While serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in The Gambia, I did more running then I ever have in my entire life! I would often run for one hour, running 30 minutes out and 30 minutes back, three or four times a week. I suppose this is not very significant in comparison to what college athletes do, but it is the most running I have ever done. I first started running in Rome, Italy, when I joined my high school cross-country team during my junior year in order to get in shape for the following basketball season. I had no idea how addicted I would become to running. I ran in the DODDs cross-country European championships and continued running all throughout college. However, I had never run further than around five kilometers over the span of 18 to 25 minutes. During my senior year, a friend of mine first introduced me to long-distance running.
Adapting in Africa
I did not try running in The Gambia until my third week of pre-service training. I was still adapting to the heat and the diet, but I could not wait any longer. If anything, I found that running helped me with my adjustment. After a long run, it did not matter how hot it was at night because I was so tired that I slept and it did not matter how gross my host-family’s food was because I was so hungry that I ate. Running was also a great source of stress relief. Running through the bush, with nothing but birds and trees around me, was extremely relaxing. I continued running, even after I had moved to my two-year site. I began to lengthen my running times, ultimately reaching one full hour. Though I never actually measured my running distance, I believe I would often cover between six to ten miles in a single run. I went for runs all over The Gambia, which allowed me to see much of the country.
In Sarre Alfa I had three major running routes. I would sometimes run north, across the south bank road and along a very sandy path that lead to Perai-Tenda, a Mandinka village near the river. I would sometimes bike along this same path, passing the village and heading down to the river for a swim. I once swam right across the river at this particular site. However, the main reason I liked running there was to marvel at the Silk-Cotton tree that grew just above the riverbank, looming over the river and the path. It was the most enormous and majestic tree I have ever seen. Silk-Cotton trees are amazing; they are covered in small spikes, their roots stretch out at the base to form huge crevasses, and they release their seeds in fluffy, cotton-like balls that fall to the ground and make it look like it has snowed.
The other two paths I ran on in Sarre Alfa went to the South. I would run through the center of the village, passing the central mosque and all the old men on their bantabas, and then strike out into the farm fields on the outskirts of the village. It was a beautiful, flat, open area that was spotted with lone, evenly spaced trees. You could see for miles in almost every direction. One path lead through the fields to another village, where I would turn around and run along a small inlet before turning back to form a U shaped path. I will never forget running back through the fields as the sun was setting. As the tall, dry grass swayed in the wind, the fading sunlight would paint it bright orange and yellow. The farm fields were also home to several Abyssinian Rollers, which are beautiful, iridescent-blue birds that perform amazing flight displays. They would often perch on a lone coos stalk as I ran by and I would often stop to stare at their beautiful white eye-slashes and long tail hairs.
The other path I ran on led through the fields and up into a forested area that my host-family called “dow hyrre,” meaning “upon a hill.” Indeed, it started with a slight rise, then I would pass though a smaller, cleared area that served as my own host-family’s farm fields. Then I would just run along a thin, dirt path that wound through the over-grown bush. It was beautiful! I would see Hornbills, Starlings, and huge termite mounds. Two Warthogs once ran right across the path ahead of me. Another time, I passed a lone fisherman coming back from some hidden pond. He looked totally surprised and a little frightened to be seeing a white man running through the bush.
On a few occasions, during the rainy season, I went running while staying in the Basse transit house. I would head out of town on the dirt road that led up past the SOS Children’s Orphanage. This was the most uneven and difficult road that I ever had to run on. The mud was slippery and sometimes stuck to my shoes, making them heavy. The puddles were as wide as small lakes and surprisingly deep. I would be so covered in mud by the end of the run that I could easily blend in with the road itself.
I stayed on Janjanbury Island several times as I helped with Peace Corps site development treks. We would spend the nights at the Regional Education Office and I would often go running down a dirt road that led to a small resort called “Bird Safari Camp.” It was a beautiful path through the bush that ended right at the riverbank. I would often see Parakeets, Parrots, Kingfishers, and Weavers, as well as find hippo prints by the river’s edge. On other occasions I would run to the main road and follow it off the island, crossing the newly built bridge leading to the Southbank. I would pass a large, dirt field where young men were always playing football: running and kicking in a fog of dust. The bridge offered a beautiful view of the river, with the green bush lining both sides and the cloud filled sky above.
