Tag Archives: teamwork

10k

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As a recent running convert, I have never actually done any sort of “organized running” you might say. You know, 5K, 10K, and marathon races. However, there certainly is a first time for everything and why not raise the stakes when living in East Africa? Thus, I decided early on in my Peace Corps experience that I wanted to participate in the Kigali Peace Marathon.

The marathon itself draws a decent crowd, I would guess around 300ish runners—maybe even more? This year, 20 countries were represented (and shocking, Kenya dominated in all categories) and in the 8th edition of the race, the Ministry of Sports and Culture dubbed the theme as, “Sports as a tool to fight against youth drug use” (why it couldn’t simply have been “anti-drugs for youth” or something is beyond me). The course began and ended at the bright and bold green and yellow Amahoro (meaning ‘peace’) Stadium where football matches of high regard are often held. I have to say, in entering the stadium to get to the starting line, I let my imagination go a little wild, and felt a sliver of what it might feel like to enter the Olympic opening ceremony (that could also be a severe exaggeration). It was hard to not feel like a rock star, and I certainly wasn’t alone. Among me and my Peace Corps friends, we cheered for ourselves, pumped our fists, and did a little dancing. We’re weird. Nobody around barely turned a head (they were busy with the serious business of warming up) but hey, we were having fun. I really had to use the bathroom beforehand and I had to move quickly; the race was starting only 30 minutes after the scheduled start—that’s like being on time in this part of the world. Of course, toilet paper had yet to be provided in the stalls and well, let’s just say I had to improvise, Drastically. I found my way to the mass of adrenaline-induced runners with my small green IPOD shuffle in hand. It’s what I call a “special” IPOD because the part where I can change the song is broken and so though it still functions, I have to listen to whatever comes on the shuffle, whether it be Lady Gaga, the Dave Matthews Band, or a reggae inspired African jam. I wasn’t deterred; I was simply hopeful that I’d get some dynamite-pump up songs like My Time or Warrior as opposed to my inappropriately extensive Celine Dion collection. Celine is great…but not so much when trying to run miles and miles in the roads of Kigali among East African beast runners.

The muffled sound of the race MC was gargled and hard to understand, but as he counted down to 1, I realized that it was just about time to go! I fist-pumped with Nate, another Peace Corps Volunteer and we were off! My job was simple: I was the first runner of our four-man relay team. Our team consisted of me in the first spot, Jon, Sara, and finally, Meredith. I was hoping to set a good pace and a good time for my team to follow.

I started the race right around 7:23 am and came trotting back into the stadium, sleeves rolled up, banana stains on my hot pink shorts, sweat running down my face after close to an hour out on the trail. That brought my pace to about a 9:00 per mile pace—the best ever recorded? Hardly. But, pretty solid for my first official run.

Here’s what really happened out there:

7:23: depart Amahoro stadium in the first wave of runners. Run past the few camera-men. Smile. Grin. Keep good form—don’t appear too inexperienced. Have a couple second freak out: I am only spotting the numbers and colors coordinated with half and full marathoners. Did I leave with the wrong group? I am running with the relay, and I sure as hell am not running 20, 30, or 40 K!! ….have a sigh of relief when realizing that everybody runs the same course. The relayers run the course once. The half-marathoners run it twice, and the big winners of the day, the full-marathoners, run the same course four times. Phew.

7:24: not sure exactly when the second wave of runners was released but, my oh my, did I ever hear those runners coming. I heard the slap of foot and shoes meeting the cement as I simultaneously turned to see about a group of 30 elite Rwandan and Kenyan runners heading my way. I moved to the right side of the road instantly. I did not need (or want) to be trampled by some of the best runners I have ever seen.

7:25: note the time on my watch. Think for a couple minutes about why I continually wear my nice, turquoise watch that I purchased at the Tokyo airport a few years back, as opposed to a more sensible sports watch. Plan to buy sports watch/ask for one to be sent in the near future. Also realize quite instantly, how alone running is. I’ve loved that about the sport during the past few months, but even though I was running on a TEAM today, the actual sport itself comes down to you, and you alone. It’s you, your legs, and your mind.

7:30: feeling pretty good about form and running on the pavement. Was a bit worried about running on asphalt after training for the past few months on the dirt roads in my village…but so far, so good.

7:40: pass the Peace Corps office. The guards in their recognizable bright blue security outfits, are outside the ominous white gate with the Peace Corps insignia, cheering any PCVs they see. They wave at me, shouting “Komera!” (my most favorite Kinyarwanda phrase—meaning be strong) while smiling fully and warmly. Love them.

