Finding Their Strong

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girls-run-22In 2008 I helped start a girls running club in Djibouti, Girls Run 2. Running, especially for females, is countercultural and the team provides the community the support they need as they chase down their dreams. We train athletes and come alongside families to ensure their daughters stay in school. Last summer the team, Girls Run 2, was featured in a documentary sponsored by Runner’s World and Saucony.

The film is called Finding Strong and focuses on five running communities around the world: Brazil, Finland, Japan, the US, and Djibouti. In my totally biased opinion, the Djibouti team is the highlight of the movie and this team is finding their strong.

“Finding Strong takes viewers on a global journey to spotlight how the simple act of running can create and empower communities. Spanning multiple continents, Finding Strong gracefully depicts the transformative power of running.

While the film crew was here, while I transcribed the Somali interviews, and while I cried through the film at the premiere in New York, I tried to see the team and Djibouti, the context and the daily realities, through the eyes of those who are not familiar with this heat and dust, not familiar with the complex personalities of these girls and the constant dramas of this team. They are so much more than bare feet and sweatpants with holes, so much more than kwashiorkor hair and homes built from tin cans.

Someone once asked if the girls on the team were poor. I didn’t know how to answer. Technically yes, they are poor. But that is not how I think of them, that is not what defines them. The underlying assumption behind the question (given the context in which it was asked) was that the most important thing about them was their economic level and I cringed.

Yes, they are poor. But as part of this team, they are empowered.

Empowered to say, out loud, I want to be the first in my family to graduate from high school.

Empowered to dream of being a pilot in the air force, even in a country with no air force.

Empowered to say I want to place second in this race, higher than the team thinks possible, higher than I have ever placed before.

Empowered to run through menstrual cramps bordering on childbirth pains because of female genital circumcision.

Empowered to value hygiene and clean clothes.

Empowered to stop, pull the thorn from the toe, and keep running.

Empowered to aim at the Junior Olympics and to believe that racing there is truly possible.

Empowered to believe in one’s inherent honor, value, and dignity even after an attempted rape.

* * *

Run-2And it is important to know that they are empowered not only by being members of a running club.

They are empowered by mothers who support them through teen pregnancies and by a local running community that protects them in the desert from attack. They are empowered from within, knowing as they log kilometers and sweat through t-shirts, that they are strong. They are empowered by the inspiration of their Djiboutian coach who has been to the Olympics, who knows the pride of representing her nation and who knows from experience how to empower these girls to overcome difficulty.

One of the best things I have ever done in Djibouti has been to stand back and watch these girls find their strong.

Preview Finding Strong  //  Girls Run 2 website

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Image credit: Rachel Pieh Jones

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