By the time Kadra Mohamed Dembil went to the Junior Olympics in Nanjing China in 2014, when she was seventeen, expectations of female Djiboutian runners were clear. Last place. Maybe second to last.
She would be that final struggling athlete from a poor, obscure nation with a name people have never heard and can't pronounce. The one spectators clap for in a semi-inspired, semi-pitying way, cheering home the biggest loser. Such a runner, reeled in by the cheers of the crowd long after the other athletes have cooled down and begun interviews, is encouraged. But she is also sometimes embarrassed.
Before Kadra's time, Djibouti sent Roda Wais to race in the Sydney Olympics, in 2000. After placing dead last in the 800-meter race, she defected, with the help of a Somali Australian. Eventually she married an Australian, had children, and never competed for her country again. In 2004, Djibouti sent no athletes to the Olympics. In 2008, Djibouti sent Fathia Ali Bouraleh to race the 100 meters in Beijing. Fathia false started. And, on the second attempt, she was so nervous from the false start that she ran one of her slowest races of the year. She placed last in her heat, her time the second slowest overall. In 2012, Djibouti sent Zourah Ali to race the 400 meters in London. Like Fathia, she finished with the second slowest overall time, faster only than Zamzam Mohamed Farah of Somalia, Djibouti's neighbor to the east. No female Djiboutian had yet won a medal for her country. None had ever even advanced beyond the first heat in a major international competition.
Kadra knew the history of female Djiboutian athletes and, for her international debut at the Junior Olympics, she had something else in mind. She knew she couldn't win, but she had no intention of finishing at the back of the pack. She was determined to launch a new era of female racing in Djibouti. She wanted a race with her name on the announcer's lips. She didn't know if that kind of race was possible, but Kadra wasn't going to Nanjing to aim for last place.
Sport is leisure, running a luxury. In a country where the primary need is basic survival, work is valued more than sports. Adults are too busy, tired, or dignified to run. Kids are not encouraged to run, unless they are playing football, and are generally ordered to sit down and sit still. That way they won't fall into the open flame of a gas burner, used for cooking in most homes, and they won't wander into the street where buses barrel down narrow alleyways with little regard for living creatures: goat, donkey, dog, or human. Girls in particular are encouraged to stay home, helping their mothers cook and clean and keep the younger children safe. There is no room in this kind of life for an eye fixed on a golden prize. There is only room to think about where food might come from for dinner. If there is no food, turn off the lights and close the door and try to sleep. Maybe there will be food in the morning.
Djibouti ranks 170 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index, extremely low but with incremental positive movement in terms of wages, life expectancy, and education. Still, many people live on subsistence diets, with insufficient meat or fresh fruits and vegetables. Unemployment is roughly 60 percent; two in five children live in extreme poverty. Average salaries barely top $220 a month. People can't afford running gear: shoes, training pants, a sports bra, socks. They can't afford the caloric expenditure. They can't afford the time, which they could spend instead trying to scrape together a few more coins by selling tea or gathering sticks to burn as fuel. Running, with a competitive aim and with local compatriots, is a sign of national affluence. Djibouti doesn't have it, not yet. Still, there are signs that interest is on the rise, that the number of local athletes like Kadra is slowly increasing.
Kadra is ethnically Somali. Another Somali runner, Samia Yusuf Omar, who competed for nearby Somalia and faced similar challenges, put the experience of being the slowest this way, "We know that we are different from the other athletes. But we don't want to show it. We try our best to look like the rest. We understand we are not anywhere near the level of the other competitors here. We understand that very, very well. But more than anything else, we would like to show the dignity of ourselves and our country."
Samia raced the 200 meters in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She came in last. Four years later she fled from fundamentalists who threatened her life because she raced without a headscarf in China. She trekked through Ethiopia to Sudan, then Libya and in April 2012, as an illegal immigrant, she caught a boat headed for Europe where she hoped to find a coach. She never arrived. According to reports from her sister and another Somali Olympian, Abdi Bile, Samia's boat ran out of gas. An Italian ship approached and several refugees, including Samia, attempted to swim to the Italian vessel. She and six others drowned.
I had interviewed Samia for Running Times in Djibouti a few months before the Olympics in 2008, along with other members of the Somalia running team. She wore a bandana decorated with Somalia's flag and said she didn't mind coming in last: She was just happy to be able to run. There is honor in running to show the dignity of one's nation, courage in stepping onto the track knowing that you will be last. Especially when you run for a country like Somalia, where some of Samia's training runs were cut short by gunfire. Or Djibouti, where a proverb says women belong either in the kitchen or in the grave.
At the 2008 African Track and Field Championships in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, teams from across the continent sat in the stands with the names of their countries displayed across the backs of their warm-up uniforms. On the third day of competition, the South African contingent approached the Djiboutian team. "Where is Djibouti?" one of the South African athletes asked. "Is it a country? In Africa?"
The Djiboutians nodded and located Djibouti in the air, drawing a map with their hands — the number seven-shaped country of Somalia to the east, Djibouti shaped like a Pac Man with the mouth opening to the crux of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Population 850,000. Viciously hot. Muslim and peaceful and, with the planned construction of new shipping ports and railroads, on the fast track to development. The South Africans thanked them for the geography lesson. Still, if fellow Africans didn't know about Djibouti, who else would?
Djiboutians are strikingly patriotic and this, in part, stems from the obscurity of their nation and the brutality of their climate. They are proud of their hardscrabble and successful fight to survive. But I think it also stems from what this tiny country has accomplished and is accomplishing. In a region known for Somali pirates and anarchy, Ethiopian drought and poverty, Eritrean oppression, and terrorist threats (and a recent influx of refugees) from Yemen just thirty kilometers across the water, Djibouti remains peaceful, stable, and improving. That patriotism is reflected in athletes like Kadra. "I want to see my flag raised, to bring my family honor," she says. And: "I want the world to know my name."
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