The Most Unlikely Marathoners In The World
Hargeysa, Somaliland: A cement wall topped with barbed wire surrounds the soccer field where girls gather once a week to play. Boys climb trees or scramble up the wall to peer inside and armed guards chase them away. Here, girls can run.
Across town is a basketball court, not quite regulation-size, also inside a protective wall with a locked front gate. About a dozen girls, most of whom have never played basketball before, are learning ball-handling skills and how to shoot. Here, too, girls can run.
A women-only fitness center downtown has treadmills, but most girls can’t afford the time or money to join, and the hours are limited. For those who can run here, the treadmills are wired to shut down after 15 minutes, to protect the women from injuring themselves.
Female Somali athletes have yet to make any kind of splash in the international running scene. Mo Farah, a Somalia-born Brit, is a four-time Olympic gold medalist and the most well-known Somali runner. Ayanleh Souleiman, a Somali from Djibouti, is one of the best active middle-distance runner in the world. Mumin Guelleh, another Somali Djiboutian, placed 12th in his first-ever marathon at the Rio Olympics.
But the most famous Somali runner on the women’s side is probably Samia Yusuf Omar, who is known more for her death than for her life. She competed in the 400 meters in the 2008 Olympics then, in 2012, worked her way from Mogadishu to Djibouti, then across northern Africa. She boarded a boat, hoping to reach Europe and a life where she could live without fear of being shot by terrorists. On the way, the boat capsized and Samia drowned. She was 21 years old.
Other Somali women have represented their respective countries in the Olympics, but they almost always compete for last place. The best finish by a female Somali runner in the Olympics is Djiboutian Kadra Dembil Mohamed’s 12th-place result in the 1500 meters in Rio, her first ever official competition at that distance.
Running is touted as a minimalist sport: All you need are shoes and you’re off to the races. But for women, this characterization isn’t entirely accurate. Female runners need sports bras, they need clothing that isn’t an ankle-length dress. They need tampons or pads. These things are difficult or impossible to find in the Horn of Africa.
Even more fundamentally, though, runners need a place to run without fear. They need a community that won’t stone them, harass them, shove and trip them, or even shoot them. These are things western runners take for granted. When I run in my native Minnesota, I am not afraid that someone will make a throat-slitting gesture at me. I’m not afraid that the van pulling over in front of me might be full of al-Shabaab terrorists. I don’t wear a ski mask in 85-degree weather so no one will recognize my face. I just assume I have a right to put my shoes to the pavement, to feel my heart accelerate, to move my legs.
In Somaliland, girls don’t fear these things either. Because unless they are inside the walls protected by barbed wire and armed guards, in Somaliland girls don’t run.
For months, Fosiya, who is in her late 20s, woke up early at least once a week and slipped tennis shoes into her purse. She pulled her black abaya on over the cotton dress known as a shiid and the polyester slip beneath that. Then the masar, a tight headscarf over her hair, followed by the shalmad, a larger scarf that draped from her head to her wrists. Comfortably modest, she headed to Edna Aden’s hospital where she worked as a nurse.
Before the hospital grounds filled with patients, visitors, and other employees, before her shift started, sometimes before the roosters even crowed, Fosiya changed into her tennis shoes and exercised. She rarely ran, though once in a while might pick up the pace. Mostly, she walked. The hospital grounds were clean of the litter, thorn bushes, and goat droppings that filled Hargeisa’s streets. There were still rocks to step around and holes to avoid, but a decent walking speed was possible inside the walled compound.
A Somali proverb says a woman belongs in the kitchen or in the grave, but Fosiya, with her small and consistent walking habit, claimed women also belong in tennis shoes. Fosiya didn’t seem to view her walking as defiance or as making a statement. She didn’t have long-term sports goals, she simply wanted to be healthy and to enjoy the feeling of being an athlete: the wind in her face, her heart pounding, the sweaty satisfaction of hard work.
Another Somali runner, Fathia Ali Bouraleh, who lived across the border in Djibouti, encouraged Muslim girls to run by reminding them that Allah made their legs, he made their lungs, and he gave them the desire to run. Being active honored Allah, she said, by living out who they were created to be.
