The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a resource-rich country of immense size, outstanding beauty, and infectious vitality. It also happens to be the location of Free to Run's newest pilot program.
Around 80 million people call DRC home. In addition to French, DRC knows four other national, and hundreds of local, languages. And yet, decades of foreign interference and home-grown armed conflict have placed DRC within the bottom third on the Human Development Index. Life expectancy at birth is 59 years; almost 20 years less than in the United States. Poverty and political instability remain constant even at times of relative peace, and many women and girls have been victims of conflict-related sexual violence in addition to the gender-based violence they experience every day because of customs and traditions. The daily fear of violence is real to young women in DRC, yet so is the desire to live an active and fulfilling life.
When Free to Run board member Connie Schneider went to Eastern DRC on assignment with the United Nations, she met the women and girls who had been affected by decades of fighting between the army and rebel groups and attacks against civilians by both sides. North Kivu’s capital Goma is located on the northern shore of Lake Kivu, next to the Rwandan city of Gisenyi. Its recent history has been dominated by the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 and the active Nyiragongo volcano, which last erupted in 2002, destroying 40% of the city. Yet the resilience, resourcefulness and thirst for opportunity amongst women and girls also highlighted the great potential for a Free to Run program in this new location. In the East, bordering Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, the provinces of North and South Kivu bustle with small cities and villages and are surrounded by rolling hills, scenic lakes, and breath-taking national parks.
Early in 2018, an idea became reality, when Free to Run teamed up with local NGO AIDPROFEN. Free to Run's DRC program manager Ericka Kriedel arrived in Goma to kick off the pilot program soon after, and although slightly nervous about the program's potential at first, her doubts were soon put to rest.
"Arriving in DRC with two suitcases packed almost entirely with donated sneakers, I wondered if we’d find feet for all these shoes. After my first Sunday morning in Goma, I stopped wondering. Eastern Congo, like many countries in East Africa, has a love affair with distance running. Sunday mornings, before heading to church, when the streets are void of cars and motorbikes, it seems like the entire city is out for a run. It is really a sight to see," explained Ericka.
The vast majority of the runners and joggers are men and boys, but groups of young women do participate as well. Unlike Afghanistan, women in DRC are not openly discouraged from participating in athletics, but similarly to Afghanistan, societal barriers prevent women from participating in equal numbers. For the women of Goma, these barriers include family responsibilities (like fetching water, caring for children, and preparing meals), fear of assault and theft, and poverty.
Word began to spread that a group called Free to Run was creating opportunities for women and girls in Goma. Very quickly Free to Run was meeting three times a week for a 5-10km run in central Goma where the main roads are nicely paved. The young women in the group came from outer “quartiers” where the streets are unpaved and covered in jagged volcanic rock. They were students and mothers, ranging in ages from 15-25. The opportunity to borrow a decent pair of sneakers and a sports bra kept them coming back and bringing their friends. Within a few weeks, Free to Run had over 60 members.
"After a few weeks of sessions, it was obvious to me how much potential exists in the girls of Goma. They are bright and eager to improve themselves while being resilient in the face of adversities holding them back," Ericka adds.
In addition to the regular runs, Free to Run held weekly sessions where they introduced the young women to Free to Run's Life Skills through Sports curriculum, which draws from the lessons learned in sports to hone a young women's ability to problem-solve, persevere, and communicate clearly to achieve a goal, whether that be as a team or as an individual. Activities included blindfolded obstacle courses, discussing the qualities of good leadership, and debating gender issues.
One of everyone's favorite days within the first few months was a hiking trip to an area outside of Goma called Mushaki. Although it was only about an hour and a half away, the idea of traveling even that far made a few of the young women nervous. It had historically been difficult for individuals to travel within Congo because road stops often required official documents and bribes. When they reached the countryside, the young women were in awe of the natural beauty. Many of the younger participants have only known life in the city, where their parents tell stories of waves of conflict and armed violence that affected small villages disproportionally worse than large cities.
"The hills are like images I have only ever seen in photographs," said Violeta, 16. "It makes me happy to know how beautiful my country is."
Free to Run will continue bringing hiking and running opportunities to young women in DRC in 2018 thanks to a cooperation with 261 Fearless. Through the self-empowering experiences of running and hiking, alongside the Life Skills through Sports curriculum, Free to Run participants will see their lives enriched.