Fifteen months ago, I decided that rather relying on prescription drugs to deal with my anxiety and depression, I would embark on a life-changing African adventure, with a view to self-healing and breathing new life into myself. Prior to making that decision, I’d taken Lexapro for two months. I found that my side effects included headaches and stomach problems, which in turn aggravated the symptoms that the drug was supposed to be addressing. Little did I know that by pounding the roads and dirt tracks of Africa, I would find a natural remedy in running.
Travel is my passion. I love to travel; not just to see landscapes, but also to meet people from around the world and learn how they live their lives. Prior to leaving home, I’d hated running. I found the repetitive motion of putting one foot in front of the other uninspiring. Despite this, I’d intermittently forced myself to run, in an attempt to control weight gain and also to keep my husband company (unlike me, he loves to run).
One of my travel buddies in Africa, John, is a pretty serious runner with a lot of self-discipline that he brings to anything that he’s set his mind to doing. He’s long pursued the goal of running in every country that he visits and he encouraged me to run with him, pushing me to run more frequently, and attempt longer distances. I remember bravely running with him and another travel buddy one day through the muddy streets of Bamako in Mali. I felt that I was going to die! After that run, I steadily increased the frequency and length of my runs, improving my stamina over time. Soon enough, I was doing solo runs (while I could now match him on distance, I couldn’t match his pace, and so I started to run on my own) through neighborhoods and villages in the vicinity of wherever we were camping.
As I ran more, I realized that it was allowing me to explore more places (particularly those nooks and crannies that are off the beaten track) and get closer to local people. As running began to enhance my travel experiences and deepen my interactions, I began to see running as a natural complement to travel. Since returning home, I’ve learned that guided running tours (which are now offered in many cities around the world) are a fast-growing trend amongst travelers. The term ‘sightrunning’ has been coined to mean the combination of running and sightseeing.
My first sightrun was in Guinea’s Nzerekore region. We were staying in a town called Bossou and had plans to visit a community of habituated chimpanzees that have adapted to coexist with humans. As interesting as that may sound, I decided to skip the tour and instead, I chose to do a solo sightseeing run through the town and surrounding villages. I ran on red dusty roads where I had beautiful views of Mount Nimba. At one point in my run, I had a view of the entire town of Bossou under a cloud of early morning mist. Then further along, I had expansive views of the mountains, the town and the hut villages that dot the area.
As I ran, I heard loud music in the air, and as I ran further out of town, the music grew louder and louder. I kept following the sound until I reached a village of mud houses, where a celebration of some form was underway. The music was coming from a small hut with a thatched roof, surrounded by a wooden fence. Inside the fence, people were smiling and dancing. I smiled and waved, and felt my heart lift as I ran past them, but as I started to leave the village and the music behind, something inside stopped me. I found myself turning around and running back to join the party. With gestures that needed no translation, the villagers warmly welcomed me and invited me to join in their celebration.
As I tried to copy their dance steps, I felt everyone’s eyes upon me. One of the women grabbed me excitedly, taking it upon herself to coach me in the intricacies of their dance. As the steps became easier to me, the squeals of delight from my new friends brought more people out from their homes to witness the dancing ‘toubab’ (foreign person) who had appeared from nowhere. Soon it seemed that the whole village was participating in the celebration, but that was when things started to get out of hand. Unfortunately, one of the male onlookers decided to express his joy by firing a gun into the air. Hearing the gunfire (and seeing the gun) frightened me, and deciding that it was time to leave, I ran back to the campsite. My abrupt departure notwithstanding, I find myself with a big smile on my face whenever I think about that first sightseeing run. It was one of the happiest and most unforgettable experiences of my entire journey, and it had a profound effect on me.
After that first run, I went on to do more sightseeing runs throughout my journey. I ran through villages around Kpalime (Togo) and Kabale (Uganda) and interacted with local people wherever I went: the friendly, waving children; the mothers hard at work; the cheerful churchgoers; the chatty village hairdresser; and the inquisitive storeowner. Given an opportunity, I would join in their activities whenever I could. I’d stop and try my hand at pumping water from a village well, while the ladies doing their laundry watched me with amusement. I’d follow the sounds of worship coming from small village churches and go in, so that I could share in their joy. I’d stop to take photos of people that were keen to have their photos taken with or without me. I’d stop to stir a pot of soup for an old lady. I’d buy a bottle of water from a village store, and use it as an excuse to sit and hang out with the locals.
I ran in the bigger towns and cities of Calabar (Nigeria) and Turbo (Kenya) and the suburbs of large cities such as Harare (Zimbabwe) and Cape Town (South Africa) to get my bearings. I ran along Sapele road to the Ring Road, the landmark center of Benin City in Nigeria where I wove through traffic, parked vehicles and road potholes. I ran on the high elevations of Lobango (Angola) and Chimanimani (Zimbabwe) to admire the panoramic views of the mountains. I ran along the coastal roads of Limbe (Cameroon) where there were views of the sea and its tiny islands interspersed with small oilrigs, and of Swakopmund (Namibia) where I had experienced the most glorious sunset. I ran along the riverbanks of the River Volta (Ghana) and the White Nile River (Uganda), and on the sandy beaches of Kokorbite (Ghana), Avepozo (Togo) and Bujagali Lake (Uganda). I ran in Grand Popo (Benin) to see the beautiful beds of crops, the modern irrigations systems and the hardworking families in the fields.
I ran to get close to wildlife. One of the memorable moments of my visit to Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) was running on Zambezi road where the largest baobab in the country is to be found. This stretch of road teemed with wildlife. It’s where I got to chase warthogs and blue guinea fowls that crisscrossed the road, and in turn be chased by baboons that were sitting idly in the middle of the road. At one point in my run, a man warned me not go any further, as there was a parade of elephants ahead. Just a week earlier, some of my travel companions had been chased down by elephants in Botswana and had to run for their lives, so I gladly took the man’s advice and turned around. As I ran through Namibia and Zimbabwe and Botswana, I ran past honey badgers (the most fearless animal in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records), jumped over a black mamba (one of the most venomous snakes in the world) and ran through a crocodile farm, respectively. As you can see, Africa offers sightrunning at its wildest!
My sightseeing runs made me feel good, stronger and more confident, and soon enough, I was no longer feeling depressed or anxious. This doesn’t come as a complete surprise, as it is widely accepted that running and regular exercise is both good for the body and is one of the most effective ways to improve our mental health. Running causes our body to release endorphins, which create feelings of happiness and euphoria. Many studies have shown that exercise can treat anxiety and mild to moderate depression. It certainly boosted my mood, and I began to sleep better. Sightrunning also gave me the quiet time I needed in my journey. I was able to focus on my breathing making me feel calmer. I came to realize that sightrunning was an effective remedy for my midlife funk.
As my journey in Africa came to an end, I made a commitment to myself to continue running. Now that I am stronger and can run longer distances, I am able to explore and experience places in a very different way to how I used to explore them in the past. Since my return, my husband and I have already enjoyed sightrunning in Barcelona and Quebec City, and are looking forward to lacing up and experiencing Asia by foot in the near future.