Fosiya didn’t know there were women like Fathia, from a similar background, training just 250 miles away. But when an opportunity for women to run competitively came to Hargeisa, Fosiya leaped at the opportunity.
Somaliland is technically not a country, at least not according to the United Nations. It was once, for five brief days, before British and Italian colonizers forcibly joined northern Somalia with southern Somalia following the nation’s independence. The north is bordered by Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the Red Sea, and is shaped like a ham (a description that would revolt the 99 percent of Somalis who are Muslim).
Before the outbreak of civil war, the nomadic nature of life in Somaliland necessitated pragmatic partnerships between men and women. Roles were clearly defined but held equal value. Men herded camels and cattle and protected the family, women herded sheep and goats and built traditional, temporary homes. Women engaged in economic activities and held political sway, though men were the property owners and final decision makers. Life could be harsh in the desert and survival required everyone’s contribution.
In 1988, southern Somalia attacked Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. President Siyaad Barre believed the north had launched a nationalist movement against him, so he ordered planes to take off from the Hargeisa airport and bombard the city. Within days, some claim, over 50,000 people were slaughtered, every rooftop in the city was damaged, and hundreds of thousands of people had been displaced. During the war, pragmatism ruled again. If a woman could fight, she fought. A graphic memorial in downtown Hargeisa depicts the battle. Chopped off heads roll in the dirt and dismembered, bleeding bodies are painted beneath a replica of a fighter jet.
War vets still gather at the memorial. Women sell tea and men chew khat, a leafy drug ubiquitous in the Horn. One woman showed me her veteran’s card. Then she bent down and scooped up a handful of dirt. She threw it into the air and said, “This. I fought for this. This is my country.”
My country. This is what Somalilanders want. Somaliland has its own flag, currency, diplomatic process, driver’s licenses, everything that would constitute a functional nation. What it does not have is international recognition. Most citizens believe they have earned the right to be independent. One of their proudest achievements is peace. Nabad iyocaano, as the Somali saying goes, “peace and milk.”
But stricter strains of Islam have taken root in Somaliland’s peace. In 1999, Sadia Ahmed wrote, in her book Islam and Development, “In Somalia, a society at war with itself, and where sexual violation has also become a tool of war, the tendency towards more extreme religious practice has been reinforced by the perceived need for protection and protective clothing… As a Somali woman, I have seen that the recent increase in veiling has been accompanied… with extreme forms of censorship of women’s behavior, as extreme forms of Islamic interpretation have found fertile ground. Women who refuse to conform are harassed by both sexes, and peer pressure is exerted on them to veil.”
This peace is maintained by the threat of violence. Armed guards are assigned to foreigners and there is a 9:00 p.m. curfew for expatriates. Non-Muslim women are told to cover from head to foot, to stay tucked out of sight. This restrictive peace, with all of its risks and benefits, is normal to young women like Fosiya who were born into the postwar world.
In April 2017, more than 200 people ran a marathon in Mogadishu, Somalia, in memory of Samia. But that race was held inside the internationally protected area. In early 2018, two nonprofits launched Somaliland’s inaugural marathon and 10K, the only mixed gender public sporting event in memory. Unlike the event in Mogadishu, the Hargeisa race would weave throughout the streets. There would be foreign men, there would be foreign women, there would be local men and women, and everyone would be running together. Runners were encouraged to raise $1,500, enough to pay for a student’s four-year degree at the local university.
Just how many people would run wasn’t clear until race registration day, the Thursday before the event in mid-February. Untamed Borders, the British nonprofit that organized the race, insisted from the beginning that the event must include both men and women, and Somaliland officials didn’t argue. They may not have expected any women to show up.
But they did. I met Fosiya in the registration line. She expressed a fearless desire to place first in the only race she had ever run, despite the fact that her walks around the hospital compound made up the entirety of her training routine.
