In Pictures: Girls Gotta Run in Ethiopia

The Girls Gotta Run team in Bekoji Ethiopia. (Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks)

Tadias Magazine
By Tadias Staff

Published: March 8th, 2019

New York (TADIAS) – In honor of International Women’s Day, which is being celebrated around the world today, we are featuring excerpts from a recent photo-journal from the Bale Mountains authored by Meghan Hicks, Managing Editor of iRunFar, who documented the work of the Girls Gotta Run Foundation in Ethiopia. As Meghan points out, the U.S. nonprofit “awards scholarships to girls and young women in Bekoji to give them elevated access to education, health care, organized run coaching, life-skills development, and more.”

If Bekoji sounds familiar that’s because the town is also home to some of the greatest athletes in the world including Olympic gold medal-winning long-distance runners Kenenisa Bekele, Tirunesh Dibaba, Derartu Tulu and Fatuma Roba.

In her article below, which includes intimate photographs of the GGRF program participants, Hicks takes us to the inaugural Bekoji 100 Mile Relay that took place this past January.

Jaybird Deep Dive: Bekoji 100 Mile Relay (iRunFar)

The 2019 Bekoji 100 Mile Relay participants at Bale Mountains National Park the day before the relay. (Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks)

The sun has just risen, bathing the 48 of us in light the color of a wheat field ready for harvest. The air is cold and dry here at 10,000 feet above sea level, so our warm, damp breaths condense into silvery clouds about our faces as we nervously laugh, take selfies, and jog in place. Our group is composed of 15 teenage girls hailing from the town of Bekoji which is located exactly 100 miles away and where many Ethiopian elite runners train, 27 adult visitors from several countries, and six organizers and coaches. Starting in moments, we’ll all take turns running five-kilometer road segments from here to Bekoji, thereby enacting the inaugural Bekoji 100 Mile Relay…

The tarmac road upon which we run dissects the northern finger of Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains National Park, home to baboons, warthogs, nyala, and dozens of other wildlife species…At about 24 kilometers into the relay’s route, the road crests its high point in the Bale Mountains, at 11,700 feet above sea level. Those of us who are visiting from low altitude are lightheaded and woozy, while the Bekoji girls, who live at 9,000 feet, are almost unaffected. That said, this is the first time the girls have ventured and run this high–or this far from home, for that matter, this is a huge adventure for them. Meskarem, who is running now, just doubled over to vomit on the side of the road.

The Girls Gotta Run team warms up ahead of a speed workout in the grass fields. (Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks)

A girl strides it out while warming up for the relay in front of farmlands that are dormant in the dry season. (Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks)

GGRF coach Fatia Abdi shrieks in Amharic and the bus screeches to a halt. She and a group of people sprint off the busses and to Meskarem’s side, offering her a sip of water and a couple supportive hands on her back. These mountains are today’s first tangible obstacle…

The GGRF girls are accustomed to obstacles, or at least that which Westerners would perceive as significant challenge: poverty; limited access to pretty much every basic resource such as clean water, clothing, and nutritious food; decreased access to education; it goes on…Describes Kayla, who has been a part of the American nonprofit GGRF since 2011 and who lived in Ethiopia for four of these years to help develop its programs, “Girls face an enormous number of challenges in their personal and social lives, especially around adolescence, including early marriage, dropping out of school, domestic violence, social isolation, limited economic opportunity, and more.” To address this, GGRF provides three-year academic and athletic scholarships to girls starting around age 12 or 13, the average age of early marriage in Bekoji. The program’s goal is to supply girls with the tools they need to successfully navigate their volatile teenagerhood.

“GGRF also works with each girl’s mother,” says Kayla, “to help them gain access to the resources and skills that allow them to support themselves and their daughters in school and otherwise.” In Bekoji, GGRF supplies scholarships and support to 60 girls and their 60 mothers.

The point about GGRF’s run training must be emphasized. Bekoji is a running town. Not everyone runs, but hundreds do and pretty much everyone understands the sport’s national importance. Ethiopian Olympians galore have come from and trained in Bekoji. Think Kenenisa Bekele, Derartu Tulu, and Tirunesh Dibaba, okay? Running is a lifeblood of Bekoji, and a GGRF cornerstone.

“Running has become a space in Ethiopia where women have been able to express power through sport, to create their own educational and economic opportunities nationally,” emphasizes Kayla. “We work with the idea of using sports to renegotiate the norms of what it means to be an adolescent girl in Ethiopia.”

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