The Great Ethiopian Run

Last weekend Yona participated in the Great Ethiopian Run Children’s Races. We arrived early in the morning at the sports complex near where a new stadium is being built near the airport. Walking to the entrance, the sidewalk was a sea of children in blue and yellow race t-shirts. On the street outside the sports complex, face painters decorated children’s faces with red, green and yellow designs (the colors of the Ethiopian flag). Vendors sold wrist and head bands in the same colors. We adorned the kids with a set of head and wrist bands.

As with any large public gathering, there was intensive, but low-tech security (bag check and frisking) at the entrance gate. Once we’d gotten through security, we noticed parents writing their cell phone numbers on their children’s shirts. We borrowed a pen and did the same. We were early, arriving just before the first races, which were for disabled children. I was glad to be there early both because watching blind children, children on crutches and children with other disabilities running, full-hearted around the track was inspiring, and because the crowd was not yet too thick. It was large, but not yet oppressively so, and very festive.

Up beat music blared from a stage just behind the finish line. The atmosphere was carnivalesque. I felt like I was in the middle of a multi-ring circus with so much going on that I could barely follow it. There were two or three large rings of people surrounding jugglers, hula-hoopers, unicycle riders, contortionists and acrobats.  There was a bouncy house, which no one was regulating, fully of small and mid-sized jumping bodies that miraculously didn’t seem to collide with each other. Periodically, the bouncy-house deflated, probably because there were too many people in it. There was a stand full of more face painters. There were photographers with digital photo printers wandering through the crowd. Every few minutes someone asked me if I wanted my picture taken.

Ermias and Yona wandered around trying to find Yona’s sport teacher (they never did) while I succumbed to Sami’s insistence that he be allowed to go in the bouncy house. I kept one eye on Sami and another on the crowd. Clusters of families stood and watched. Some looked around, appearing slightly confused, as if trying to get their bearings. Others bopped up and down to the beat of the loud music, holding small children in the air.

When Ermias and Yona came back, I tried to get the children interested in watching some of the performers, but they were daunted by the task of squeezing through the crowd to get to the front and jostling to maintain a position that they could see from, so they quickly lost interest. We then found a spot next to the track and watched the children’s under-five races begin. A bunch of children, ranging in age from 3 to 4, ran by, most of them with their parents running alongside them encouraging them.

Yona saw someone he recognized from one of the other sections of his grade—Teddy.  Teddy was with his dad and younger brother. The younger brother, Yonatan, it turned out is Sami’s “best friend” from his class. Yonatan’s dad and I made the connection between Yonatan and Sami despite the fact that the two boys were pretty much ignoring each other.

“This is Yonatan!  We hear a lot about him.” I said to their dad.

He responded, “Oh, this is Sami. He is very famous in our house too.”

We then both commented on how it was too bad that we hadn’t been told that the smaller children could get t-shirts and run as well.

“Yonatan was crying when he saw the other kids with shirts,” his dad said. He had already decided that even though Yonatan didn’t have a shirt and hadn’t paid the registration fee, he’d try to get him into the race. Yonatan and his father left to find the starting line. Sami and I trailed after them, leaving Teddy with Ermias and Yona, without really having any conversation about this.

A large sign that said “start” hovered over the track, but the crowd was big enough by now that we couldn’t actually see how to get to the start. Our attempt to find the starting line was chaotic. There were metal barriers set up that looked like they were intended to order and organize people and keep them in lines while waiting for their race, but there was no one behind the metal barriers. Instead, people were moving the barriers and squeezing in between them and approaching the starting line from all directions. Two harried looking volunteers were manning a small entrance to the track. They seemed to be asking questions about age and futilely trying to organize who approached the starting line. One of the volunteers walked away as we approached. Yonatan’s father asked the other one if kids could run even though they didn’t have shirts and the friendly Ethiopian man at the gate said, ‘no problem.’ Sami didn’t even make it to the starting line, though, before he freaked out and said he didn’t want to do it. Yonatan ran off and that was the last we saw of him that day.

Meanwhile, Ermias was making his way to the starting line for Yona’s under-eleven race with Yona and Teddy. Sami and I headed to the finish line because I was worried about losing Yona at the other end. As we walked in that direction, there must have been an announcement about the under-eleven race because hundreds of kids started running through the crowd towards the starting line. As the children ran off, what had been a crowd colored by the blue and yellow of hundreds of race shirts was instantly stripped of yellow and blue and now looked like a crowd of adults in street clothes. The happy mob of running children was an amazing sight and a little terrifying. Worried he’d get knocked over, I put Sami on my shoulders. Then I looked back at the track where children seemed to be running at high speed in all directions. I was reminded of a cows or sheep being herded one direction and then scared by something and sent back in the other direction. Everyone was happy and smiling. No one was scared. There was no crying.

Miraculously, with Sami on my shoulders, I found a spot right at the finish line and arrived just in time to see Yona and one of his best buddies from school, Evan, crossing the finish line. I have no idea how they made it to the finish line so fast. I suspect that they didn’t make it through the full race. With Sami keeping an eye on them, I managed to grab both of them. They were elated and bouncy, showing off their medals. It took a good ten or fifteen minutes to track down Ermias after that and much longer to track down Evan’s mother. I asked him repeatedly if he wanted me to call his mom. “No, no problem,” he kept answering. He was clearly completely unfazed by being separated from her and not knowing where she was. When we finally got in touch with her and she finally found us, it turned out that she was on her own with five children, two of them younger than Sami. Yona and his buddy happily united with other classmates, hugged, showed off their medals. The children gleefully cheered “One Planet!” (the name of their school) and we snapped pictures. Then we consented to let one of hired one of the photographers take and print out out a picture. Evan’s mom left us with the children and went to find another child who she hadn’t managed to track down yet. A few minutes later, the kids started blaring out a song they’d been practicing for music class.

When we finally made our way to the exit, I noted that the bouncy house had deflated again and no one had bothered to inflate it. At home, Ermias and I were so exhausted that we had to take a nap before taking the kids to their circus class. (Another day I will write about the amazing Fekat Circus.)  Yona later declared this one of the best days of his life.

I couldn’t help thinking through the combination of joy, disorder and an utter lack of anxiety. No one seemed particularly concerned by the lack of organization, the herds of under-eleven year olds running in all directions at the same time. No one seemed particularly worried about losing or misplacing children for long periods of time. There was ultimate trust that other adults would find and look after your children and that no harm would come to them. Amidst the chaos, the sound of anger and crying was notably absent (except from me yelling at my own stubbornly crying five-year-old who was distressed that I wouldn’t let him back in the bouncy house.) There was dancing and singing and running and laughter and joy and friendship and absolute chaos.

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