Inspired by Banff film festival and after a touch of tequila, Emma and I thought she should run from the west coast of Africa to the east. This is our story of dreaming up the idea, researching it, planning, training and running the distance.
Whenever you dig into the heart of a country you will find hidden talent. Here, in Malawi, whilst Emma was running 26 miles with Mike beside her and Robert was teaching me to scrub clothes, Woocash discovered a young breakdancer in the making:
In case you can’t see the video. Here are a few happy photos of the young man dancing:
This day held one of my favourite moments of the trip and, of course, it involves children laughing. We had put up a tarpaulin to shelter from the threatening rain clouds but, as the crowds of children gathered, we shifted it to act as a privacy barrier. Emma and Mike had arrived for breakfast stressed from being screamed at by excitable children. A few of the watchers drifted off to school but the less well dressed ones stayed. I am guessing, but may be wrong, that they didn’t have enough money for a formal education. So, in order to enable the team to have some peace, I went out to the children to be their focus and had loads of fun.
The children were sweet and friendly and tolerated my lack of language skills and crazy antics. I taught them how to spin their leg under themselves, did a few yoga moves, sang songs – “heads, shoulders, knees and toes.” And several times I tried to teach them the Mexican wave (they had surrounded me in a circle and I thought it would be fun).
One girl, Margaret, spoke a few words of English and had the confidence to be the first to try things. Thank God for her. Mostly, the children laughed and giggled and looked up at me with shining eyes and smiles. Pushing in to touch me at times then running away squealing when I looked at them.
An old man came up to me and asked, “Why do you do this?”
“Because I like children.” I reply.
He smiles and says, “Thank you.”
He went on his way to the fields to work.
That thank you and smile that went with it and the sound of children laughing, will warm me for the rest of my life.
At last, I saw Mike and Emma setting off on their journey, hopefully at least a little rested, and disappearing down the road. I could stop, pack up the car, say goodbye to the little crowd and revert to being an introvert. Onwards we go to Mangochi and Lake Malawi.
A view of Lake Malawi whilst looking for a bit of privacy
Number of Days: 74
Total distance run by Emma: 3143 km, 1953 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 42.5 km, 26.4 miles
In Malawi, villages go on for miles before merging into the next village. As a result, we have to ask permission to camp and are directed to the Chief of the district’s house. Getting to his house involves driving up a narrow dusty path full of busy market stalls. Big car, awkward space, lots of people watching – Woocash takes on the challenge of manoeuvring Cleopatra through.
This little group of friends came to laugh and play whilst we were working out where to go
I am pleased to discover that the Chief is Muslim and his wife is Christian. Coming from a mixed religious and cultural background myself, I think they are going to be my kind of people and they are. The Chief is away for the week but his welcoming wife insists that we must stay with them.
The team with the Chief’s wife
As Robert begins setting up the fire to cook, a small crowd of children gather, maybe 20. I find them entertaining but we worry they will fall in the fire. We are constantly saying, “Move back, move back.”
The growing circle of children, there must be 50 now, around us wobbles back and forth as they push each other with excitement. Curious hands reach out to touch, poke and pinch. The naughty pincher is corrected on his behaviour and all the crowd calms down for a bit, they are a little embarrassed by their over excitement, telling each other to behave. When I pull out my camera some hands go up to cover the lens. Half of this group doesn’t want photos the other half are pushing to the front. I put it away as it’s causing more chaos.
Robert has to stay by the fire whilst I wade through the noisy crowd, that, happily, only come up to my shoulder, to fetch ingredients and tools from the car. Being a youth worker, I can’t help myself, and end up chatting with the children, giving them small jobs to keep them entertained. I make the mistake of telling them my name.
Woocash drives back down the market to fetch Emma and Mike. Returning, on his 3rd trip along the lane the stall holders are a little fed up of the giant car bumping her way through, dusting their produce.
Emma is tired and the big crowd of children fascinated by us and wanting our attention takes a lot of energy. Kindly, the Chief’s wife offers us a school room to eat in to escape the pressure and close window shutters on curious eyes.The children surround the room, banging, calling and chanting my name, “Aysha, Aysha”. Typically British, I’m embarrassed by the attention. There must be at least 100 by now. The Chief’s wife says that she doesn’t even know most of the children; they have come from miles around. She does not know how they found out we are there. She tells them off and they quieten a little. Enough so we can eat.