Another woman stood with us in line. Deep wrinkles were etched into her cheeks. She wore plastic flip-flops and lifted her dress to show them to me. She said they were her only shoes and she would run in them. She carried a plastic jug of sesame balls, a local dessert she sold on the side of the road, her only source of income. She joked that she would fuel her run with these snacks, but when I encouraged her to sign up with Fosiya, she stepped out of line. One other woman came in person to register, a young Somali expat who was back in Hargeisa to work for a short time.
I tried to keep boys from cutting in front of us, but Fosiya didn’t mind them jumping the line and laughed at my futile attempts. She was happy just to be there, to have the opportunity to run. I turned away for a moment, to argue with a boy who had cut in, and when I turned back, Fosiya was gone.
I saw her across the courtyard, surrounded by cameras and microphones. Another woman was giving an interview. I stepped closer, just in time to hear the woman say, “Women can’t run. I had to pull this girl out of the line.”
“Did you used to run?” a reporter asked the woman.
“I ran 1,500 meters. Sometimes 400. That is all women can do. These girls will faint. They will injure themselves. They can’t run. Not even foreign woman can run 42 kilometers. They came only to run the 10K.”
I stood directly across from her, my marathon-trained legs itching to sprint across the open space and yank the microphone from her hands.
The woman, who later told me she is a basketball coach but refused to say where or whom she coaches, repeated for another news crew that yes, women can’t run because it is dangerous for their bodies. A tweet I read after the race confirmed this woman wasn’t alone in her opinion, wondering if any women finished or if they had “all fallen down?”
Fosiya gave a diplomatic, conciliatory speech to the cameras after bowing out of the race. Once the reporters left, I asked what she had said, and she repeated, “I’m happy that next year I might be able to run in this race and I wish everyone a good event.” The next thing I saw of her was her back as she walked out of the Ministry of Sports.
All the other women who registered did so over the telephone, 20 in total. It remained to be seen whether or not they would show up for the race.
The day after the race, when I left Somaliland, I wore my marathon shirt to the airport. One of the employees said, “You ran? Congratulations. Our women can’t run. They are too fat and lazy.”
“They aren’t lazy,” I said. “You don’t let them run.”
He was blaming women for policies enforced by men. How could women like Fosiya train for a race when their treadmills ended after 15 minutes and they were stoned for running in the streets? He was right, women in Somaliland probably couldn’t run a marathon. But not because they didn’t want to. Because they weren’t allowed to.
He laughed and waved me through security.
A hadith (a tradition of the Prophet Mohamed) that says the Prophet (PBUH peace be upon him) and his wife, Aisha, used to race each other. Aisha said that she beat him at least once. So while some Muslims do oppose women running on purely religious grounds, the more common objection is about modesty and ideas about the vulnerability of women’s bodies.
Besides fainting, I’ve heard several other excuses for why women in the Horn of Africa can’t run. Running will damage our reproductive organs and we won’t be able to have children. Women who already had children are physically incapable of running. Our uteruses might fall out. Our vaginas might catch fire. Our breasts might swing dangerously low and stay there.
“This idea is ignorant,” said Aicha Garad Ali, a Somali woman and head of the Djiboutian Olympic Committee. “I used to run and do sports and when I got married, I didn’t want children. People said it was because of the sports. But now, I have a daughter. And look at Sabad.”
Sabad is another Djiboutian Somali runner. When she became pregnant as an unmarried teenager, her mother encouraged her to stay active by participating in a 5k through the capital city. Sabad, visibly pregnant, was the first female Djiboutian to finish and gave birth to a baby girl a few months later.
It wasn’t so long ago that western women were thought too weak and vulnerable to run long distances, too. Race organizers cited concerns for women’s health and what they assumed to be a lack of interest among women. (Today, almost 60 percent of finishers in U.S. marathons are female.) They also pointed to the 800-meter race during the 1928 Olympics, in which several of the women were ill-prepared and collapsed upon crossing the finish line. Women’s races longer than 200 meters were excluded from the Olympics until 1960, when the 800-meters was re-introduced.
