30 August 2012

the road to bekoji

It has been said that  all roads in Africa lead to Addis Ababa. Ethiopia’s capitol is a large, bustling metropolis in the heart of the Horn that houses the African Union, situating the “New Flower” as a focal point of continental and global politics. Metaphors aside, a quick map study of Ethiopia will show that to be in Addis is to be at a crossroads for the entire nation. After some artful dodging of “blue donkeys,” and actual donkeys, one might end up on a road that leads due south toward the Arsi Zone of Ethiopia’s largest region, Oromia. Within minutes of crossing city limits, travelers along the road are treated to a vast, scenic landscape marked by sky-scraping mountains and sprawling planes in all directions. Livestock and wild animals, such as cattle (lam), sheep (bug), goats (fiyal), horses (ferres), packs of camels (not the ones you smoke), monkeys (zinjero), and feral dogs (wusha) gnawing on the remains of such creatures are as common as people walking or hawking their wares along the dirt shoulder. Dust funnels are not unheard of, and grass & mud huts (gojjos), dot the horizon.

Two hours on a cramped mini-bus later, if you’re lucky enough to escape Addis without significant traffic congestion, you come upon the binomial gateway to Arsi known dually as Nazaret and Adama, marked by a large, ovular archway you pass atop a hill before descending into this surprisingly Western-ish city. The warm Rift Valley temps, palm trees, abundance of tropical fruit, and flip-flops galore could fool you into thinking you’ve stumbled upon West Palm Beach (...sort of...?) rather than some spot in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially if you take in an American style poolside lunch at the Safari Lodge. 

Life as a PCV is tough, I swear.

A quick change of chariots at the bustling terminal will whisk you away to just about anywhere across southern Ethiopia. Head east to stop in Sodare, a resort town featuring natural hot springs and an Olympic size swimming pool, where you can dine with more-than-willing monkeys after cannonballs from one of two diving boards. Southbound mekkinas will take you through small towns such as mercury-popping Dera, main-street-blip Iteya, where a quick left will take you down 14 kilometers of rugged dirt road to the swear-it-was-plucked-from-a-Peace-Corps-poster town of Huruta, and straight ahead will send you toward Gonde, yet another “blink and you miss it” locale. 

Sodare monkeys keepin' it real.

Once the odometer ticks over 75k, you will find yourself in Asella. Home to a premier international running track, and Ethiopia’s most decorated athlete, Haile Gebreselassie, the small city’s main drag is aptly fit for a soapbox derby, especially one featuring heats between the blue, three-wheeled Bajaj taxis you’ll have to dodge while crossing the street in search of a macchiato. An exploration down one of the many cobblestone roads will take you past curious shops of all kinds toward the town’s outskirts, which offer everything from waterfalls in patches of rain-forest-like terrain, wide open prairies reminiscent of the States’s Midwest, and cacti-covered cliff overlooks that, if you’re lucky enough to have arrived on a clear day, will offer spectacular vistas of Lake Ziway, a massive Rift Valley lake spread across the shadow of mountains stretching beyond your plane of vision. Depending on what time of year you arrive, you might also encounter 70-or-so American idealists roaming about town. Asella is the hub town for Peace Corps trainings held in the area to which all of the smaller groups from neighboring towns flock for technical sessions and ferenji food.


Dipping south of Assella brings a stark change in landscape from the 165 kilometers stretching back to Addis now in the rearview. Climbing well above 8,000 feet, the green is greener, the mountains more mountainous, and the air markedly cooler. 23 breathtaking kilometers later and you’re passing through the small stretch of main road demarcating Sagure, where you could drop in for some rockin’ special fuhl and a buna bewatet at Girma Café or a delicious half-liter of Bedele Special and a warm sambusa at Hotel Harar, two places I came to know very well throughout the course of pre-service training.

For 10 weeks, Sagure was the place I called home. I learned some Amharic, ate most of my meals with a most hospitable host family, played Frisbee, wiffle ball, and soccer with my host brothers, attended a graduation celebration, taught classes full of young learners for two weeks, gazed up to a night sky blanketed with stars, went for some great runs, and savored many a great phone conversation with the love of my life. But as much as I cherished every moment with eight Ethiopians who have now become a second family, and the eight other Peace Corps individuals who I now consider some of my closest friends, my hope from day one was that it was merely a stop along the way to my final destination.

