On the Road

Naomi Wright - Senegal


April 5, 2011

Every morning I finish breakfast by 8:15 and change into my running clothes: a baggy t-shirt and spandex capris. My attire rides the line between cultural appropriateness and physical comfort (my knees must be covered yet I live in the hottest region in Senegal, where even early in the morning, the heat begins to waver off the sand). After slipping on my socks and running shoes, I head for the gate to my family’s compound, answering the inquisitive glances with “Mangi daaw. Bu ciikanam!” I’m going running. Be back soon!

I head for the only paved road in our village, the one that connects Leona to the outside world, the national north-south highway 30km away. I step onto the pavement, pop in my ipod earbuds, pick a direction, and start running.

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Despite the apparent normalcy of my morning run, it wasn’t always the routine. The first day I emerged in my sporty attire, my host sister looked at me, confused. What are you doing? her raised eyebrow seemed to say. “Mangi daaw,” I replied, using the Wolof word for run I’d just double-checked in my notes. But… she said, still puzzled, Why would you do that? I tried with my then limited Wolof to explain my love of the movement and need for alone time. Eventually, she was sufficiently confused and I sufficiently frustrated, so I just marched out and started running.

After only a few minutes, the constant pat-pat of my shoes on the asphalt, mixed with the trill of jewel-tone birds, my frustration abated and I began to relax. Tiny ants marched alongside me carrying wheat husks, making cream-colored lines on the black pavement. All my anxieties at not integrating well enough, not understanding Wolof, and not knowing my place within my apprenticeship drifted up, mixing with the clouds, looking like spilt watercolors on a wrinkled white bed sheet.

Later, my French tutor recounted having seen me that morning, out on the road. You looked tired, he said, Exercise… it’s good. Having grown up in urban St. Louis, my tutor comes from a different vantage point than my sister. Still, he added, I’ve never seen a woman running here, in Leona.” It wasn’t hard to tell that I was testing people’s comfort barriers. Funny looks or awkward waves as I passed through neighboring villages reinforced the idea that this definitely wasn’t normal.

And it was an odd experience for me too. The deep sand and spiny acacia trees sticking into my path certainly weren’t the cool pine forests of my native Oregon. Donkeys milled about, their brays sounding like yawning screeches of cleaving steel. I dodged janky canopied trucks overladen with people and produce. Brightly clad women swayed past me, balancing baskets of tomatoes, fish, rice. If my run coincided with children going to or from school, I was followed by a hoard of jogging youngsters babbling my Senegalese name, “Fatim! Fatim!”

Despite my own confusion and discomfort, I kept tying my shoes every morning and walking out that gate. With time, my community came to accept, even expect, my odd habit. On days where work prevented my morning run, my family members and even random people in the marketplace now ask me where I’d been that morning. When I pass familiar faces from nearby villages, they smile in recognition and greet me enthusiastically. “Fatim, yangi daaw, daaw, daww rekk!” Fatim, you just run, run, run!”

Even more than others’ expectations of my running, I’ve come to enjoy it myself. I think of the hours on the road as a crucial time to think, to meditate. More importantly, my run is a daily commitment to taking care of myself—both mind and body. I’m glad to have found an activity I enjoy that also honors me, whether I’m in Senegal, in Oregon, or on any road on the globe.

Naomi Wright