxwell Duru, a web developer in his late 20s. Hearing of the race, he suddenly makes a fantastic noise: a shrill, good-natured, incredulous, ‘Eeeeeeeeeh!’ Salonean verbal shorthand for ‘Are you kidding me?’ I’ll hear it quite a few times over my seven-day stay. Usually after explaining that 386 of us (including 236 locals) are gathering not to mine for minerals or work with a non-government organisation, but to pin numbers to our chests and run.
You can see Maxwell’s point. Sierra Leone’s lush green countryside hasn’t been officially mapped since 1964, meaning race director Ben Hodgson had a hell of a job plotting out the route. Hitching a ride on the back of a motorbike exactly one year before the race, he describes ‘driving in circles for three days solid with a GPS unit, looking for runnable tracks and trails’. With the help of local residents, he came up with a lasso-shaped course from the hard-packed mud streets of Makeni – Sierra Leone’s third biggest city – right out to some of the tiny villages that dot the wilderness of the Bombali District. Even by the standards of a country that squeezes rainforest, mountains and mangrove swamps into a land the size of Wales, Makeni offers a spectacular mix of scenery and terrain.Far more poignant, though, is Makeni’s history: it was attacked in 1998 during the campaign chillingly named ‘Operation No Living Thing’, and served as the hub for the rebel Revolutionary United Front during the later years of the civil war. Reports from Human Rights Watch document the rebels’ unimaginably cruel tactics: amputations by machete, eye gougings, burns, injections with acid, rape, beatings. Young boys were coerced into working as child soldiers, while girls were often forced into sexual slavery, with reports that some had their achilles tendon sliced to prevent them from running away.
Robert Conteh was a young teen when the war ended. He remembers it as a restless, disorientating time: ‘We were always moving round – we were displaced every two, every three months. All the time we were expecting war; we were expecting to have to run.’ Now Robert is assistant development officer at the SCoSL project in Lunsar – a steady job helping other people to regain a stable life. Within 18 months, the centre – set up in partnership with HANCI, another charity – had taken 200 young Saloneans from the streets, reunited them with their families and enrolled them at school. ‘These are the two key areas for us – getting children back into homes, and back into education,’ says SCoSL founder Tom Dannatt. As a student Tom backpacked around west Africa, back when Sierra Leone topped the global poverty rankings and was, in Tom’s words, ‘officially the worst place in the world to live’. As most of us would be, Tom was humbled by the desperate poverty he saw. But unlike most of us, he did something about it, setting up SCoSL in 2008 in his spare time around his ‘official career – the career [he] felt [he] should have’, as director of a City of London recruitment firm. The charity blossomed, the team grew and the fundraising ideas became ever more ambitious. Which is how Tom’s tiny band of volunteers – with no real running experience behind them – found themselves organising a marathon in one the most challenging countries in the world. The local security forces, police and army all lent support, helping the race organisers clear basic hurdles – like the fact that Sierra Leone has no tradition of long-distance running at all, or that there’s a hectic stream of okada motorbike taxis haring through Makeni 24 hours a day.
There was also the tricky question of that tropical climate. Set for June 9, the race fell on the cusp of Sierra Leone’s rainy season, a six-month-long solid block of torrential downpours. On the eve of the race, a massive electrical storm looked like it might herald disaster – but the organisers pressed on, racing out to pick up the finish-line banners after they were buffeted to the ground by the gale. Thankfully, the rain held off for the race itself, although with humidity running north of 90 per cent, we all still ended up pretty soaked. That’s where the 62 first-aiders manning five medical stations – and six paddling pools filled with cool water – really came into their own. There were a handful of cases of heatstroke but no serious injuries and no one collapsed en route, an incredible achievement for such a hot day and such a hard course. Over patchy tarmac, dirt trails, and rock-strewn mud roads lined with open sewers, all 386 runners made it home safely.
