To Build a Home

The clay floor is swept clean, the only available light comes from the sunbeams shining through the front doorway which are made visible in the lightly dusted air. Gently illuminated is the front room of a traditional Ethiopian home with a collection of stools and seats gathered neatly around a central fire area. A chicken flutters to the threshold throwing a long evening shadow across the smooth floor and carefully reviews the recently arrived visitors hoping for some crumbs only to be ushered away as if she has clearly forgotten house rules on such days.

As guests we sit on the best low chairs, each slung with animal hides. The family elders of a friend have joined us in the warm glow of sunlight whilst the rest of the small household are busily engaged in the final preparations of the shared evening meal. Proceedings start when we are each presented, as guests to the village and of the house, with a small plate containing simply a large heaped portion of pure crystalline honey. We feel privileged – our gift of hospitality amounts to two small jars worth! – but immediately and without consideration two rational questions pop silently in to our heads. Firstly, is this really all honey? And secondly, is this all for us to eat right now?

In time we discover that the answer to both these queries is naturally ‘yes’, which is delivered with some surprise as if we have been a little silly to even ask. Anyway, it is probably always best to be clear with these things before hastily consuming a potentially valuable commodity! The ensuing conversation quickly provides the opportunity for far more interesting discussions aided by the waving of arms and by some more precise interpretative work. Our evening starts to flow.

We are here in Ethiopia again to facilitate my regular stint of ‘winter’ altitude training high up in the mountains at around 3000m. We have also decided to explore an area which is new to us and take the opportunity to visit a small building project which aims to bring further much needed development to an outlying area of the renowned Simien Mountains (see video).

The build is in its final stages. When completed the facility will comfortably accommodate foreign visitors for hiking trips and wildlife excursions in the truly remarkable landscape of the National Park (with a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation) which has recently been enlarged and is now increasingly protected.

Our new family acquaintance currently installs the plumbing and electrics at the construction site, about 3km up the road from the farmstead, whilst maintaining his noticeably industrious bees and the family patchwork of fields. The busy hives and a ripening crop of barley are situated on a small plateau overlooking the tiered hillsides that lead down from the main escarpment of the Ethiopian Highlands and forms part of a collection of homes and lands that are known as ‘Limalimo’.

For now we have become part of the routine in the village and surrounding area, able to closely witness the daily rhythms that are beginning to bring the project to fruition for these local builders and the start of a transition of the people from creators to either employees who will run and maintain the lodge or producers who will form part of the necessary supply chain of local goods and services.

As I observe the building process, the locals have an equal view of me and my training rituals as I run mile after mile through the network of paths that stretch across the beautiful landscape and a mutual respect develops for each of our separate endeavours as the days pass. A balance of purpose and pleasure enables the athlete in me to thrive in the happiness needed to overcome the daily demands of running up to 100 miles a week at 3000m.

The virtues of warmth, high altitude and soft trails are well known to the endurance side of the athletic world, but for me a training location requires a few more pieces to complete the picture of an ideal location: the natural landscape, tranquility, fresh air and, probably most importantly, a welcoming community where positive friendships are easily formed and where the joyfulness found in people’s daily lives fills you with energy. In Ethiopia, especially in these rural areas, the community positively welcome and invite your stay with them even as they are going about their busy work such as creating a wonderful collection of lodges, bringing much needed employment to a region mostly dependent on subsistence agriculture.

We are told November is the month of the best honey harvest and our more than generous portion of high altitude wild honey, as an aperitif to the main family meal, is not only an expression of ever present hospitality of the Ethiopian people but importantly an indication that a thriving local market of seasonal produce does exist. The new lodge with its own demands for staff and produce will bring a valued injection of cash directly in to the local economy which ultimately offers increasing stability, furthers life’s opportunities and develops access to education for more children.

Exploring the diversity of this new location for me has built friendships, enhanced my chosen endeavour and taught me that the richest and most enduring experiences in running are not necessarily always found in a race or a stadium.

As for the plate laden with honey we managed to eat more than a suitably polite amount with our fingers. It was absolutely delicious but as our insulin raced to suppress the glucose overload our hosts kindly accepted that eating a month’s worth of honey in one sitting is probably something not to be imposed on your valued sporting guests!

After much laughter and verbal exploration of the rural ways of life we leave to walk along the moonlit paths replete, contented, humbled and happy. Not just a message from our satisfied stomachs but a far deeper satisfaction that the shared joy of humanity is alive and well in this remote part of Ethiopia; as ever a fine balance of pleasure and purpose!


Great Ethiopian Run

What a day!

I have witnessed the Great Ethiopian Run on three occasions now yet every time I am left amazed, inspired, speechless at the spectacle of Africa’s largest road race. A sea of colour, 40,000 runners in carnival atmosphere celebrating the joy of running as well as the strength and solidarity of the Ethiopian nation.

This time I choose not to compete, instead I left my warm bed at Yaya Village in the early hours and ran over the Entoto Mountain in to Addis Ababa. A stunning 25 kilometres of uphill, some scramble, and flowingly fast descent to finish off a big training week just shy of 100 miles.

There to greet me at the event finish area was Haile Gebreselassie, somewhat astonished by my choice of long run, and together with a large host of well know Ethiopian athletes and VIP guests we cheered in the leading runners as well as the mass of masses!

Stockport Harriers were the club chosen by Nova International to experience this year’s race and they did themselves proud. Not only in the event itself but also throughout the preceding days when I took them into the landscape surrounding Yaya Village to run the ‘Ethiopian way’. It was a pleasure to spend time with them and I hope the few days will help inspire them to future successes.

With the race done it was, of course, time to celebrate. The renown post-run gathering at Haile’s house was a time to relax, share stories and experiences as well as celebrate everything Ethiopian – food, drink, dance and all.

Congratulations to the Great Ethiopian Run team, may the event continue from strength to strength.


What fuels Ethiopian runners?

Ethiopian cuisine plays a massive role in the daily rhythm of the country.

Time and care is taken in the preparation of the traditional dishes and even more so when it comes to the communal, somewhat ceremonial practice of mealtime. It is an occasion for relaxation, to refuel after a long and active day, a time to discuss, debate and connect with friends and family. Something I feel we could all do a little more of!

Injera is the staple food of Ethiopia. It is a flat, spongy, ‘crumpet-like’ flatbread made from fermented teff flour, an ancient gluten-free grain found only in the African Horn. It serves as both plate and utensils, accompanied by a vast dotting of spicy stews, fried meats (when they can be afforded) and sauces, which frequently include beef, lamb, vegetables and various types of legumes such as lentils.

Ethiopians eat exclusively with their right hands, using pieces of injera to pick up bites of entrées and side dishes, feeding each other is common and ensures that everybody gets their fair share!

The whole experience is energising and despite the unfamiliar appearance Ethiopian food it is both incredibly nutritious and tasty .

A few months back I was overjoyed to hear a Radio 4 Food Programme on Ethiopian Teff. The sounds transported me straight back to the country, so much so, that I could almost taste and smell the injera.

It is well worth a listen – BBC Radio 4 – Food Programme – Ethiopian Teff