The air is not reaching my lungs fast enough. I cannot breath. I cannot catch my breath. As far as I can see in front of me, the hills keeps rising. On either side of me, my new friends and running partners speak quietly and calmly to each other in a language I don't understand.
Occasionally, my running partners look at me to show me a hand gesture. They push their palms down toward the ground, indicating that I should slow down. My heart is exploding, and they look bored. Yet they want me to slow down even more; further adding to my growing humiliation.
Finally we reach the top. The hills level out a little bit and now we can see what is spread out in front of us. There are miles and miles of lush green coffee and tea plantations. The terrain flattens out, and I have a chance to catch my breath. Our pace levels out a little, and we spend the rest of the time meandering through tiny villages along dirt roads. We take shortcuts through backyards and cut through fields. My friends Robert, Peter, and James greet their friends as we run by them, always with a smile or a laugh. We pass children in different colored sweaters representing the various schools we pass along the way. They are amazed to see a “mzungu” (white man), and they point and stare. My new friends teach me to greet them in Swahili. I wave and greet them. They just stop in their tracks and watch us as we go by.
Most mornings our runs would end with a pick-up. About a half-mile from home we would begin to increase the pace. As I strained and strode with everything I had, they would run casually next to me. Robert would often look at me, running with me step for step, and make a little sign with his hands for me to run a little harder. I am doing my absolute best not to face-plant on the rutted dirt roads. He is toying with me. At the end we would finish together and fist bump. I would bend over trying to catch my breath in the thin Kenyan air, and they would wait. After a few minutes, we would stretch together, and they would walk me back to the gates of the home I was staying in, making sure to deliver me back just as safely as they had found me earlier in the morning.
That was how I spent my mornings four to five days a week for the two and a half weeks we spent in Karatina. We were there to work with an organization called Cheerful Special Home that serves as a place to live for developmentally disabled adolescents as they attend school. We were adding space for sleeping as well as extra toilets and showers. Mama Margaret, the organization’s angelic leader, opened her home to us, even asking her sister to stay with her for the entirety of our stay to help with cooking and cleaning. Our time there was spent working, walking around the village at night shopping for dinner and any extra daily needs, meeting friends of Mama Margaret, and taking small adventures like the two-hour drive we took to stand and take pictures on the actual equator.
Most mornings, I would go on inside for breakfast served by our host Mama Margaret so I could get my day started with my friends from Goodwill Globetrotting. Sometimes though, we would make the short walk into Karatina and have hot tea or instant coffee with milk and sugar and a mandazi—a sort of breakfast bun.
Each morning before breakfast I would wake up, dreading those first climbs up away from Karatina, forcing myself out of bed well before anybody else in the house had begun to stir. I would dress downstairs and go outside, making sure the dogs that protected the house had been put in their kennels so they wouldn’t have me for breakfast. (One morning I didn’t make quite sure enough and had to rapidly scale a wall to avoid them.) As I made my way out of the gate, James, Robert, and Peter would make their way down the sloped driveway to greet me. As they walked me home, it was important to them to meet me at the gate so they knew I was safe. They felt responsible for me—just another tiny facet of their culture that I came to appreciate.
Those morning runs were the highlight of my time there. I looked forward to the warm greetings of my new friends, and I equally dreaded those first 20 minutes of climbing that were inevitable no matter the route. I treasured every step. Running in far-off places is a chance to see places as they exist when nobody is paying attention. A chance to see tiny villages come awake each morning, the chimneys fill up with smoke and field workers heading off with their shovels over their shoulders and moms carrying babies with them into town to buy the day’s groceries. The minivans that double as school busses would pass us each morning, the clamor universal to school children pausing just long enough to point and shout at the mzungu running next to the bus.
We went to Karatina to donate time and goods to Cheerful Special Home. We did that. Each of us who traveled with Goodwill Globetrotting felt terrific about what we had accomplished when it was all said and done. Between you and I though, I was the one who came away from Karatina having gained the most. I will never forget the guys who welcomed me into their lives and shared their morning runs with me. I will never forget the people and places we got to see when nobody knew we were looking.