A nice custom across this region of Africa, is that we share food with our host, we win in this, as she brings sweet mangos for us. We talk softly and try to be as boring as possible for the children outside. The time is getting later and we pretend to go to sleep. Eventually, the children go home and I can at last cross the school yard to the toilets on my own.
Number of Days: 73
Total distance run by Emma: 3087 km, 1918 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 42.3 km, 26.3 miles
Living on a small island, I imagine that all border-crossing offices are back to back. Forgetting, of course that we have sometimes thousand of miles between border points but I have always been in an airplane or boat. Between Zobwe in Mozambique and Mwanza in Malawi is 6km.
The novelty of winding our way around the lush green mountain inhabited by people between the borders, delightfully surprises my brain. However, Emma, hasn’t had breakfast and there are no good places to park up and cook. I worry about her. She needs food. What are the legalities of stopping and cooking breakfast in no-mans land? 100 yards after the Malawi border we set up and wait anxiously. Emma and Mike seem to be taking a long time. I have prepared snacks and am about to take a taxi or something back to find them, when, to our relief, we see them coming through the barriers. Okay, my relief, I am the worrier in the team.
Otherwise the crossing is very easy. Having written down the exchange rate, my calculator can keep up with the swift thinking money men. At the Malawi border, we accidentally pick up a tout pretending to be an official. Fortunately, we figure this out in time. The real border guard is cross when he discovers this and stays by my side to make sure I am not hassled anymore. Clearly, they value their visitors.
At the end of that day, Emma was too tired to move and yet she had run 57 km. I was tired too but you kind of keep quiet about that when someone has run 3000km in 2 and a bit months. I think we may both have a bug. Its incredible that Emma ran a marathon.
Number of Days: 71
Total distance run by Emma: 2969 km, 1845 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 41.8 km, 26.0 miles
Emma and Mike set off a few days ahead of us whilst we hang out at embassies sorting out visas. Mike who we met at dinner joins Emma for a marathon, which makes a happy day. Local people take care of Emma and Mike along the way and they even get to stay in a hut for a night to make sure that they are safe. (How great would that be?)
We think it was a cooking hut
Emma writing her diary or possibly practicing levitating
Early morning start
The outside of the house Emma and Mike stayed in
Mike, Mike and Emma
Free range pig
My driving licence arrives in Harare just before we set off again, luckily. I am delighted to leave the city and love being back on the dusty road with fields and trees for miles in every direction. We catch up with Emma and Mike just in time before the border with Mozambique: we have their visas and passports and we can all celebrate Robert’s birthday with watermelon and chocolate cake.
Day 61 distance run: 60.31 km, 37.47 miles Day 62 distance run: 61.86 km, 38.43 miles Day 63 distance run: 52.33 km, 32.51 miles Day 64 distance run: 53.68 km, 33.35 miles
Number of Days: 64
Total distance run by Emma: 2640 km, 1640 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 41.2 km, 25.6 miles
Mark is a big character warm hearted and fierce. I like him but then he is inviting us to stay, telling incredible stories and not shouting at us. These details might make all the difference. He is concerned by our route and advises we must be beyond a certain point by nightfall.
However, during the day we have another team meeting to resolve problems. Well, really it is about valuing the role that each person does and showing our appreciation for each other. So everyone knows how fantastic we think they are – there are tears. And we all feel wonderful but, then it turns out it hasn’t worked (which is a good lesson I will remember).
That there are problems is not that surprising. Sometimes it feels as if we are living in a submarine, cut off from friends and family AND Emma is running a marathon everyday, a phenomenal endeavour in the dust, heat, in pain and without privacy. Throw in other details such as some of the team barely knew each other before we started and that we are from 3 different cultures and I think everyone did pretty well. Emma ran 37 marathons before any hint of serious issues arose.
However, we are at this point now (54 days of marathon running): Emma and Mike will travel alone, whilst the rest of us will push publicity, sort out visas, and other logistical issues. We will meet Emma and Mike regularly to refuel with food and water. Mike will need to carry food and camping equipment on the bike. The increased weight means a change of route: off sandy tracks and onto firm asphalt. Instead of travelling straight across to Mozambique, they will head south to Harare. We will avoid the path Mark was worried about and miss out the most remote and dangerous part of the journey. Perhaps the change of plan was a good thing.
We all camp at Mark’s beautiful farm that night.
