Less than a decade ago, Liberians were running for their lives. Monrovia was a war zone. Armed rebel groups vied for power against the government of President Charles Taylor, a former warlord and now indicted war criminal.
On Sunday, Liberians ran for their futures. At 8:00 am, I was with them – one of 1,000 runners assembled on the grounds of Liberia’s largest hospital to run, (walk or stroll) through the streets of Monrovia in a 10 Kilometer foot race that took place alongside Liberia’s first marathon. The marathon runners, some 400 or so, had taken off two hours earlier. Our start time was delayed to allow the leaders to pass through.
For the past two days, the weather had been perfect. Sun, with some clouds, heat, but not hot. Yesterday, it just poured. But what I found most curious was that out of hundreds of the 10K runners, a mix of Liberian and international participants, all aware that this is Liberia’s rainy season, almost no one brought foul weather gear.
Two kilometers in, I realized why. Between the rain, the wind, the puddles and the passing cars, there was just no point. Also, I think, being soaked to the skin became part of the experience.
But this was more than an athletic event. It was a celebration of Liberia’s continuing emergence from a difficult post-conflict period. It was a celebration for the youth of Liberia, who have the luxury now to participate in sports competitions.
To the delight of runners and spectators alike, among those jogging along was Africa’s first woman to be elected president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who took office in 2006 after elections judged free and fair by a large international observation effort. President Sirleaf inaugurated the race sporting jeans and a baseball cap, encouraged us on. But, you know, she must have been thinking, who thought of holding this marathon in the rainy season!
It felt, at least for a day, as though Liberians were united in racing to make up for decades lost to conflict – a Liberia educating its people, returning basic services, building infrastructure, attracting private investment, drawing back a rich and talented Diaspora, and yes, a Liberia hosting its first internationally accredited marathon.
The race also provided an opportunity for remembrance. Runners dedicated themselves to friends, love ones or family members that died in the wars. Everyone had their own story – someone to remember and honor.
The most touching and memorable moments of the day by far were when the disabled, some wounded in war, made their way to the finish line in their wheel chairs and on crutches.
From the JFK Hospital we wound our way through Sinkor, Congo Town and then arrived in Paynesville at the Samuel K. Doe Stadium or SKD, for a final lap before the finish line. Along the way we were cheered and sometimes serenaded by church goers leaving services. Some of the courtesy stops, every kilometer or so, were staffed by Liberia’s newly formed army, the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), who seemed to delight in handing out plastic bags of water.
At mile marker 24, a member of the AFL, lucky enough to have a hooded poncho as part of his uniform yelled to me, “Thanks for running for Liberia!” I crossed the finish line in just over an hour – and for 15 seconds or so my less-than-stellar running form appeared on the big screens above the stadium bleachers.
I wasn’t really supposed to run today. I am recovering from surgery, on new medications, and my doctors (there are a few) instructed me to cheer on the runners or maybe walk. Oh well, I guess with this article I am busted.
K. Riva Levinson is Managing Director of KRL International, a consultancy dedicated to emerging markets. She has worked on Africa issues for more than 25 years and has been an adviser to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf since 1996.