Sneaker to Sneaker in the Grand Bara

A race unites a disparate nation

By / January 2015

Djibouti’s eclectic mix of cultures can be confusing, daunting, and inspiring. Somali, Afar, Yemeni, French, American, Dutch, Chinese, German, and so many other ethnicities and cultures intermingle here. The country is peaceful and progressive but nowhere is the camaraderie more stripped of cultural and political baggage than at the finish line of the Grand Bara 15k.

A desert 18.5 miles long and six miles wide. No trees or brush or boulders, not a sliver of shade. Dry, cracked clay packed tightly into geometric shapes and curling around the edges, up toward the relentless sun. To the east, a row of low mountains where wild ostriches roam. Running southeast, the highway to Ethiopia, currently under construction. Forever under construction. The desert winds, blistering sun, and massive transport trucks wreak havoc on the pavement and the sides of the road fall off in chunks leaving potholes large enough to swallow several goats.

Roughly a hundred meters from the road, parallel to it, is a straight row of rocks that stretches fifteen kilometers into the distance. Dust devils skim the surface of the desert and obscure the view but there isn’t much to see. Dust kicked up by trucks, that straight row of rocks, the cracked clay, an occasional camel train led by Somali or Afar nomads.

The rocks are here for a single event, for the one day of the year when there is more to see in the Grand Bara than billowing dust or thirsty camels. One event in Djibouti brings together Muslims and Christians and atheists, Djiboutians and French and Americans, men and women, navy and air force and coast guard. One event epitomizes Djibouti’s place in the geopolitical landscape of the Horn of Africa. Military representatives from at least six nations, civilians scattered among them, in the middle of a nowhere-desert, about to demonstrate their strength and prowess in a fifteen-kilometer race.

Every December for the past thirty-two years, the French military hosts the Grand Bara 15k, and anyone who manages to manoeuver the ever-changing registration procedures is welcome to participate. The race was originally established in 1982 as an internal event for the French, organized by the 13th demi-brigade of the French Foreign Legion until 2010. When the Legionaires left Djibouti, the French 5th inter-army regiment took over. In the early years as other branches of the French military began to participate, it became an inter-military competition, won by a French soldier.

But since 1987 when the Djiboutian military joined, Djiboutians almost always win both the men’s and women’s race, sometimes taking all the top 10 men’s places. The standing record is 43:10, set back in 1989 by Abdillahi Talan, who later raced in the 1992 Olympic marathon for Djibouti.

In 2014 I rolled my teenagers out of bed and into the car at 3:45 in the morning to get to the starting line before sunrise. The impromptu club I claimed on my registration included a Dutch woman, three Americans, and three Djiboutian girls. One of us would place second, one of us nearly last.

The French military camped out the night before the race and when we pulled off the highway into the desert there were already long lines outside port-a-potties, music pumping from loudspeakers, and men in military-unit-specific running clothes huddled together, casually stretching or drinking coffee. The only light came from a half-moon and from the spread of cars’ headlights and a few generator-powered lampposts but the sun would rise quickly. As the earth turned to amber, then gold and pink, damp spots became visible in the dirt, spots where people had skipped the line at the port-a-potties and squatted in the darkness. The temperature was a chilly 68 degrees and would rise to 81 by the end of the race, a cold day by Djiboutian standards.

At six o’clock an announcer called everyone to the starting line. The military stood at attention while their commander wished us bon courage and a good race. I lined up beside the Djiboutian girls. Fathia, Sareedo, Zourah, Hawa, and another Sareedo. Fathia and Zourah were former Olympians – Beijing and London. Zourah wore a tank top and green spandex shorts, her hair in tight braids. Fathia wore long black sport pants, a baggy t-shirt, and a headscarf pinned tightly around her face and draped over her shoulders. Zourah wanted to win, Fathia wanted to finish. We wished each other more bon courage and I wouldn’t see them again until the end of the race when they, fully cooled down, would cheer me across the finish line.

A hush fell over the racers and more than 1,600 pairs of eyes glanced backwards over the hills. Waiting. Watching. Fingers hovering over start buttons on watches. “Here they come!” someone shouted. “Il y a quatre.” Four small lights appeared like stars descending from the hills, far away and then, impossibly fast, right overhead. French Mirage jets did a thundering flyover so low the ground trembled and the race was on.

Photograph by Rachel Pieh Jones

The Djiboutian girls darted between French soldiers and disappeared from my view. I fell into a steady rhythm broken only by the necessary leaps over softened mounds of dirt and crevices cut through the clay by Ethiopian lorries earlier in the year.

We ran straight, following the stones. Two French soldiers flanked me for a few kilometers, urging each other on, but at a water stop I pulled ahead. I passed a Somali woman I knew and she joked that since I was stronger, I should carry her on my back. A group of Djiboutian coast guard men in matching t-shirts passed me, and a pack of American soldiers, then a Chinese couple.

I finished the race with my slowest time ever, a nasty head cold, and cramps in my toes and then turned around to watch the other finishers, including Santa Claus who pulled candy from a woven Djiboutian basket and tossed it to the kids cheering on their parents. I took a photo for a group of American soldiers who lined up in front of a French First Aid military vehicle. This year over two hundred American military personnel participated. I snapped another photo of a French official in front of a Djiboutian flag. The Sheraton Hotel donated holiday cookies and caramels and our swag bags included Grand Bara t-shirts, fruit, juice, brownies, and water.

Runners walked around in the exhausted haze that inevitably follows a race. Either giddy from a race well-run or crushed from disappointment or injury or simply satisfied, like me. We limped on tender feet, in sweaty clothes and pink faces and waited for the awards ceremony. The wind intensified and our bodies were blanketed in a layer of the fine dust that swept across the desert and stained everything beige.

Like the race, diversity marked the winner’s podium. Djiboutian Moussa Omar Wais won in 45:31, his third consecutive win and a few seconds faster than in 2013. The German ambassador took first in the veterans category. An American soldier won the women’s race in 54 minutes. Zourah finished second, Sareedo fourth. French winners were scattered among them.

The pursuit of personal pride, mutual respect, and open celebration of someone else’s worthy accomplishments requires humility, especially across religious, cultural, and political divides. It is a privilege to participate. I didn’t stand on the podium but my American name was listed somewhere in the middle. Santa Claus brought up the rear.

 

Rachel Pieh Jones has written for the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Running Times. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children and blogs at djiboutijones.com.

 

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