Among those 386 were 30 former street children who ran the 5K race. Then there was Sally Koroma, who crossed the finish line of the full 26.2-miler in 4:20, becoming the first-ever Salonean woman to run a marathon on home turf. She did this, by the way, before she’d eaten any breakfast. The star of the show, though, was Idrissa Kargbo. Idrissa’s passport has him as 22, but he isn’t completely sure about that, guessing his age at the end of the war as between 10 and 14. During the conflict, his family fled from Freetown to his father’s village in Port Loko. ‘It was devastated by rebels while we were there,’ he says. ‘They bulldozed our house and killed my cousin. They tried to cut my father’s hands off, but God saved him from that. It was night, and I was running around looking for my father and mother, but I couldn’t [find them]. ‘I lived for two years on the streets with my friends. I was never involved in any fighting – I was always running away. I didn’t want to kill anyone. Every time the rebels tried to capture me, I slid away.’ Idrissa won the marathon in a startlingly fast 2:38:27. The former street child had turned into a national champ. ‘By God’s grace I will be there next year to defend my title,’ he says. ‘It means everything. It was my first international run. It’s so good that the British people came and want to help the street children here. We want to welcome them to Salone.’
He’s spot-on about that warm welcome. Friendly shouts of ‘Aporto! Aporto!’ rang out every time the Salonean children spotted a white face (the word derives from the 15th century Portuguese settlers). Everywhere we walked in Makeni, big groups of youngsters scrambled up to chat, wanting to hold hands, or high-five, or ask us to take their photo a few hundred times. That palpable excitement kept me going during the race, especially the moment when I turned around to realise that I had a small entourage of kids in school uniform jogging along politely behind me. Not that the children have a monopoly on warmth here. One of the most striking things about Salone is how readily everyone will reach out to greet a stranger. Sometimes in totally surprising ways. During the race, a runner named Muktai told me he belonged to the Freetown branch of the Hash House Harriers. ‘The drinking club?’ I asked. ‘With the running problem?’ He grinned and said ‘Yes! ON, ON!’ It was the most encouraging thing I’ve ever had shouted at me on the run. The slower finishers got to experience much more of this than the front-of-packers – after watching the fast runners whizz by, children and women spontaneously jogged with me twice more along the route.
The inevitable trade-off: us slowcoaches also caught more of that sun. The race started at 6:15am, so the day’s temperatures were just peaking by the time I reached the Lunsar-Makeni Highway in the final few miles. A rare stretch of flat, paved road, this was actually a far bigger challenge than the rolling uphills of Masimera’s dirt tracks, where runners were enveloped by the shade of mango trees, and race organisers regularly rolled up on motorbikes to throw you plastic pouches of water. Here, the sun’s rays bounced right back off the tarmac, while traffic zoomed past so thickly it wasn’t safe for the water carriers to stop. Gratifyingly, even race-winner Idrissa was spotted run-walking a little here. Using a run-limp-walk-shuffle system of my own, I reached the finish line and accepted my wooden race medal. I’d added a full hour to my marathon best time, but making it to the end of this crazy, difficult, inspiring race still felt like a PB of sorts.
That evening, it was all back to SCoSL’s Clubhouse, a bar/restaurant whose profits all go back to the charity. We ploughed through plates of peppery fish, chicken and rice, and drank the local Star beer, famed for the fact that no two batches ever taste quite the same. The trip hadn’t been totally smooth-running: one racer’s luggage went missing, while a vehicle breakdown had stranded a few of us for a couple of hours among the grass-roofed huts of a remote village on our way to Makeni. (The van was missing its fuel cap, so with typical resourcefulness, the driver had wedged a jerry can full of petrol under his seat to syphon it off directly into the engine below. In Salone, you soon learn to take this kind of thing in your stride – although we did stand back a bit when the driver started gazing into the van’s steamy mechanical innards, lit cigarette in hand.) Minor hiccups aside, though, I didn’t hear anyone regret their decision to do this race. What I did hear was a lot of professions of gratitude and unity. ‘Everyone here’s been through the same tough experience, it’s a bond between us all now,’ said my fellow marathoner Josh Ord-Hume, 41. The same sentiment goes for the Saloneans themselves. Idrissa, who belongs to the Temne ethnic group, says, ‘I was also running with So-Sos, Limbas, Mendes, but I didn’t think about that. In Sierra Leone we are all one.’
