Story by Elias Gebreselassie; photos by Collin Hughes.
Bekoji — a town 220 kilometers east of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — is a unique place. High in the mountains, with clean air and more donkeys than cars, this small corner of the world has produced a remarkable amount of world-class distance runners — many of whom are women.
Here, in one of the poorest countries in the world, many girls are out of school and married by age 16. For a lot of these girls, running represents an escape route. Now, thanks to a project run by the Girls Gotta Run Foundation (GGRF), it also represents a chance for education, empowerment, and self-sufficiency.
Fatiya Abdulkadir, Bekoji’s first and only female running coach, strives to send this message loud and clear to the 40 girls she coaches through GGRF.
“Our goal is to create successful women, be that in education, running or in business,” she says. “I plan to give all the girls a good beginning, because that’s the first requirement for a successful career. I also try to be a coach, advisor, and mentor to them.”
GGRF helps expand access to education for vulnerable girls by supporting the girls with scholarships to help them stay in school while they train and supplying them with uniforms, books, and sanitary products. Many of the girls struggle to get three meals a day at home, so they are provided with a hot daily lunch and snacks to help them concentrate both in the classroom and on the running track.
Positive and inspirational female role models are also key. Zebenay Bose is 16, and currently studying in 9th grade. She’s hugely inspired by her heroine, Olympic long-distance runner Ejgayehu Dibaba, because — just like Zebenay — she was brought up in Bekoji in a mud hut with no electricity or running water.
“Since I’ve started running I’ve become healthier, happier, and stronger and even been even able to compete at a federal level,” says Zebenay.
Ethiopian girls are often sent to primary school, but it’s when they reach secondary age that school enrollment suffers. Huge numbers of girls are forced to drop out in order to get married or to help support their family. A lack of access to separate toilets or simple things like sanitary products cause many girls to quit due to embarrassment or harassment. And among society, the education of boys is generally considered more important than that of girls. As a result, a significant number of adult females in Ethiopia are illiterate.
That’s why Girls Gotta Run doesn’t just educate children — it educates their families, too. During orientation classes, parents learn why it’s so important to encourage their girls to study. GRRF also provides savings and entrepreneurship groups for local mothers to help provide their families with extra income.
The GRRF program is having the desired effect on the young women. Fifteen-year-old Desta Diriba is studying hard, and has already set her sights on conquering the 100-meter dash — a race in which Ethiopia has not yet produced any stars. Desta wants to change all that: “I want to be strong in both education and sport, and reach great heights where I will be able to make my country proud,” she says.
With the support of her teachers, coaches, and GGRF, she has every chance of doing just that.