Women did occasionally sneak in to races: Roberta Gibb finished the Boston Marathon without a bib in 1966. A year later, Katherine Switzer became the first woman to run Boston with a registered bib number in 1967. She was attacked by race organizer Jock Semple, who shouted at her and tried to physically remove her from the race. Several male runners stepped in to defend Switzer, and she finished the race. She spent the next decade and a half working toward making a women’s marathon an Olympic event, which finally happened in 1984, nearly 90 years after the men’s marathon was included.
Closer to Somaliland, Kenya first sent female athletes to the Olympics in 1968. Of the three Kenyan entrants, all three competed in short-distance races, and only one finished her race. Kenyan men already were consistently taking home gold in distance races, but women had less support and lower-quality training.
Yet Kenyan women continued to run. Pamela Jelimo and Nancy Lagat became the first to win Olympic gold medals, topping the podium in 2008 in the 800 and 1500 meters, respectively. Jemima Sumgong took home Kenya’s first marathon gold in 2016.
Like the Kenyans, like Katherine Switzer, some women in Somaliland would need to be pioneers.
To my surprise, Fosiya turned up at the Hargeisa Stadium on the morning of the race after all, ready to run the 10K. She hadn’t officially registered and didn’t receive an official t-shirt, but the unlike the older woman at registration, race organizers told her she was welcome to participate. “I just came in,” she said, “and they told me I can still run.” She gave me a huge hug, bounced back and forth on her toes, and rubbed her hands together in front of her face. “I’m so excited.”
The 21 marathoners—12 foreign men, six Somali men, and three foreign women—lined up at the start. I wore a long-sleeved shirt, a t-shirt, baggy trousers, high socks, a running skirt over my pants, and a headscarf. I was already warm: Within 30 minutes the temperature would hit 85 degrees, and the sun at this altitude is fierce.
My heart raced, my body flooded with adrenaline. I didn’t know what to expect out of the next few hours. I’ve run in the Horn of Africa for 10 years, mostly across the border in Djibouti, though I have logged miles on the 15-minute treadmills in Hargeisa. I speak Somali and understand when people shout, “Mother fucker, whore, get out of our country, we’re going to kill you” and “sex sex sex.” I’ve been struck by stones, chased by groups of boys and wild dogs, and tripped. I’ve been punched in the back by a man on a motorcycle. My breasts have been grabbed, my ass pinched, and my body doused with water.
Most days, nothing happens other than open-mouthed stares and obscene gestures. Most days, people give me thumbs-up signs or say “Bon courage” or simply ignore me. Most days are normal But the other days are the ones that carry outsized emotional weight.
Even in Djibouti, where running is far more encouraged than Somaliland, local girls face occasional threats and attacks. A few Djiboutian girls I know declined to participate in the Somaliland race because a few years earlier, their team had attempted a 3K race across the border. Within five minutes, they faced such a barrage of stones that they cut the race short. Nasra Said, the girls’ coach, wanted to see how the community would respond to me running before bringing her team. “Maybe next year,” she said when I returned to Djibouti alive and well.
Fosiya had been right to ask if I was scared. At the starting line in Hargeisa, I wasn’t daunted by the 26.2 miles ahead, but I was weighed down by the years of harassment behind me. But I also felt the buoying influence of all the Somali female athletes I’ve trained with, coached, and befriended. I wasn’t just here to run a marathon. I was here to help prove that women can run marathons.
The 10K was scheduled to start after the marathon was well underway, so I left Fosiya behind when I lined up at the start. But Fosiya didn’t wait. I don’t know if she was confused about the order or if she just got caught up in the excitement, but she joined in with the marathoners. She quickly fell behind and I lost sight of her. Later, I learned that she hadn’t put on her bib number, so race organizers initially weren’t sure if she was an official participant or not, but by the second aid station they realized she was in the wrong event. Someone loaded her into a car, drove her back to the starting line, and she started the actual 10K.
Other women ran, too. A spectator wearing a full black robe came off the sidelines, flipped up her veil, and joined me for a few hundred meters. Her plastic flip-flops smacked the pavement and she laughed out loud, too exhilarated for words. When she started gasping for breath, she waved me on and clapped with the echoey open-palm smack of traditional Somali dances.