7:44: loop back around, passing Bourbon Coffee (really wishing I could have a coffee to go) and the Peace Corps office once again. At this point, tables have been set up full of bananas (and of the crack banana variety—what I call the small, sugary, best bananas in the world that Rwanda has all over the country). A race volunteer scrambles and hands me four bananas. Yummy. I rip each banana open recklessly and without any regard for manners, and chew on these bananas like I am some kind of cave woman. Suddenly, my four bananas are gone and I am empty-handed. Dangit, I think. I might just pay for that later in the race.

7:50: head back in the direction of the stadium along one of the main roads in the city. People are watching as we pass. Some cheer. Some stare. Some laugh. It certainly is Rwanda, isn’t it?

7:53: hit halfway point; 5K finished. Cruising and genuinely enjoying myself.

7:54: run along stations that are in charge of providing squeezy foamy concoctions to each runner so that they stay cool. I would learn this about 2 seconds too late, as I initially tried to squeeze the foam in such a way so that I could actually drink the water. Oops. The men and women at the station gawked and gasped. It was then I realized that this water was for my outer skin to be cool from the raging Rwanda sun…oh well. What can you do?

7:55: continue the run towards the eastern part of the city. This includes passing by the stadium…I suppose I thought I was faster than I really was at this point? Because, I somehow thought the race was ending soon because we had come by the stadium. But no. Oh no. We ran along the stadium gates, continued by UN Kigali offices, and headed toward the part of town known as Remera. I am familiar with this part of town especially, because Remera has the bus station that is my destination anytime I am coming from out East into Kigali.

8:00: consume two more bananas.

8:01: begin to regret all of the banana consumption.

8:02: major stomach cramp takes over. Refuse to stop no matter what. Begin to run at a snail pace. Some European man eggs and cheers me on as he runs with his bright blue camelback; after passing me, he proceeds to do a little crowd pleaser by dancing as he runs on by. I don’t have the kind of energy or strength for that. I can barely breathe with these intense stomach pains!

8:05: begin to wonder when I will see the stadium again and descend upon the end of this rather long run.

8:10: cramps subside; feeling better and stronger. Wanting to finish strong and complete the 10K with a smile on my face.

8:12: arrive on the grounds of the stadium. Miss Independent (my former favorite “African song” from Ghana…until I realized it was a classic hit from the AMERICAN, Ne-Yo…oops) is playing loudly on the speakers. Feeling my own independence and strength, I run faster.

8:15: the trail continues in a complete circle around the stadium. Really, I mean, really?

 8:20: enter the stadium for one final lap to the finish line. My team and other Peace Corps participants are there to cheer me on. “You got it Heather! Yay!” They are awesome.

8:22: cross the finish line. (!!!!!) realize that I must slap Jon’s hand for him to get going. Hastily grab his hand for him to get going.

8:22 (cont.): realize just how much my legs hurt. And my stomach. Damn bananas.

We waited around for the next few hours as our relay teams finished and some of our friends even did the full and half marathons. Our relay team, bless their heart, finished last (or maybe it was second to last) among relay teams. However, to be fair, our last runner, Meredith, had to deal with a torrential downpour during her run. She has the best attitude though, and only worried about finishing and bringing our team home. We rocked it.

As we waited for our teams to finish, World Vision (the main sponsor of the event) workers announced alongside with representatives of the Ministry, the main winners of the day. As already mentioned, the Kenyans dominated. Completely. With the exception of one Rwandan woman who finished in the top 3 for the full-marathon women, all winners were Kenyan.

Two of the best moments after my run were this:

  • We watched as one man, who only has one leg, and thus uses crutches for support, finished the half-marathon before many other people. He got probably one of the loudest cheers of the day.
  • Some of the Peace Corps Volunteers received a grant to take some of their students to the marathon to compete in the relays. One student in particular, was glowing upon reaching the finish line. He’s a short little guy, shorter than me even, but he ran hard and his teammates were so happy for him, and for each other. About 20 PCV Rwandan students ran in the marathon, and for them, was an opportunity to learn about nutrition, about sport, but more than anything, an opportunity to do something pretty awesome. That was a great thing to see, and I’m hoping to get involved with that grant next year so some of my kids can come and run!

After the rain passed and we made it back to the Peace Corps hostel to clean up, a few of us grabbed a heck of a lot of Chinese food. We ate. A lot. I headed back home that evening, exhausted, but also thrilled that I participated in such an event.

