And we made it. At 10:15 in the morning, after 21 days and 620 km, volunteers Sandy, Jannah, Taylor, Betsy and two girls, Adele and Michelline, from Taylor’s village rounded the turn into Porto Novo, our final stop our the Tour. Spirits were high; the runners sang songs from Camp GLOW throughout the run.
The mayor of Porto Novo, American embassy representative Todd Whatley, deputy chief of mission, a representative from the Beninese Ministry of Sport and Youth, Beninese partner Father Guillaume and 70 volunteer and community supporters greeted the runners at the Porto Novo Community Center.
On our second-to-last leg of the tour, volunteers Katie and Michelle together completed the 40 km between Bonou and Misserete. The girls finished up strong on this overcast day, and everyone on the team was feeling the excitement of ending the journey in the capital of Porto Novo tomorrow morning.
On this, our penultimate day of cross-country run, we here at the blog are concerned that we have, in fact, made this all look too easy. Or have given the impression that all we did during the run was, well, run.
There was also plenty of eating.
And plenty of time taken to relax afterward.
And definitely, a few rests a long the way.
Volunteer Danny, who tooka break from the bike support team, and volunteer Taylor shared today’s 35 km leg from Zangnanado to Bonou.
Unfortunately, it’s part of the reality of living in a foreign country, eating a foreign diet and encountering foreign viruses that volunteers get sick. Every volunteer has their horror stories that may be too graphic to share here, but volunteer Taylor started the day out rough: waking up with a cold after just battling an intestinal parasite giardia.
But, as bike support team members Danny and Lynsey found out while passing through this village with the same last name of one of our Peace Corps doctors, care is never far away.
Future coordinator of the GenEq committee Betsy took on today’s 7 km run between Cove and Zanganado. But don’t doubt her commitment to the program just because she was scheduled for one of the shortest legs of the tour. Betsy has served the past two years as an English teacher in a public middle school and has seen first-hand the impact that programs that focus on females can have on a village at large.
“Women and girls are the heart of the community,” she said. “Starting with them leads to empowerment and development throughout all genders and age groups.”
Betsy hopes to continue to focus on empowerment through athletics next year, including collaborating with the national Ministry of Sports and other community partners.
Volunteers Kristy and Julie went off the path most taken in today’s 45 km leg from Ajanoudoho to Cove. Despite this being the only day we spent completely off the national highway, dirt roads, known as terre rouge, are actually much more common here than pavement. Most volunteers live in villages where the only streets are dirt that turns everything it touches the color of sun-bleached bricks. During the dry, windy season, most things in the country, including volunteers, are constantly covered in a thin coating of the stuff.
Volunteer Mark took on the route between Dassa and Adjanoudoho, starting with 15 km on the national highway and finishing with 10 km on unpaved roads, known as terre rouge here.
Mark, the coordinator of the GenEq committee, has been with us since the run began all those days ago on the Burkina Faso border biking alongside the runners each day and organizing events in the towns through which we pass. Our bike support team, composed of three volunteers who rotate duties each day, take care of our runners with snacks, water and moral support on the route. Their saddle bags, which carry anything a runner may need, can weigh upwards of 15 pounds. Today, Mark traded this:
Each year, with funds collected by the GenEq committee, Peace Corps Benin volunteers are able to host camps, informational sessions and development projects. But, as it goes, the time that each volunteer gets to spend in Benin is limited. Through the involvement of members of the community outside the Peace Corps, the lessons taught and impact made are able to continue after each volunteer’s 27+ (potentially) months. We are only as good as the host country partners we are able empower.
On today’s 27 km leg of the run from Savalou to Dassa, volunteers Drew and David (who is making his third appearance on the tour) was joined by five special guests: two community partners who have been friends of GenEq for several years now and three girls who participated in last year’s Camp GLOW: Savalou, a one-week empowerment camp focused on middle school girls.
Father Guillaume traveled the four hours from Parakou to run with Drew, but he’s no stranger to long runs. Every year, his organization hosts the Parakou marathon and various other programs in the area to empower women through sports.
