Dreams of Djiboutian Olympic Glory

As Ayanleh Souleiman prepares to compete in Rio, his country waits

By / August 2016

Ayanleh Souleiman is Djibouti’s best hope for an Olympic medal in nearly thirty years. Athletes from this tiny nation have struggled to make even qualifying standards since Hussein Ahmed Salah won the bronze in the 1988 marathon, the country’s only medal.

Until Ayanleh. In 2016 he set an indoor 1000-meter world record. He won the Bowerman Mile in Eugene, Oregon two years in a row, while setting a meet record. He holds Djiboutian records in all distances from the 800-meters to the 5000.

Although Ayanleh failed to make the 800 final in Rio. He is still in contention for the 1500-meter final, which will be run on Saturday, August 20.

I’ve known Ayanleh since 2008 when I started to run and when he, reluctantly, made the switch from being a footballer to a runner. Ayanleh’s friends had urged the then sixteen-year old to enter a 5k race. The thought of running without kicking a ball sounded impossibly boring but Ayanleh relented. He placed fifth, with no official training.

Coaches convinced him to come to the Hasan Guleed Stadium to train and Ayanleh was soon leading groups of young men in laps around the track. At the time, I also trained at the stadium, though my training was more for health than competition and as Ayanleh would lap me, several times over the course of an afternoon, he often shouted, “Bon courage, Rachel!” While he could run two laps to my one, I felt stronger simply by proximity.

Since 2008, when Ayanleh took his place on the international running circuit, he has been careful not to forgot his humble beginnings or the citizens and lesser athletes, myself included, of his small home country.

Last year Ayanleh agreed to meet me at Dahab Shiil, a Somali money transfer service, and then we walked to a nearby café, Buna House, to talk about all that had happened for him in the seven years since we met at the track. The café is less than one hundred meters away but it takes us nearly ten minutes to walk there.

People stop Ayanleh on the sidewalk and ask for photographs. Cars stop and their drivers hop out, leaving their vehicles running in the middle of the street, just to shake his hand or kiss the top of his head. He makes time for everyone. He hires a homeless boy to wash his car while we are in the café and later he remembers the boy’s name and generously overpays him.

Ayanleh is one of the most well-known Djiboutians and he is easy to spot. Average height and skinny, he has the narrow and high cheekbones of many Somalis. If he threw on a prayer cap, the men’s wrap around sarong known as a macwiis, and carried a walking stick over his shoulders he could easily be mistaken for a nomad, a camel herder, a bushman.

And yet, something sets Ayanleh apart from his countrymen. He exudes confidence and has a ready, open smile. He wears black skinny jeans, a bright blue Nike sweat-wicking shirt, and orange, blue, and white Nike tennis shoes instead of the more common faux leather black sandals of his compatriots.

Inside the café, it is hard to talk. The small room is crowded with men who carry on conversations at a shouting level and everyone wants to talk with Ayanleh. One of his two wives joins us at the table. While Ayanleh poses for a selfie, she tells me that she has never watched him run, not even on television. She doesn’t like the stress. Ayanleh turns back to us and says suddenly that he only reached the sixth level of school.

“I don’t speak English, I don’t speak French, only Somali,” he says. “But I dream of being a doctor and if I can’t do that, I know I can still do something for my country. I want to encourage youth and especially athletes.”

During some his training breaks (he trains in Ethiopia) in Djibouti, Ayanleh visits youth centers and gives motivational talks about the importance of staying in school (he hopes to go back and finish his high school diploma some day) and the value of staying away from khat, an emphatamine-like plant thousands of Djiboutian men are addicted to.

But for now Ayanleh is focused on racing. He has time, he believes, to encourage the next generation later. First, he wants to see how far, and how fast, he can go. “Ninka labaatan jiir ku shaqaysta, lixdan jiir ku raxaystaa,” he says. A man who works for twenty years can rest for sixty years, a Somali proverb. “That is what I’m doing now, putting in my twenty years.”

So far, they have been productive years. Under the coaching of Jama Aden, Ayanleh’s time in the 1500-meter steadily dropped from 3:41, then 3:34, 3:30, then 3:29. Maybe there is an Olympic medal waiting for him after all.

But even after he puts in his running years, Ayanleh knows he has work to do. “People here don’t understand about running. I want people to become informed about training and racing, to allow it more often. I could make a radio show or give talks.”

He says people need to think about their children and what they want for their futures. “Parents are telling their kids: don’t play, sit down. But the kid is a kid, he wants to run and play. So when he gets older, what? He sits. He chews khat. His future is ruined. Me, I have a young daughter and I play with her and want to her to reach for higher things than sitting.”

Ayanleh says that traveling the world for competitions has helped him appreciate the value of hard work.

“People here say if they could only get to Europe or America, life would be good. But people here are sitting, chewing khat. People in Europe are working very hard. If a man doesn’t work here, he won’t work there. The biggest time waster is khat. The man chews khat all afternoon, can’t sleep at night, can’t wake up in the morning, can’t work. What is going to happen then? But if in the afternoon you give time to your kids, your wife, and you work in the morning, that’s good and you will build a good life.”

“People need to think about reaching a high place, working hard, making a plan, having a dream, and then they can do it. The person who works hard, they can do it.”

Djibouti sent eight athletes to the Rio Olympics and only one of them is female, Kadra Dembil Mohamed.** I ask Ayanleh about female athletes and he readily acknowledges that they face unique challenges compared to men.

“But they can do it. If girls are ready to work hard and if we are ready to help them, they will succeed.”

More men crowd around our table in the café and Ayanleh decides we should end the interview. He has meetings later with community centers and family members. We walk back to his car together and he shakes my hand and gives me a shoulder bump, a local gesture of friendship.

Everything in Djibouti is covered in dust, a layer of tawny beige resting on every surface and obscuring bright colors. Buildings are faded whitewash or bare gray cement. Macwiises are brown and dark blue. Women wear orange and pink and magenta scarves but the dust mutes the color. Ayanleh’s clothes seem brighter, cleaner, somehow free of the ubiquitous dust.

It is as though he were able to outrun the dust, keep it from settling. Djiboutian Muslims say that from dust we were made and to dust we will return. Ayanleh Souleiman is doing all he can to keep that dust from holding him down.


This interview was translated from Somali by Rachel Jones. **Kadra scored a national record in the 1500-meters in Rio. You can read about her here.