Four weeks before my departure, I was at the Broad Street Run expo picking up the race number I would wear for my seventh consecutive go at the annual 10-mile Philadelphia tradition, and final running event before crossing the Atlantic. At the pick-up table, I struck up a conversation with Ross, co-owner of Philadelphia Runner and one helluva strider himself. Ross has always been a strong supporter of Students Run Philly Style, the fantastic organization for which I volunteered prior to Peace Corps service, so we were certainly not strangers. But this, however, was the first we spoke about my pending assignment in Ethiopia, which had been mentioned in an article in theprevious day’s Philadelphia Inquirer related to the running event. He mentioned that a friend of was based in Ethiopia working with Ethiopian runners and that he would put me in touch.

The day before heading to staging in D.C., I received an email from Garrett Ash, co-founder of Running Across Borders, highlighting the organization and a documentary titled Town of Runners. The film features young athletes from Bekoji, a small village in the southern highlands of Ethiopia, each with hopes of following in the golden footsteps of Derartu Tulu, Tirunesh Dibaba, and Kenenisa Bekele, and adding to the growing list of Olympic champions bred in their town.

I was in the grandstands at the 2010 New York City Marathon when favorite Haile Gebreselassie dropped out at mile 16. The finish line was left open to the rest of the world’s best, only for the tape to be broken by Haile’s fellow countryman Gebre Gebrmariam. I stood next to Gebre’s father, the winner’s lone in-person supporter, as he joyfully waved the golden star and colorful stripes. I returned to New York a year later, this time as a participant, when Ethiopia took one and two in the women’s race by the legs of Firehiwhot Dado and Deba Buzunesh; it seems every major road race in which I’ve participated has featured at least one Ethiopian in the top spots. I was even connected to the Ethiopian running culture in some small way as I announced my Peace Corps assignment to my family at mile 8 of that very NYC Marathon, and had previously been given a hint from my placement specialist that called upon results of a recent Boston Marathon where Ethiopian women reigned supreme. Up to this most fateful email, I was beyond well aware of Ethiopia’s place in the annals of running lore, but I had no idea where to find the runners once I arrived. Now the mission was clear: Get to Bekoji.         

Ethiopian Champion

Country-mates to be, post-Broad Street Run

Looking toward Bekoji from Selassie Church in Sagure

For two weeks, I would get closer and closer. I would step out from the front gate of my host family compound at the south end of Sagure and head down the road toward the town situated a mere 33 kilometers away. As the runs increased in distance, so did the beauty of the landscape, and with that, the anticipation of a possible assignment in the Town of Runners. I had expressed my profound interest in Bekoji during my site placement interview with our program director, without knowing at the time whether a placement even existed there. My host family, who has roots in Bekoji, knew of my preference and had begun to pray. Word had spread throughout our group that I had my hopes set on what turned out to be the sole Bekoji assignment that would go to one of the 67 in our group. When those two weeks, which well seemed like two months, finally passed, there was a palpable tension in the room as the Bekoji announcement neared. And an absolute eruption when my name was called.

The road that has led me to Bekoji has been long and trying, indeed, stretching far beyond the 220 kilometers of road between my home of two years and the capitol. Somewhere way back in 2002, when I first set out for a run, or in 2006 when I ran my first Broad Street Run, or perhaps in 2008 when I ran my first marathon, I was taking the first steps on a journey that would lead me to a place of unimaginable beauty (think Boulder, CO x 10). As the adage of wise running sage and dear friend Bart Yasso proclaims, “Never limit where running can take you.” Running has brought me quite a long way, and I will be counting on it to take me much, much farther.

Final run as a Sagure resident (w/ host brothers & two neighbors)


  1. Before you could run, you learned to walk. Before you learned to walk, you crawled with your hands on the ground and your butt facing upward, and before you crawled in that manner, you crawled "commando style." Before you did any of that, you learned to trust that all of your needs were met. And I was there in person for those early moments of your life. Now I am there in spirit with you. It's been an enthralling journey of twenty eight years, and the next two promise to be intriguing and audacious. In 2014, Bekoji will be the town of runners, and the model of English education in Ethiopia AND deeply rooted, worldwide relationships. Love you Joe!

  2. Another fine piece of writing for our enjoyment and education "back West". Love the tie-in to your running history. Keep on....