Until recently, my fascination with East Africa has been distant and unsubstantiated. But since landing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia last Thursday, the people and landscape of this country have captured my heart and filled it to capacity (not unlike the big blue taxi buses that speckle the streets of Addis and somehow turn 12 seats into benches for 20).
It’s true that the poverty here is transparent- but no more so than the colors, life, and national pride that literally flood the streets. On my way from the airport to Sululta, just north of the capital, I sat back (very thankful to be a passenger) and surrendered to the magnetic chaos around me: gridlocked sidewalks, men yelling destinations out of open taxi doors, clusters of thatch-roof huts, bustling markets, and traffic-dodging donkeys lugging eucalyptus across town. It was exhilarating, disarming and beautiful, and I’m looking forward to contributing to the frenzy, even if for just a short period.
Around 40 minutes and one big sensory explosion later, I arrived at Yaya Village and so began my 2 month stay in running heaven. At 2,700 meters (nearly 9,000 feet) above sea level and with all the components of a self-sustaining village, Yaya is just about the most beautiful, well-conceived, and running-conducive place I can imagine. For training, the complex boasts a 1k dirt track, backdoor access to both flat and hilly trails, sports fields, and a gym and sauna. And for relaxing and socializing, it has a restaurant and bar, a slew of shaded huts and swinging chairs, a conference room, a horse trail, a rooftop patio, vibrant flowers and landscaping, and even a treehouse that’s in danger of becoming my new afternoon nap nook.
In addition to serving as a high altitude training center for international athletes and a hotel for visitors of all kinds, Yaya Village is also a springboard for gender equality among female Ethiopians. Three years ago, rattled by the limited opportunities for Ethiopian women, an Ethiopian-born, Canadian-raised and -educated, and real-life superhero named Joseph Kibur followed his heart and transported his business expertise to his native country. With the support of Haile Gebrselassie (2-time Olympic Champion and 27-time World Record Holder), he set out to use long-distance running to bridge the oppressive gender gap.
The Yaya Girls program is still in its early stages of development- making it a really exciting time to be here- but the ultimate goal is to provide promising young female runners with structured training, accommodations, English lessons, and job skills so that they are prepared for professional running or a sustainable career at the very least. Girls earn the opportunity to live at Yaya by finishing near the front of designated races held 4 times a year, and then receive 3 months of sponsorship and, ideally, a lifetime of application of the skills they’ve gained here. In addition, Yaya provides opportunities to other locals, as Joseph employs as many people as possible (there are currently 65 staff members), lets local youth use the Yaya track for workouts, and is starting a public weekly long run from the village.
I’ve gotten to know the current Yaya Girls and my new training partners- Banchi, Meseret and Derartu- quite well already, and I can’t imagine more deserving or appreciative people to be the initial beneficiaries of this program. They’ve been taking me on breathtaking runs (literally- the altitude is no joke), squealing with glee at my attempts to speak Amharic, and offering to help me wash my clothes. They also invited me to my first coffee ceremony, a beautiful and sacred Ethiopian tradition that I’ll describe in another post.
I’m also thrilled to have Dan, a British runner who’s interning here for 6 months, to hang out with and show me the ropes. His experience is invaluable as he’s introduced me to the awesome staff, explained the difference between real Ethiopian time and international Ethiopian time (12 to them is 6am to us), and shared my first of many Ethiopian meals with me. We also get to hang out every week or so with Xavi and Eliza, 2 Americans who are also involved with Yaya Village. We went to a neat restaurant in Sululta last weekend and are planning to stay with them in Addis next weekend for some urban exploring.
So… 5 days in, and I’m already hooked. I have loads to share about Ethiopian forest running, wild taxi rides, and unique foods, among other things. I’ll update when I can and in the meantime, will continue acclimating to the elevation, soaking up the sun, and enjoying every moment in my delightful new home.
Check out www.yayavillage.com and www.yayagirls.wordpress.com for more information on where I am and where this awesome project is headed.