Running with sheep

In Djibouti, a foreigner's early-morning jogs open up a world of curious encounters.

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    Women walk in Djibouti’s Balbala district.
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My favorite sheep in Djibouti were Gilane and Lulla.

I left the house at 5:50 a.m. for a short run before my kids woke up. I hadn't gone more than 300 yards when I saw a group of Djiboutian girls jogging toward me. We smiled and waved at one another. I was too shocked to say anything and passed them.

I have seen French men wearing too-short shorts, American soldiers showering homeless children with bags of peanut M&Ms, fistfights, six people on a bicycle, six people on a motorcycle – but I had never seen 25 obese Djiboutian girls jogging.

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I continued straight ahead, then suddenly, without a second thought, I turned around and sprinted to catch up with the group.

"Can I run with you?" I asked in Somali.

"Oui," they answered in unison, grinning.

"There aren't many women who run, especially in this neighborhood," I said, again in Somali.

They asked me questions in French and I answered in Somali. They were out of breath but the pace was slow, about 13-minute miles.

We passed my house and I said, "Waa tan, xafadayda" (this is my house).

"Allah!" the girl next to me cried. "You speak Somali!"

It only took them eight minutes to realize it.

From that moment on, I was part of the group. They gave me a spot front and center, with three of the largest girls alongside me. Their coach, Abdi, jogged on the outside. He motivated the stragglers and made sure cars and buses didn't swerve too close to his team.

We ran for 10 minutes before I caught the blurred image out of the corner of my eye of a sheep running at my side. "How did a sheep get in here with us?" I asked.

"She's ours," Fadouma answered. She ran on my left.

"You're joking."

"No. This is Gilane and that is Lulla." Fadouma pointed to a second sheep behind us. "They run with us every morning."

"Don't they get tired?"

"Oh no, we are so fat and slow they keep up just fine."

The two sheep ran beside me. I had never dodged sheep legs and flouncing, fat sheep butts before on a run. I laid one hand on Gilane's back.

I was a surprise vision for the entire neighborhood. Most people were used to seeing me run alone by now, but they had never seen a group of 25 Djiboutian girls and a white woman running down the street – with two sheep.

Men hung out of bus windows and cars pulled up next to us to stop and stare. Truckers swerved and coach Abdi yelled at them to back off. They yelled back that they wanted to watch the spectacle.

I was also a surprise vision to the team itself – a married woman with three children, running and not panting. As we talked, they were so engaged in our conversations that coach Abdi tripped over a stone on the sidewalk and almost face-planted in the dirt. Five minutes later Fadouma did an actual face-plant on the sidewalk while talking with me about life in Somaliland. The rest of the team had to stop and take a laugh break while she brushed herself off.

Most of the girls were seriously overweight, which their thinner friends pointed out with joy and acceptance.

"Look! Look how fat Fadouma is. But she can run!"

"We run slow so the fat girls can keep up."

"The fat girls run in front so we don't pass them."

"You aren't fat. I'm not too fat. She is really, really fat. See how she bounces?"

The heavier girls smiled and waved and laughed; there was no shame in their body sizes. They all knew they were beautiful. They all knew they were stronger than almost every other female in Djibouti because they were awake at 5:50 a.m., running in the street with courage and happiness.

And sheep.

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