Running, as painful, challenging, and difficult as it can be, also opens these doors to clarity, peace, and self-fulfillment. I’m addicted. I want to run another race already (next year, I’m gunning for the half, and have already set my eyes on participating in the Princess Marathon at Disney World upon return from Peace Corps). Running is meditative,..and on top of everything else, great for your health. I’ve lost about 30 pounds—the healthy way—and I think I’ve survived the tougher days when I’ve been out on the trail. I’m not especially good at it, but maybe that’s what makes it so great. You don’t have to be. You do it for your reasons, and support the people around you who are doing the very same thing, even if their reasons are entirely different.

10K? Check. 

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dig deep

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It’s rainy season and so you have to play the game: the rain rules. When you see the clouds forming in a perfect synchronization against all your plans for the day, run. And, run fast. The rain is coming. Just a few weeks ago, I recall facing the ultimate decision in my short Peace Corps life: to bathe or to drink? (I chose to drink). Water was short and so it was a precious commodity. Now, we can’t get enough of it. Need water? Wait an hour. Like an annoying tick that just won’t go away, the rain sticks close by these days. Oh—and to be sure, when it rains, don’t be fooled. It will be cold. Your to-do list will take 1 week longer than you originally planned. The road will turn into a swampy pit waiting for its next victim (likely you). And, it could rain for 2-3 hours at a time. Or 24 hours straight like it did last week.

Like I said, you play by the rains’ rules. And so, in efforts to do so, we had our first official sports practice today—at 12:30, yes in the middle of the school day—hoping to finish right before the coming of the daily rain. No matter my perfectly planned out English lessons—it was time to play ball. And you guessed it, I was ready to finally coach and jump on in.

I raced home (which took all of 53 seconds since I live a hop and a skip away) and grabbed my gear that I nerdily already had set out: my running shoes (laid out on newspaper due to the mud from yesterday’s run), my hot pink shorts, black leggings (gotta keep up with the conservatism), my black Nike running shirt, my handy (and lucky—I’ve had this baby for a few years now) pink bandana, and finally, best of all, the whistle mom and Randy sent in a package. Coach Heather: ready for action!

I was earnestly surprised that practice had come so quickly after envisioning this whole thing at the end of last term in early April. However, working within the system is absolutely the way to go, and I have some Rwandan counterparts equally eager to see our school sports more organized. Beforehand, the structures existed, but I’m hoping to instill a sense of organization and ownership: where the students come to really value the teams they are on and make practice and everything that comes with that a regular part of the week. I suppose practices were getting in full swing too because sector officials said the sector needed a team representative to represent at a national tournament coming up? The details seemed a bit frayed, but whatever, we were playing and that is what really matters, right?

Lesson #1: We have a very. very. long way to go. The first day of practice, indeed, was not an aspiring Disney sports movie in the making.

Lesson #2: As expected, it’s going to be extra difficult with girls as opposed to boys.

Lesson #3: Even though sports do transcend a helluva lot of boundaries, cultural and language barriers will persist. What does this mean for organized drills? CHAOS.

Practice went a little something like this:

We walked down to the pitch to begin. The boys’ coach was preoccupied and so Alphonse, an upper level student, was leading their football team to start (apparently it was a football-practice-only day?). As for the girls? 100% entirely in my hands.

We split the field (half for us, half for the boys) and I tried to lead the half-committal/half non-committal groups in a team run. We had many curious student onlookers; earlier in the week we had made somewhat of an official roster, but in this moment that felt like a thing of the past. The girls said over and over again, “Teacher! Heather! The sun! our heads…No…no teacher…”

Wow. I really got myself into this?

After a failed run attempt, a botched circle passing game, and a less than impressive shuttle drill, the girls pressed for a real scrimmage. I looked at my watch. Surely we could a scrimmage at this point, surely it had been at least 45 minutes of a good effort to have some semblance of a practice that I had envisioned.  Since the start, 20 minutes had passed. 20. Minutes.

I thought about leaving. It didn’t help when I glanced over at the boys’ practice. There they were, conditioning, doing perfectly coordinated stretches. Organization! I told my girls to take a look and I continued to tell them that they were not “being serious.” To not be “serious” is the ultimate Rwandan sin; it basically means to be actin’ a fool. I told them we could do a full-field play, but we needed to get it together. Granted, I was trying to tell them all of this in Kinyarwanda, so who knows what I was actually saying. Probably something like, “we are together! Please try…girls! Yes. Let’s practice! We are together…” (I can’t imagine it was very pretty sounding…)

15 minutes later, after dividing the teams (somehow, this took forever) I blew the whistle to begin. I suppose I maybe contributed to the length of time it took to start: I chose team captains, and to decide possession, I had them guess which number I was holding behind my back.