I once stayed with a volunteer just outside Soma and went running through a strange neighborhood of large abandoned buildings. I was later told that the buildings were part of a hospital that was once located nearby. I also stayed in the center of Soma a few times as I passed through on site development treks for Peace Corps. I would run out of town, heading West on the Southbank road. I would often be passed by large trucks, heading for the river crossing, which kicked up so much dust that I would often have stop to the let the air clear. I sometimes wonder how much African dust I have in my lungs.
A fellow volunteer and I once went running outside Farafeni, through a bunch of smaller villages and along a road leading though the mangroves by the river. We picked up quite the little following of children.
Tendaba is a beautiful tourist camp located right on the river. It is where I completed much of my Peace Corps training, including model school. I would go on morning runs with one of the volunteer trainers, which was an excellent way for me to get rid of my nervousness before model school. One morning, which I will never forget, I woke up to the sound of pounding rain and darkness outside. “I guess we won’t be running this morning,” I thought, and then there was a knock at the door. Indeed, we went running in the pounding rain, splashing through puddles and kicking up mud. It was awesome!
A few years later, I stayed at Tendaba a few times while on site development trek. I would often jump over the back gate and run along a path that led into the mangroves behind the camp. It was a beautiful path that passed by a few rice fields and then went straight into the mangroves. I once startled a large Monitor Lizard, which climbed up a tree with amazing speed. I also came across a troop of baboons, which barked at me and slowly ran off in a very systematic fashion; constantly keeping an eye on me. I would pass several trees that were full of weaver nests, like little cities made of intricately woven grass baskets.
I spent a good amount of time in Kombo, which is a well-developed area of the Gambian capital, Banjul. I would normally go running along the beach, striking out from the Peace Corps transit house and heading straight down a few paved roads to the coast. I would sometimes take a side trip along a beautiful, thin path that led along the edge of a high cliff over the beach. Needless to say, the beach was beautiful. I would run along the firm sand and dodge my way through the many Gambians and tourists who would be playing football (soccor), rugby, working out, or just running around on the beach. I would get quite self-conscious as I passed the Gambian wrestlers on the beach; men who had so much muscle they looked like G. I. Joe action figures. I would kick off my shoes to cross a small inlet and then run onwards, rounding several bends in the coast before turning to run back.
Every Monday and Thursday in Kombo, there would be pick-up ultimate Frisbee games on the MRC grounds. These were really fun, friendly matches where a bunch of diverse people would come together to play Ultimate Frisbee; Gambians, Peace Corps volunteers, VSO volunteers, British NGO workers, MRC workers, and many other people. During the rainy season, the field would be covered with high grass that painted our socks with seeds. Huge bats would fly out of the nearby palm trees and sore over the field as the sun went down. In the dry season, the field would be reduced to sand. Starlings and Plantain-Eaters would fly over the field as we kicked up dust and ran like crazy, the setting sun turning my teammates into silhouettes.
Tanjeh, where I lived for the third year of my Peace Corps service, offered me the best of both worlds as a runner. I could run out along the coast or through the forested area behind the village. One path that I often ran on led across the coastal road and through a large area of farm fields that separated Tanjeh from the beach. As I neared the beach, I would pass a large line of palm trees standing with the ocean behind them, then run down a steep hill and come out on the soft, flat sand. I would round a bend and then run along an empty beach for miles. Sometimes it was as if I was the only person on Earth. Occasionally there were some fisherman or cow herders guiding their cattle along the beach. I would watch the sun set over the water as I ran back, following my long shadow as I returned home. The other path that I would run on led away from the coast. I would run through the village and into a small area of farm fields. Though it was never as remote as the area I ran through in Sarre Alfa, it was peaceful and a welcome relief from the crowded village.
These are the memories I have from running in The Gambia. It was such a beautiful country and I feel like my frequent runs helped me to see that.