Tag: Addis Ababa

The Great Ethiopian Run: in the footsteps of Haile Gebrselassie

I am standing at the start line of the Great Ethiopian Run: not only the biggest race in Africa but one of the continent’s biggest talent-spotting contests. Officially there are 38 000 of us, all in yellow-and-green race T-shirts, jostling and shoving and staring down a line of police with batons. But hundreds of others have sneaked into line, with home-brewed kit, swelling the numbers still further. A marshal warns me, “Don’t try to get in front when they start – you’ll be trampled!”, then there’s the blast of a horn, a rising crackle of noise, and the police cordon sprints for safety. Ahead of me two men lose their shoes in the tumult – and don’t return – and I wonder: what the hell have I let myself in for?

For others, however, this 10km race around the hills of Addis Ababa, at an altitude of 2 300 metres, offers the chance to follow in the footsteps of the great Ethiopian runners: Abebe Bikila, who won the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome running barefoot; the revered Haile Gebrselassie, 10 000m gold medallist at the Atlanta and Sydney Olympics; and the current 5km and 10km world record holder Kenenisa Bekele. Previous winners in the race’s 13-year history have gone on to win major marathons and Olympic medals. The race – which is shown live on Ethiopian TV – is not just a showcase for runners, but for the country, too.

That it takes place at all is down to Gebrselassie, who many see as a future president of Ethiopia. Invited by Brendan Foster, the founder of the Great North Run, to come over to Newcastle, Haile responded: “Why don’t you help me to start a Great Ethiopian Run?” So Foster did.

“The whole country is running,” says Gebrselassie, offering Ethopian coffee so strong you suspect it partly explains the speed of the country’s athletes. “We try to rise up the people to do something. Sport has just one language, and when you encourage people through sport you encourage every sector, whatever their job. One religion, one culture, one language – and that is running.”

Haile Gebrselassie celebrates after winning his third consecutive Vienna half marathon on April 14 2013. (Pic: AFP)
Haile Gebrselassie celebrates after winning his third consecutive Vienna half marathon on April 14 2013. (Pic: AFP)

But caffeine-fuelled beverages aside, why are Ethiopian distance runners so good? “It’s because of opportunities here,” says Gebrselassie, who spends the days before the race patiently smiling, chatting and posing for photographs. “Plus the lifestyle: the kids walk to school – no, they run! – every day. I ran six miles every day to school and back so my training started when I was three or four.” Unsurprisingly, the Great Ethiopian Run even has a race for the under fives.

Though there are a few international runners – a team from Norway and a speedy gang from Birmingham – the race at elite level is tough for most foreigners because of that altitude. While your legs feel good to go, your lungs wheeze and moan in protest. It’s like someone has strapped an iron band around your chest and compressed it.

My first experience of this comes on a track built by Bekele high in the mountains. Bekele himself has come to train, and we jog very slowly with him. At least, my GPS watch says it’s slow – my lungs appear to think I’ve just finished a sub-four-minute mile. This is why athletes train at altitude – and why those born at it have an advantage – the body adapts to the relative lack of oxygen. But not, of course, on day one. And not when you are trying not to wheeze too loudly behind a multiple Olympic gold medallist.

After warming up, we follow Bekele into the woods where he and many other elite athletes train. He slips away in a matter of seconds, leaving us to puff and tootle around a few miles of hyena territory. “That’s OK, they only come out at night,” says a cheery runner. “Just don’t be last!”

But by race day, either I’ve adapted slightly or the adrenaline has kicked in. Once I summon the courage to get out of the sidelines and into the sea of runners, I’m away. The first few kilometres are very slow, because of the sheer press of people, many of whom are too interested in talking, showing off and having fun to care what time they finish in, but the atmosphere is incredible. There are spontaneous outbreaks of loud joyous songs and chanting. Others dance and shout. I can’t stop smiling.

The noise quietens – though only very slightly – as those hills kick in. I’m surrounded by friendly, chatty people, though the man who wants to talk to me about my impressions of Ethiopia probably shouldn’t have chosen an uphill stretch to do it. Where some races have hi-tech drizzle showers to cool you off, this one has a full-on garden hose. Most people stop to dance in its makeshift shower.