 Heather: “okay girls, choose a number between 1-10.”

Jeannine: “15.”

Heather: “Okay, no. Between 1-10. 1…2…3…4…”

Jeannine: (translates to Solange in Kinyarwanda) “1.”

Solange: “10.”

Heather: “You sure? You can choose any number between 1-10. 1…2…3…maybe even 8, for example.”

Jeannine: “8.”

Solange: “5.”

The number was 3. Sometimes, I don’t know why I do the things I do.

But, alas, we started and I could finally settle back in this coaching thing. I was undeniably happy, but also found myself wondering if my presence really mattered. They didn’t seem to really care about any minute sense of authority that I had…maybe I just needed a different approach?…Maybe I just needed to remember that the sports background I come from looks a lot different than what these girls are used to. Maybe I just need to focus on the little things first…

It was then that I watched the following happen in about a 7 second timeframe:

3 girls kicked the ball into each other’s stomach (on accident), at least 6 pairs of shoes were flying in the air from kicking the ball, and Ange fell flat on her face from the pot hole where I sprained my ankle back in January, nearly 6 months ago. She came up laughing hysterically and that was when I just let go. I laughed so hard I could barely stand—in fact, I was holding myself up by my hands, nearly rolling in laughter. It just struck me as completely comical to watch that series of unfortunate events unfold.

I decided then and there to relax. This whole Peace Corps thing is all about letting go of control, so why would this be any different? I have a vision for this team, absolutely, and I believe in it. But more than anything, it’s important the girls are playing at all—I don’t want to lose sight of that.

Plus, there were some very impressionable players out there today. Jeannine, for example, captain of team 1, is a rock! She comes from nowhere and finds her way to every ball. Sylvie is deceptive, a girl who doesn’t look the part, and yet somehow can slick through a slew of defenders. Maybe my favorite was a young woman who I don’t even know the name of, but she’s seriously fierce. I can tell she loves being out there, loves being a leader, and refuses to give up even if she misses a pass or a header. She wants it—and you can’t coach that.

The girls told me after 30 or so minutes that the rain was coming. I told them we would go another 5 minutes and then come together to stretch it out before heading home. A minute later, they insisted. The rain is coming. I tried for a hasty last minute huddle, but they were already gone. I opened my mouth to yell out when in the very same moment, the sky opened and the rain came. And it sure came hard. My goodness, Rwandans really can read the sky.

We had a sports meeting once we took shelter back at the school and the boys coach, Nkusi, gave the athletes their “motivation”.

What was this so called motivation?

Inspirational quotes?

Photos?

Water, maybe?

No. Oh good gracious no. The motivation, I kid you not, was sugar. SUGAR. Straight, brown sugar, right from the bag.

And there I was, again, laughing, barely containing myself. This was really happening. Each of the players tore out a piece of notebook paper, shaped it like a cone from your run of the mill county fair, and awaited for the bag to come so they could dump the sugar contents right on in for their own little treat. You could not have asked this scene to be more Rwandan. I knew they loved sugar (hence the minimal 4 scoops into each cup of tea) but this? Really?

Coaching here is going to be…an adventure. But, despite everything, it feels so right. Being in your element, you just know it when you are, and I really feel good about the possibilities this has for everyone: the girls, me, the school, even our community.

Before I left school, after practice, I was pulled aside by a couple of my younger students who stuck behind to do some extra studying. They were alone in an empty, dirty classroom with extra chalk they had managed to scrape up, writing on the board. I stayed late to help them for about an hour; they had question after question about English. Mostly, it was words they didn’t understand (probably from the days’ lectures in other classes), but it was also grammar, verbs, and even things like the meaning of human rights, and my personal favorite: the meaning and definition of heavenly bodies. As I was explaining how this could potentially refer to the idea of angels, I realized exactly what they were asking. Heavenly bodies? Oh my. As in telling someone they have the most perfect, absolutely stunning body? Yeah, I just kept going with the angel thing and mumbled a comment that some people use that phrase if someone is very beautiful?

After that, and quite the practice, I slowly walked home (in the rain of course), past the goats and the cows, on the small dirt path next to the Pastor’s house, greeted Baraka (my three year old best friend) and smiled to myself. I smiled even wider as I thought about the experiences I had had in the previous couple of hours.

 My goodness, my life is weird.

 **SPORTS UPDATE**:

 Later that week, we had a set of matches at home and a set of matches away at the only other secondary school in my sector. The boys and girls each played two matches for each sport: volleyball and football. The girls finished 3-1 (losing only the away football match) and the boys finished 2-2 (winning both volleyball matches but falling in both football matches rather decisively).