Making a difference
When you sign up for the Sierra Leone marathon, your bed, breakfast and travel come included in the admittedly hefty price (see Kaboh Na Salone, next page). Yet I’d urge you to stay longer and take advantage of the optional extras if you can. You could leave SCoSL behind and take a trip to Tribe Wanted, an eco-community living self-sufficiently on a gorgeous stretch of coastland on the Western Area Peninsula. (Think of the Bounty chocolate bar ads – they were filmed on a Salonean beach.)Alternatively, you could see more of the charity’s work beyond what’s included with the package. We’d all already visited a school in Bumbuna, where we were mobbed by happy, thriving children and served massive portions of cassava-leaf stew. We’d also all had a chance to see several Street Child Centres, including one in Makeni where 120 children a year are given food, clothing and shelter. The smiling boys, as young as five or six, leapt on the chance to play football. The young women, saved from the commercial sex trade, were more obviously traumatised, many staring silently ahead while their young children toddled around. It’s a hint of what Tom meant back at the marathon launch, when he said, ‘The boys’ cases are sad; the girls’ stories could tear your heart open.’
So what can the charity do to help stop children ending up on the street in the first place? To find out a little about it, I joined a trek out to Tambahka, a chiefdom near the Guinea border. This is where SCoSL launched Every Child in School, a programme to help fund teacher training and set up – or improve – village schools. The journey was an adventure in itself, our marathon-weary bodies bouncing around as the charity’s 4x4 drove for hours over the potholed roads. (This bit took longer than it should have done because we stopped to let a chameleon cross the road.) There was a crossing over the Little Scarcies River, the car dragged across on a raft while a topless woman washed her clothes on the riverbank opposite and a family floated past in a hollowed-out tree. Then, during a stop in head village Samaya, where we were welcomed with beating drums and balangi xylophones, our guide John Momodu Kargbo asked permission from the chief’s representative to travel through Tambakha. The reply came, ‘May God guide you, protect you and convey you to safety. You are here in good will… I am very, very happy with your project.’ So we continued, following the same route John told us the retreating rebels had taken into Guinea as the civil war started to turn.
At Komoya Community Primary School, headmaster Lansana PS Kamara introduced us to an elderly man named Pa Kamara [no relation]. He had lost his hands to the rebels’ machetes, but now Pa was chairman of the school management committee, a living reminder of how drastically things are changing for the better in Sierra Leone. In Bendugu, meanwhile, the original school burnt down two years ago, leaving children to take lessons under the patchy shelter of a mango tree. Now, we saw how the temporary structures erected by SCoSL were giving way to permanent buildings, built using bricks of gravel and sand created by the villagers. Think you could raise that £1,000? Then you could cover the cost of a temporary structure and help get this process under way. Together, the 386 runners raised £400,000 for Street Child – 90 per cent of which will go directly to the projects on the ground. Still, there’s more to be done. Six months after the race, SCoSL presented parliament with the first official headcount of Salone’s uncared-for children. They found 50,000 still ‘living lives controlled by the street.’ Perhaps that’s the real reason why running a marathon in a developing country can seem completely daunting. Apart from the training, the financial commitment and the tough terrain, there’s the overwhelming scale of the poverty you’ll be raising funds to help fight. Races such as the Sierra Leone Marathon are an enormous challenge, on every possible front.But it’s absolutely worth it. My favourite memory comes from the race’s excruciating final few miles: stumbling back into Makeni’s urban streets, I found locals repeating ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ Heightened by gratitude towards SCoSL, this is also pretty much how Saloneans react whenever they see somebody exercising on the street. In a country where people’s life expectancy hovers under 50, citizens see any effort to keep yourself healthy as a positive contribution to society. They were actually thanking us just for the simple act of running.
The 2013 Sierra Leone Marathon takes place on May 26. Visit kilnsierraleonemarathon.com to enter, or get inspired with the promo video...