I’m going to need a couple minutes of judgment-free reading from you. Deal? Perfect.
You see, there’s just something about a white girl running alone in Dakar.
I don’t know what it is. It was around week three last year in Senegal when I finally mustered up every ounce of gumption that I had and dug my running shoes out of my electric blue duffel bag. [Because it took so long to find a place to live in Dakar, Christy and I spent our first eight weeks in Senegal living a sort of vagabond existence out of our suitcases.] Ever-mindful of the inescapable fact that I had just moved to a Muslim country, I dutifully channeled my inner Mennonite, cast a longing glance at the running shorts and tank tops taunting me from the bottom of my bag, and threw on long running pants and a t-shirt.
[I should note that it had been years since I’d run in anything but a tank top and shorts. I one day intend to write an impassioned manifesto detailing how much I loathe, despise and abominate sleeves, but we’ll save that one for now.]
It was probably 106 degrees outside. Which, I am fairly certain, is hotter than hell.
With a touch of trepidation [I’d never run alone in a Muslim country before] and that tenacious streak that tends to get me into trouble over here, I cranked up Christy’s ipod [tragically, mine had decided to commit hari kari ten hours before I boarded my flight to Dakar], and cut straight to the beach that I still run on every day.
I’ve talked about how beautiful and relaxing my beach runs are-what they’ve done for my walk with Jesus and my stress level, and how God has used hours spent by the pounding waves to make my heart more like His. And while all of those things are true, today we’re going to talk about the other half of the story.
You see, the thing about Senegal is…I don’t blend in. I can’t. My white skin acts as a glaring testament to a simple fact that is continually reinforced throughout my days in Dakar: I do not belong here. Unwanted, probing attention is lavished on me from the moment I step out of my front door until I close it behind me at the end of the day. That attention is compounded many times over when I’m running.
Some find me merely entertaining-after all, there aren’t a lot of women that run in Dakar. I am an enigma-a foreign oddity warranting catcalls and intrigued stares. But I find that I also make a lot of people angry. You have to understand that to many in Senegal, women are viewed at best as being merely decorative. They are something to be owned, much as we would think of a chocolate lab or a Honda Civic back in the US. A traditional Senegalese woman is expected to conduct herself with all of the quiet decorum of a Chia pet.
…and I’ve never had very much at all in common with Chia pets.
There is something exceedingly offensive to some Senegalese men about the fact that I run. They see my white skin and yellow Nike’s from a mile away and assume that I’m a tramp for sale. [Much to my chagrin, Ben’s instinctual reaction to this is to begin negotiating a price. ;)] This, though, is where things can get ugly. I’ve been spit on, screamed at, grabbed, flashed, and pushed into oncoming traffic. I have the occasional glass bottle thrown at me from car windows, and sporadic inquiries of “how much?” I’ve been followed, dragged, hit on and hit.
I discovered quickly after I started running in Dakar, that it didn’t matter what I wore or how careful I was to maintain an impassive, icy expression and avoid eye contact-things were going to happen. Some runs-most in fact-would be largely uneventful, but some would make me cry. Thus, given the relentless heat and the fact that nothing made a difference anyways, I got tired of my Mennonite pretense after about a month and a half of terribly sweaty runs-…and folded up the pants and dreaded sleeves in favor of long, men’s basketball shorts and tank tops.
Scandalous, I know. Call it my rumspringa. But if you’re going to be a trampy missionary, you’ve got to go big or go home.
Now, there’s a point to all of this. I need you to understand how it was exactly, that I recently found myself downtown at nine o’clock at night, in the middle of a Muslim, African country, in shorts and a tank top. Because that’s exactly where tomorrow’s story begins…
[Note: runs this year have been a bit better, given that I’ve recently discovered early morning runs when fewer people are out, and Ted has designated himself as my personal body guard.]