Way, way, too soon (something I have never thought in a race before, and suspect never will again) the 9km marker is in sight and it’s just the home stretch. The men’s winner, Atsedu Tsegay, finished a long time ago and is about to be presented with his trophy by Gebrselassie.

My finish time is six minutes slower than my personal best, but that’s irrelevant: this is the craziest race I’ve ever done and one of the best experiences of my life. As Haile eloquently puts it: “The best way to get rid of all stress and everything is to sweat a bit. It’s a kind of treatment.” And one that I would happily sign up to again.

Kate Carter for the Guardian

The fuelwood carriers of Addis Ababa

More than 15 000 women in Addis Ababa make their living from illegally collecting fuelwood from the protected eucalyptus grove atop Entoto Mountain. Every day they travel around 30km to collect and carry branches, twigs and leaves. They sell the fuelwood door-to-door, on street corners or in the many open markets in the city.

Amarech Dorota (52) has been collecting fuelwood for the past twenty years. After her husband died, she had to single-handedly provide for her kids, two of whom are now in high school. “It was challenging to feed the children, so I had to go to the forest every day except on Sundays,” she says.

Dorota is little over five feet tall, sturdily built, with deep wrinkles on her face and hands that testify to a hard-working life. She has no tools so she uses her hands to pull the branches. Once she’s collected enough, she carries the weighty load on her back, strapped to her body by a harness made of cloth which runs over her shoulders and across her chest, and uses a stick for support.

Amarech Dorota. (Pic: Arefaynie Fantahun)
Amarech Dorota outside her home in Dorze Sefer. (Pic: Arefaynie Fantahun)

Dorota is part of the Dorze ethnic group in Ethiopia who are known for their weaving of intricate, colourful borders on Ethiopian traditional dresses. She has lived in Dorze Sefer, which is above the Addis Ababa University and home to many other low-income families, for most of her life. Their houses are made of mud, with wooden doors that open directly onto the street.

Ethiopia now has one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. Despite recent gains in education and health, it still ranks 173 out of 187 countries listed on the Human Development Index. The cost of living and inflation in Ethiopia remains cripplingly high. This makes it harder for Dorota and her family to survive.

“I have now worked for around 20 years. It is not an easy job. It does not pay a lot either. But I am grateful that it helped me support my family without the need of external help. It is very small money. But we don’t complain. We survive,” she says.

Dorota earns about 60 birr ($3) a day selling fuelwood in the local market. She uses this money for food and her children’s school fees.

The eucalyptus plantations in the Entoto area are not privately owned and the women can’t buy the fuelwood legally. This means they often have to endure harassment from authorities. They are  vulnerable to beatings and rape at the hands of roving guards, and they often have to pay bribes to them so they do not lose their bundles.

“We encounter a number of problems,” says  Emebet Abera, a younger woman who also travels to Entoto to collect fuelwood. “Sometimes we are chased by the forest guards. Sometimes we fall down and break our legs.When the sun is hot, we get really tired and thirsty. Returning home takes longer because the wood is very heavy and we have to stop often to rest.  I wish I could have small amount of land around my house so I could sell vegetables and not have to walk all the way to the mountains for wood. But that is not easy,” she says.

Beletech Zewde from the area’s women affairs bureau says that the women are examples of hard work and diligence. “They have shown great courage and strength in dealing with their difficult lives, and their acceptance of adversity is remarkable,” she says. Her bureau, she says, is supporting the Former Women Fuel Wood Carriers Association (WFC) that has existed in the area for nearly two decades.  WFC is trying to provide a growing number of women – currently 790 – with alternative sources of income by teaching them skills such as weaving, embroidery, knitting and various handiwork.

The organisation has similar projects in the Yeka, Keranyo and Kolfe areas and is set to expand its reach, targeting an estimated 30 000 women across Addis Ababa who collect fuelwood. They’ll be offering a broader range of skills to them, including forestry management and the marketing of crafts and portable stoves.

Back at Dorota’s house, her daughter is preparing genfo (maize flour) that her mother bought with the money she earned that day from selling fuelwood. It’s nothing fancy, but Dorota says she is proud of being able to take care of her family without having to ask for help.

Arefaynie Fantahun is a blogger based in Addis Ababa. Follow his posts on fashion, art, travel and photography here