Second, Paterne left his motorcycle at home today and pedaled his way with the bike support team to Dassa. Paterne has served on the organizational committee for Camp GLOW Savalou for three years.
I don’t run with people. I run with my iPod. And my house keys. And until he took it back from me, my friend’s GPS. I don’t run with the kids who follow me down the street. I don’t run with the people who yell at me from the side of the road. I don’t run with the men going to the fields who pull up next to me on their motos and want to know about what I’m doing and where I’m going and my phone number.
You could say that I don’t do a lot of things with people. I’m one of those types of people who, sometimes, really just prefers to be by him or herself than with someone else. I’m one of those types of people who, when at a large, crowded party will sometimes find herself with one other person (the one other person who feels the same way) in some corner of the kitchen talking about how over-stimulated she is at the moment. I’m one of those types of people who, sometimes, just needs some time alone with her thoughts.
Which, is why, when I started out running today with three other people (two volunteers and a Beninese girl who works with one of the volunteers through GenEq’s scholarship/mentorship program) I didn’t think it would last that long. I fully expected to run away, if you will, after a couple minutes.
Then we started chatting. I don’t really remember what we even talked about. All I remember from those 18 kilometers was that it lasted 18 kilometers and, all of a sudden (well kind of. 18 km is still long), we were left with 5. When those 5 kilometers started to feel like they were going to drag out forever, that was when I finally decided that it was time to leave the others for a while.
What I realized, though, as I was left alone on the road with only Aloe Blacc’s World Cup theme song looping in my ears, was that while I physically alone, I would never be alone on this run. This run, this tour, was about so much more than my ability to run the 23 km between my village and Savalou. It didn’t matter that I had momentarily left everyone else behind. All the volunteers who had organized this run, every volunteer who had run before me and will run after me, every girl who had benefited from our scholarship program, every girl who had realized that she was allowed to want and deserved to want so much more than she has been told she could want and deserve from her society, all these people were running with me.
One of my jobs as the editor of this blog is to update our list of sponsors from our fundraising, which means that I see every individual in the United States that believed that what we do here is worth giving $10 or $50 or $100. A few days ago, I was working on this update when I saw the names that I had been waiting and hoping would appear: the names of my friends and family back home. Seeing those names that I knew on the list in some way clicked with me. I started to figure out that this was bigger than me.
And it was this that I was thinking about in those last minutes of my leg of the tour. What I realized in those last kilometers as each of my footsteps landed on the highway, each slowly but surely taking me closer to my destination, was that I had so many people running right beside me.
Today, as volunteers Jayne and Melissa, took on their 28 km leg from Bante to Gouka, our talented bike support team put on their mathematician hats (or glasses and pocket protectors?) to compile a list of some of the sums that define our tour so far.
Kilometers ran: 386
Bissap (hibiscus juice) consumed: 13 liters
Lemonade: 3 liters
Oral Rehydration Salt packets: 13
Nuun electrolyte tablets: 12 liters
Gatorade: 7.5 liters
Ice: 12 liters
Packets of cookies: 40
Sunscreen: 375 mL
Volunteers Heidi, Danny and Lauren, along with two members of Heidi’s girls club and the most important member of the group, Heidi’s dog Sammi (wearing one of our polos so elegantly) joined us on the tour today to complete the 15 km between Pira and Bante.
Today also marked our first full day in our next department, the Collines (the best area of Benin, but we might be a little biased). Here, we eat yams, the main agricultural product for farmers in the area. Fried, boiled or pounded with a mortar and pestle the size of small children into pillowy piles to be served with peanut or tomato sauce. (Where you can find the best pounded yams is a volatile argument amongst volunteers throughout the country, but it’s definitely in the Collines. And no, that’s just because our editor lives there).
Meaning hills in French, the state is marked by lone small mountains that rise up from the flat plains that may prove to be more than a little challenging in the next few days of our tour. Some of our volunteers and bike support team decided to climb to the top of the hill outside the town of Bante after finishing the leg today. As if they hadn’t had enough exercise already.