Ron Marinucci - September Column
by Ron Marinucci, Aug. 31, 2015
In area the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the second largest country in Africa and the fourth largest in population. Despite having an abundance of natural resources, including oil, gold, latex/rubber, and copper, due to government instability, political corruption, and economic backwardness, it is one of the least developed nations on earth. It has also been wracked by twenty years of brutal civil war. Including starvation, disease, and AIDS, estimates have run as high as five million deaths over that span. Some have called it the deadliest war since the end of World War 2. DR Congo has been called “the most dangerous place on earth to be a woman” because of the vast number of rapes and murders, often placed in the millions, of women and younger girls.
Yet, this past May, a group of nine women from across the US, including two from Michigan, Randi Stoltz and Meryl Marsh, traveled to DR Congo to run seven marathons in seven days. In addition, four other Michigan residents and another from Ohio collaborated in organizing and coordinating the project.
Run Across Congo was the third such initiative stemming from the Traverse City-based On the Ground non-profit organization. OTG was founded by entrepreneur Chris Treter and works to support the development of communities in farming regions around the world. So far, projects have been undertaken in Mexico and Nicaragua as well as Runs Across Palestine, Ethiopia, and now DR Congo. OTG has helped to build local water systems and schools, to aid women’s access to micro-loans, and, because of the terrible situation women face in DR Congo, to developing gender equality initiatives there.
RAC had several purposes. One was to raise awareness of the vast gender inequality in, especially, eastern DR Congo. Another was to help raise money to support initiatives that include a clinic for women who are victims of the sexual abuse, “training on income-generating activities for women and families” of soldiers killed in the line of duty in the civil war, and encouragement of female ownership of and inclusion in the coffee-production of DR Congo.
Randi Stoltz is a senior OTG staff member who helped to organize RAC. She was also one of the nine runners who completed the journey. “Each day,” she said, “was 42K,” 26.2 miles, the marathon distance, “of running for each team member…for seven straight days.” My calculator tells me that’s 183 miles in a week! She added, “It’s hard for some folks to really let that sink in when they hear it or read it. But yes, we each ran the distance as a team, together, 42K each day.”
In a country as vast as DR Congo, as large as all of Western Europe, the team faced different and quite difficult running conditions. Stoltz described them. “Our terrain in Southern Kivu, the eastern Congo, ranged from hills to mountains, lakes at our side, rivers, and desert stretches to lush green jungle. Some days we’d start in the dry lowlands and climb [the entire] 42K.” Along the way, the runners could “see the change within the texture and color of the soil under our strides.”
In that part of Africa, it is hot, very hot for running. “Most days the temperature was at least 80 [degrees] when we started and hit the 100s at the peak.” Rain on the third day brought some respite, but that was the only precipitation they saw.
Timothy Young, from Michigan, is a founding member of the OTG board. He’s been involved as a community-service volunteer in many countries for more than thirty years. He helped to organize Runs Across Palestine and Ethiopia before being involved in RAC. “As the in-country logistic coordinator, I was engaged in all the pre-planning, country visits, and community-building required leading up to the run.” He sees RAC as “a seed-planting expedition [which created] a platform to continue to raise funds ad awareness for the plight of women in this region.”
Young was “shoulder-to-shoulder with the runners, attending to their daily needs, such as food, shelter, security, and community visits.”
Each day’s schedule differed somewhat, but not much. In part to beat some of the heat, Stoltz said, “most days had us starting the run at daybreak. We ate along the way and visited farming communities and coffee washing stations,” where coffee beans or cherries are sorted, washed, dried, and fermented, “all the while enjoying the beautiful landscape that South Kivu shares.”
Although the marathons weren’t organized races, time was an important factor. The team had to run, not against the clock, but “against the sun since we had to be at our destination by dark for safety.” It’s a dangerous land for women.
“When we arrived at the finish line for the day, if we weren’t at our destination for rest, we would hop in two Land Rovers, since four-wheel drive is a must, and drive between one and three hours on the highway,” which was really, she noted, “a dusty dirt road.” Reaching their overnight spot, they’d have dinner and a team meeting. To recover, “We’d try to rub out our legs with any Coke or Fanta bottles we could scrounge.” Then it was off to sleep, often in shared beds complete with mosquito netting. “And then,” Stoltz recounted, “wake up to do it all over again.”
She admitted, “Lodging was better than what we prepared for. We stayed in motels, homes, and a ministers’ compound.” Having also Run Across Palestine, “I warned runners we may be sleeping on the ground or in the backyards of farmers’ homes.” They were pleasantly surprised and “fortunate to have electricity for a couple of hours while the places that hosted us had their generators running when we arrived.” She added, “We had water most days. That was a treat to wash up after a day of running!”
Food was local, but included a lot of carbohydrates. “We ate potatoes, rice, and cassava,” a chewy tuber rich in starches. Among the vegetables were “beans, sweet potatoes, and cassava (manioc) leaves cooked as greens.” Protein came from eggs and meats such as chicken and goat. To nourish “during the run, we ate energy bars and food we packed individually along with fresh avocadoes, oranges, bread, and cheese we purchased from local markets along the way.”
Run Across Congo was about far more than running, as daunting as running seven marathons on seven consecutive days seems. Stoltz said, “An ultra-run like this peels away layers of yourself you many have never known existed. It pushes your limits physically, mentally, and emotionally in a way you’ve never experienced or expected. This is an experience I find difficult to put into words. Life in Congo is much different than anywhere I’ve ever traveled and unimaginable for most Americans.”
Young added that RAC “was very rewarding. Each runner had a life-changing experience, made connections in the communities that will last a lifetime, and will be [an] advocate for women in the region for a long time to come.” RAC, he stressed, “was daring, challenging, and unconventional in many ways. And it worked!”
Stoltz said, “Through the conflict that this vibrant culture has faced, they are continuing to persevere with hope and with peace. It was an honor to meet the women and hear their life stories. It was humbling to shake their hands. Many friends and family have commented on how strong the running team is for doing this, but I honestly drew strength from the Congolese women. These same women face a daily struggle of survival for themselves and their families, have had their bodies exploited as a war-tactic for decades, and they carried pounds upon pounds of water and supplies on their backs, up mountainsides for miles as we ran by. Seeing their struggles made our 42K run for the day seem easy.”
She went on. “The run itself was incredible for supporters to get behind and be a part of a world-wide movement for gender equality. But the success comes also in the form of what it did for the women of Congo. One response I heard from a female farmer in Kiniezire [a village] was, ‘The run gives us hope that despite gender-based violence, there are people in the world who care and who love us.’” Young echoed that, “Our presence inspired many of the women our team met along the journey. Much of the success is yet to come.”
Stoltz also admitted, “To be honest, the run was actually only one of the many moving parts of the journey. The musical ambassadors,” Akili Jackson from Michigan and Ben Cohen from Toledo, “collaborated every day with local musicians, artists, and youth while we were in-country and they’re creating an album from their experiences.”
“After the run, there was also the ‘Saveur du Kivu,’ Congo’s first-ever coffee cupping competition,” Stoltz noted. This tied in to the initial coffee-based purpose of OTG founder, Treter. “The cupping event gave farmers the opportunity to learn about their coffee in a new light, giving them the knowledge behind the selling of their quality coffee, along with more fair prices.”
Summarizing, Stoltz concluded, “The Run Across Congo is a branch of hope that allowed myself and the team to bear witness to what our family and friends believed in us to do and represent: work that is indeed changing lives around the world…together!”
More information on RAC and OTG, including opportunities to donate, can be found at www.onthegroundglobal.org/project-congo/.