We played at home on Wednesday and I found myself completely wrapped up and enamored with the surge of school spirit. Classes were stopped for the matches, a drum was played during the games, and the students were into it! In volleyball, for example, the students would scream out the students’ names each time they struck the ball, for example,

Tuyisenge!

Syliva!

Oliva!

Nyirasenga!

You get the idea. It was fun. And my, how it was stressful! I suppose I didn’t fully realize the emotion that goes into being a coach—you have to stand by and watch everything happen, hoping that your team pulls through.

On Friday, we played our matches away, in a village called Bugambira. It’s about an hour and a half walk from my house and so I rode Whitney, my bike, along the muddy dirt roads. It was fine for a while, but of course, about 20 minutes into my journey, it started to rain. My bike’s name, an ode to the late diva, behaved much like the singer herself. Whitney is fantastic when she’s properly working, but wow, when she’s down, she is down. I was flying all over the place before I sort-of-kind-of fell into a bunch of mud. Mud had already splattered all over my face and clothes; old women headed to the farmer’s bank just laughed and I heard a plane in the sky above me. In that moment, I thought a plane to America would suit me just fine.

Yet, when I finally did make it to the other secondary school, I saw my girls and all of that dissipated entirely. They wiped dirt off my face and I think were genuinely surprised that I made the journey given the weather. Oh please, I thought. Like rain could keep me away from this!

We headed into a newly built classroom (this school is in its first year) and with the help of the other coaches, we laid out a relatively thrown together game plan. We decided positions for both volleyball and football, and when asked to give a speech (not just because its sports culture; oh no, it’s Rwandan culture), I fumbled to the front of the classroom, unsure of what to say. The boys were all in there with us, and so I figured it would be best to keep it relatively general.

On the top of my head, I remembered the phrase dig deep, a phrase I personally found motivating before big games, and so I told them all what this meant. To dig is a well-known verb (hello, everyone and their mom—literally—are farmers) and so when I explained that they had to keep pushing and going even if they were tired, somehow, I think they got it. We set a goal (referring back to my goal-setting lessons for the week) and our goal was pretty straight-forward and direct: our goal is to be the winners. Good. Whatever works.

And like I have all my students do in my classroom, I had them cheer for themselves. It sounds a bit like, “wooohooo….oooooo” and it makes my heart smile.

I could not have been prouder of my girls, most especially during the volleyball match. They won the first set easily, but got pretty destroyed in the second set. That left the outcome of the game to the very last set, and like in true sports glory, it came down to the very last serve. I winced as the ball was set, and though I wanted to close my eyes (like I said, this whole coaching thing is quite stressful), I forced myself to watch. The ball hit the opponent’s ground after a bungled pass and I let myself close my eyes for an instant. I heard screams, cheers, and happiness. The girls bounded towards each other, without any care for the mud lining their skin and clothes, and jumped up and down. This was the girls match mind you, but I would suggest that this victory attracted more attention and vigor than the boys’ were able to produce that very same day. My girls—Zahara, Slvian, Tuyisenge, Olive, Maisara, to name a few—hugged me without abandon and kept repeating, “we are the winners! We are the winners!”

Yes, yes, yes we are.

There aren’t really a whole lot of words to describe just how cool it is to be involved with something like this.

The world keeps moving, you know. People—the families of these girls, even—continue to deal with day-to-day issues of poverty and rural life in a developing country. One of my players, Jeannine, even told me the other day that her mother is sick; so sick, that it’s a question of life and death. I know very well that many of these girls can barely afford to be at school, they go home most days and fetch water, cook food, clean the house, or do whatever else they can to help their families. I’ve somehow become numbed by it (simply in that it is a part of my life and community every single day) but the poverty really is staggering. It really isn’t okay.

And yet, for these moments of success and happiness….it’s so clear in my mind that there is nowhere else I would rather be. This is why I am here as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and after just a little time out there on the pitch, the ground, the field…whatever you want to call it…I’ve found a love that I knew existed, I just didn’t know to what extent. I don’t want to paint a picture like some sappy sports inspirational movie. I don’t want to pretend that kicking a ball around makes everything okay and that it will solve every single problem my students have. But in my heart of hearts, it has more value than we can even know. It’s an absolutely beautiful thing to witness, which in all actuality is the very best part. It’s the girls doing what they are doing, not me. It’s them. It’s always been them, and it will always be them. This, in essence, is the development of believing in themselves. In who they are, and what they can do.

Peace Corps wants sustainability? Well, here you go. Here’s sustainability served on a silver platter.