At its best, running is a transformative experience. Read on about how a Canadian teacher made a special connection with children in Namibia, using her feet instead of her words.
Dawn Ruddick is a teacher who lives in Ontario, Canada. In this Guest Post, which originally appeared in the TORONTO GLOBE AND MAIL, she writes a beautiful tale about the unexpected pay-offs of running in Namibia.
I first donned running shoes ten winters ago, after my brother and I chanced upon a running guide while wandering through a bookstore. My brother breathed in; his expanding waistline obligingly retracted. I ran my index finger automatically over the sags in my chin. We locked eyes, grinned determinedly, and bought two copies of the book.
My brother went on to run two marathons before I had finished chapter five. While he was testing the limits of his body and mind, I was cajoling my running partners into short runs along the Toronto shoreline, ending in long, fattening meals at local restaurants. Then, at the age of 32 and at the end of a significant relationship, I decided to leave my teaching job, pack my runners, and head for the desert of Namibia. It was there that I finally made peace with my running shoes and my life.
Namibia had long been a country divided. Almost a hundred years of enforced segregation, ethnic separation and economic disparity had left its mark, and its legacy; vast commercial farms owned and operated by a white minority cover the southern 90% of the country. The less fertile land to the north remains the home of the black majority.
By the 1960s this division was manifest in a literal line in the sand, called The Red Line. I came to live above this ‘fault’ line, guarded by the military and a residual reminder of the great divide between blacks and whites that had long been Namibia’s story. With the onset of Apartheid, the people of Oshikuku, the village in which I lived, were subject to war, restricted movement and banishment from education. Beatings and torture were the threat and the promise of those dark years.
I spent my days in the village teaching students who perched narrow slabs of wood on their knees as makeshift desks. I would leave them preparing to study into the night by the light of one dangling light bulb, and run away the day along a diminutive canal where bits of debris bobbed like unhappy ducks in a polluted pond.
Yet within weeks, my solo runs dissolved. Without any comment or query, little feet began to lightly pound the sand behind me, and as I looped the canal, there they would be: little boys and girls, running bare feet under a slowly fading African sun. I began to feel like The Pied Piper of our village. If I ran, they would come.
We didn’t talk about life as we ran– we didn’t need to. I already knew enough of the stories deep in the hearts of the children surrounding me. Loide’s methodical pace echoed his story: A father that had seen too much in the war against the South African Defense Force and had taken his life with his own gun after the war ended. Maria’s aunt had been held in a dark, snake-filled hole in the earth for a full week by the occupying army. When her family found her, she returned to her village, but never spoke again. Angelina ran with a dream dancing in her head: to be white, the only ticket out of poverty that her years had taught her. Many carried stories of mothers who couldn’t afford to feed the family, and of a silent killer running through their veins.
Every evening they ran defiantly on the land, feet scraping the surface of an earth whose underbelly concealed an unsolvable riddle of landmines, a constant reminder that even their own soil could betray them. Yet during our sessions, their bodies were light, and their goal simple–to run, just to run. As the air filled their lungs their feet found a rhythm. For an hour, life was good. With a huge fire-red ball hanging low in the African sky, they would skip home, singing our running song: We are the running club. We are the running club. Yes we are, oh yes we are, we are the running club. Slowly, voices faded. Night came.
The club was always welcoming new runners. We never lost any in return. As our numbers swelled, we began to mark our progress. On a warm night in June (Namibia is almost always warm), we held our first Oshikuku Running Club party. On the designated night, a steady procession of children entered my sandy yard dressed in their Sunday best. The thirty or so children with invitations were amongst a crowd of double that number, determined to be part of the festivities—runner or not. For several hours, children bobbed for apples, ate cake and navigated their first game of musical chairs. As the sun was swallowed by the horizon, children both full and tired, plodded home, limp hands laced within their parents’, most leaving the first ‘official’ party they had ever attended.
In the two years that we ran, our feet became great instructors. We never crossed any finish lines, but we ran countless laps around the canal. Along the way, this is what I learned: Everything you need to run isn’t on you but in you. You don’t need a fancy outfit, equipment, even shoes. All you need is your heart, your feet, and hope–that if you put one foot in front of the other, that action will move you forward, and bring you to somewhere new.
It turned out that the finish line isn’t as important as I had once thought: Showing up and staying in the race is just about enough. That is the lesson I learned from young children who were strong enough to live through Apartheid, the country’s darkest hour, and come through to the other side, still ready to run on. I have some very small feet to thank for teaching me what running, and life, is really all about.
Post Script It has been eight years since I returned to Canada, but every once in a while, a letter arrives from a sandy village in the desert of Namibia to remind me that The Oshikuku Running Club runs on.
This Guest Post was written by Dawn Ruddick, a teacher in Ontario, Canada.