Probably the greatest long distance runner in history (not considering the history that Eliud Kipchoge is currently making) is Haile Gebrselassie. He won two Olympic gold medals over 10,000 metres and four 10000 metre World Championship titles. He won the Berlin Marathon four times in a row and the Dubai Marathon three times consecutively. In 2001 he was the World Half Marathon Champion.
Haile is my age and hails from central Ethiopia. If you’ve ever watched him run, you’ll be aware that he’s always chatting to his opponents. He loves competition. When he was at the top of his game, there was little competition for him and so he would coach and encourage and possibly cajole his opponents in races. What an amazing thing to do! His sportsmanship always filled me with admiration and watching him race filled me with joy. And I wasn’t even a runner then. I was joyfully watching and admiring him from my couch! Around the tail end of his illustrious career, I was working for the government of Ethiopia on a project which was run from Johannesburg. I was young and stupid and starry-eyed and I don’t think I was very good at my job, but I was helping to develop young people and I was getting to broaden my horizons by meeting people of a cultural group I’d never known before. It was mind-broadening stuff.
Ethiopia at the time was dichotomous. The African Union headquarters had recently been established in Addis Ababa (it’s actually pronounced Abhebhah and so the English spelling is shit! Colonialists are often lazy linguists!) As a result, loads of development was taking place and infrastructure was being upgraded. Haile himself had contributed to the building of highways and malls and other infrastructure, humbly giving back to the land of his birth. The poverty, however, was everywhere. In South Africa, poverty location was legislated for decades and so poverty is mostly localised to certain areas, largely invisible to the middle and upper classes. In Ethiopia, no such arrangement exists and the poverty and wealth intermingle, creating a stark and jarring contrast. And there’s a lot of poverty. Real poverty. People who think South Africa is a 3rd world country know nothing of 3rd world things or else there is a 5th world. Aside from the less obvious lessons that my love affair with Ethiopia taught me, there are two that have stayed with me since then and that I think of often.
1. Who am I?
Our company worked with an Ethiopian agent named Akalu. Akalu and I became friends. In Ethiopian culture, it is customary to call someone for example Mr Akalu or Mrs SlowCoach or Mr John or Mrs Mary. Akalu had recently become engaged to Lidet. So Mr Akalu was engaged to Mrs Lidet. This was interesting to me because at some point, according to prevailing Western culture at the time, Mrs Lidet would become Mrs Akalu in theory. But those are first names. How would it work? So I asked Akalu what people would call Mrs Lidet once she got married. He looked puzzled and said that people would call her Mrs Lidet. I laughed and said, that if I were to get married to him, I would go from being Miss Taylor to Mrs Mamo, explaining the Western norm. He contemplated that for a moment and by way of explaining, I said, “Where I come from, when a woman gets married, she usually changes her name.” He replied, “Why? Where you come from does a woman forget who she is when she gets married?” It was such a poignant commentary on “Western” “civilisation” and I’ve never forgotten it. Now I also look puzzled when women change their names when they get married and I always wonder if they’ve maybe forgotten who they are.
2. Two days’ bread
The project I worked on required that we employ mainly Ethiopian nationals living in South Africa. One of the positions was for a cultural advisor. It was a well-paid position and a specific amount was allocated to this role. We interviewed a number of people and Lidetu got the position. (Lidetu is the male form of Lidet and the name means the birth of Christ or Christmas. It’s quite a common name in Ethiopia.) Lidetu was a humble man, like most Ethiopians I’ve met. A good man, dedicated to education and to experiencing the world. When it came time to negotiate salary with Lidetu, the amount I offered was more than he was willing to accept. This was a concept I’d never had to deal with before, but he was emphatic. “I cannot accept that much money, please.” “I’m sorry, Lidetu, but I have to pay you this much.” “That is too much.” “How much is too much?” I asked, tongue in cheek. And then Lidetu silenced me with words that I have been forced to consider regularly ever since. “My God says I should only have enough money for two days’ bread.” I’ll let you think about that for a moment. My God says I should only have enough money for two days’ bread. Imagine a world where that was a guiding principle. Just imagine! Lidetu and I came to an agreement. He took his two days’ bread as salary and the remainder I transferred to a Danish university, where he went and studied something in the humanities. I hope he is well. I hope he found love. I wish the world was full of Lidetus. I wish I was more like Lidetu. I wish two days’ bread was the way we lived. Do I live a two days’ bread life? How would I even start?
I have never fallen out of love with Ethiopia. In marathons, even when Eliud or Wilson Kipsang are racing, I secretly always root for the Ethiopians. Kenya dominates these days, but the humility and goodness of the Ethiopian people I’ve met and who’ve impacted my life always makes me wish that we could once again see a humble star like Haile rise again. I’ve never been back to Ethiopia since those days, but I still follow their news with keen interest. I would love to return again to see if it’s still the beautiful, humble, dichotomous place I fell in love with before I was this jaded, teenager-beaten, worn out Comrades runner I have become.
It’s calling me.
Yours in the pursuit of two days’ bread.