Early in the morning, Emma sets off running with only Mike on the bike beside her.
Number of Days: 54
Total distance run by Emma: 2217 km, 1378 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 41.1km, 25.5 miles
Distance run today: 12.84 km, 7.98 miles
Thank you Mark for welcoming us in and letting us stay at your gorgeous farm.
We are secretly camped beside a farm that was forcibly removed from a white Zimbabwean farmer and given to black Zimbabweans. Robert is jumpy. Acting on his advice, we are cautious.
The redistribution of farmland was set as an objective by President Mugabe in 1980, when Zimbabwe gained independence. 20 years later the process had barely started. In 2000 government supported land seizures were enforced by armed gangs of young men, these were often unexpected and violent and farmers, their families and staff were sometimes injured and killed. The most recent land seizure in the area was in 2008, just 6 years earlier. That is why we are hiding behind a thick hedge.
Robert warns us that these people can be aggressive and may think that we are trying to steal their land. He also assesses the camping spot as likely to attract a lot of snakes. Everyone is wary when we hear cars passing, becoming silent and switching off torchlights. To add a little extra adventure, I have a stomach upset in the night and 3 times have to make a dash into the darkness. Given the situation, I wake Woocash to keep me company, which he suffered with surprisingly good humour. We are happy to get off the site as quickly as possible in the morning.
Number of Days: 53
Total distance run by Emma: 2204 km, 1370 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 41.6km, 25.8 miles
As we cannot find a secluded area to camp in. We stop outside someone’s house and Robert asks them if we can stay. It is fantastic having Robert with us. He knows how to approach people in a polite and respectful way: the rest of us are learning to cup our hands and clap them whilst saying “Wakadini?” which means “How are you?” in Shona. Zimbabweans are delighted and laugh at our childlike stumblings.
The homeowner tells us we must ask the Chief’s permission first. Warily, we drive on to the Chief’s house. He turns out to be a very welcoming man and insists we stay on his land. I think this is for our safety and the safety of his community if we turn out to be the bad guys.
We are settled under a beautiful tree and given a large bowl of fresh nuts as a gift. Robert tells us that we must return the gift with a plate of food. I hope they are going to like my cooking. Of course, they are too nice to say anything other than it was delicious.
Emma was up and running before we could take the photo with the Chief and his wife.
The Chief and his wife and myself, Robert and Woocash
A half spider half scorpion that is entirely harmless
Number of Days: 52
Total distance run by Emma: 2163 km, 1344 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 41.6km, 25.8 miles
I am running with Emma and as we come round the corner of a hill I see a class of children let out to play. Before they spot us I can see their skittish joyful runs around their school and then they see us. Excited shouts pour out as they race towards us and surround us. Emma wants to run free, so I slow down my pace and hold my arms out, guiding them to run in line with or behind me. Unsure how to entertain them, I encourage them to sing. One of the girls looks uncertainly around her and then takes the lead with confidence. My senses are overwhelmed with their energy flowing through their voices.
I could tell you many things about this day, about crossing the Tsetse fly border or the moment the team spirit was broken when something was said that took away trust, but this is the moment I want to remember, to share with you and show how wonderful visiting Zimbabwe and meeting Zimbabweans can be.
Cleopatra being checked for Tsetse fly
A Tsetse fly (big aren’t they?)
Number of Days: 51
Total distance run by Emma: 2109 km, 1310 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 41.4km, 25.7 miles
Emotions are disturbed. Dust devils of discontent have been swirling, slowly picking up strength and pulling in all members of the team. At the same time, Mozambique, our final country, is due an election in a few weeks, and there are fears of civil war. I learn to take joy in every thing I can, whenever I can. Luckily, we are in Southern Africa – Africa is amazing.
We met these young men who are studying to become a policeman and an engineer
This friendly lady explained how to use a gourd as a smoking vessel and that particular plant is almost extinct.
An idyllic spot for lunch where a bird of paradise lived.
And one of the hills that Emma & Mike determinedly reached the top of:
That night we camp round the back of a store. To do so, we must first get permission and we hunt through the village for the owner. The owner’s teenage son says we can stay. But later his Aunt comes to check who are these strange people. Children peek round the corners at us and I can’t resist walking up behind a group and saying “Boo!” They all jump and giggle.
Number of Days: 45
Total distance run by Emma: 1965 km, 1221 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 43.7 km, 27.1 miles