Nurses from the local hospital manned aid stations every few kilometers along the route. They stood beneath umbrellas, pillars of encouragement in white lab coats and deep pink head scarves that shone brilliantly against the monotonous desert backdrop. They held trays of water, juice, watermelon, bananas, and cookies. They dumped buckets of water over my head and squeezed sponges down my back. Policemen held back traffic and shooed goats out of my path. When I started to vomit, they assigned a follow car to make sure I had assistance if I needed it.
Nasra, an employee of the Gacmadheere Foundation, the education nonprofit helping organize the race, greeted me at the halfway point. She could see I was already exhausted from the exertion combined with fear, joy, and pressure. “You can do this,” she said. “I know. Women can do this.” She rubbed my back for a moment and gently pushed me forward.
Nasra isn’t an athlete herself but she is a vocal proponent of women’s involvement in public spaces: schools, hospitals, sporting events. The foundation had hosted a dinner for marathoners and students to meet before the race. “This year,” Nasra told me at the dinner, “We are sending two more students to university because of this race.” Her eyes filled with tears.
Residents of Hargeisa, probably quite shocked to see foreigners and locals in matching race shirts darting through the streets on a Friday morning, watched from the shade on the sides of the road. They sipped tea, scooped up spongy lahooh bread, and cheered. Spectators swarmed the aid stations, especially the 10K turnaround point at the entrance to a gas station, eager to encourage every runner—even the women, who visibly struggled.
One woman who ran the 10K said she had trained by running from room to room inside her two-bedroom apartment and by jumping rope with the windows pulled shut. Fosiya, with only her brisk morning strolls to prepare her, ran slowly, tired from her early start with the marathoners. She looked steady, determined. With her head ducked down, she could avoid eye contact. With her arms swinging at her sides, she could power herself back to the stadium finish line. No matter her pace, Fosiya was running. In a race. In her hometown. With men.
The crowds did not insult anyone. Not the man nicknamed “walaan,” or crazy, who had warmed up by military-marching in place, then danced his way along the route. Not the footballers. Not the four women who started the 10K and disappeared into cars at the halfway point, too exhausted to finish. Not me, when I vomited a second time. They didn’t tell me to stop, for fear of damaging my body. They didn’t throw stones.
I thought about the few female Somali Olympians. Samia, who drowned. And Fathia, who raced the 100 meters in Beijing. Fathia managed to find hope in Samia’s tragic death. “She was going to another country to run because it was too dangerous in Mogadishu,” Fathia told me. “She became a migrant to be able to run. So I feel hopeful because you can see how girls have this strong courage. I see the strength these girls have, it is huge. They will overcome troubles. Samia’s life gives us courage.”
By the time I finished, the 10K was long over, the awards handed out, the stadium nearly emptied, and my second-place trophy taken.
I have a photo of Fosiya holding a 10K trophy after she finished the race, though it isn’t clear who it belongs to. A Somaliland newspaper showed a photograph of Fosiya, with a caption saying “Fozia, a nurse, and visual artist running for the 42km marathon for the Somaliland marathon, she placed the 3rd for the women.” The article it accompanied said she placed third in the 10K.
In fact, German woman placed first, a Canadian second, and the British-born Somali came in third, having raced in a full dress. Seven other local women participated in the 10K, all running with their faces fully covered and wearing long dresses and gloves. Though half dropped out at the turnaround point, their participation is evidence of immense courage. 5K is no joke for women who have nowhere to train. They were the pioneers, Somaliland’s Katherine Switzers.
I haven’t seen Fosiya again since last year’s race, but she’s no longer such an outlier. This year, while just one woman ran the Somaliland marathon, nearly 50 participated in the 10K, the majority of them Somalis. First, second, and third place were all won by local women.
Rachel Pieh Jones is the author of Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa, to be published in October 2019. She writes the Stories from the Horn newsletter and the blog Djibouti Jones.