Bekoji, a small Ethiopian town of about 17,000 people, is situated 10,500 feet above sea level and has a special claim to fame. The Guardian called it “The fastest place on Earth”. A 2012 documentary about the place was titled “Town of Runners”. As 18 Olympic medals attest, including golds for local ladies Tirunesh Dibaba, Fatuma Roba and Derartu Tulu, running here is more than a mere hobby.
It’s very much a central pillar of life, but that doesn’t mean international stardom or nothing. The non-profit organisation Girls Gotta Run Foundation is using athletics scholarships to keep young girls in education and teach them about life beyond lactate thresholds.
During the pandemic, over 26 million Ethiopian children were out of school for more than six months, with access to remote learning a relatively rare thing. But even before then, nearly two in 10 girls were not in school.
“About half of the girls who enrol in primary school never make it to secondary school,” says GGRF’s Chair of the Board, Kayla Nolan. “Traditionally, there hasn’t been a big focus on the importance of women earning an education and being able to be in the formal economy.”
Families might pull their daughters out of school to help with younger children and a labour-intensive home life – gathering wood and so on. They might need to begin working, in a local market for example, to help with the family’s income. Parents also fear for the safety of their daughters. “One of the most serious issues that girls face in Bekoji is being kidnapped for marriage,” says Nolan. According to UNICEF, 14 per cent of girls in Ethiopia are married by the age of 15.
Girls Gotta Run was set up by Dr Patricia E Ortman, a university professor of Women’s Studies, after she read a 2005 article in the Washington Post titled: “Facing Servitude, Ethiopian Girls Run for a Better Life”. Initially it provided kit, food and transportation to four girls on one team. Last year it worked with over 160 girls in Bekoji and 115 in the southern town of Soddo, taking them on in early adolescence as part of a holistic programme that meets a range of needs beyond physical fitness.
“We’re looking at things like: do they have their school fees? Do they have the sanitation resources that they need? Do they have a trusted mentor? Can we help their mothers to ensure that their businesses are stabilised? We try to form a community that helps them grow and develop as responsible young adults,” says Executive Director Danielle Taylor.
“The seed concept is that running is a catalyst for change,” adds Nolan. “Running is a great way to help girls to achieve a larger set of goals.”
The groups meet four or five times a week outside of school, doing games, hill workouts and longer runs up to about seven miles. Working with female coaches helps to make it a safe, comfortable space for girls. They can go on to enter competitions if they’re keen, but this is about something more than that.
“It’s a place where they can gather as a group and have those open and honest conversations about issues that may be a little sticky to talk about at home or in the classroom,” says Nolan. “And if another Olympian happens to come out of it, we’ll be happy to support them!”