Running for Your Life

“WHEN TWO ELEPHANTS FIGHT IT’S THE GRASS THAT SUFFERS”

This blog post focuses on two young athletes I met last week- Agnes Aneno- a 22-year-old 400 metre runner and Okwelo Moses- an 18-year-old 800 metre runner- both Fame Athletics Club athletes under the tuition of Coach James Mugeni. Both originate from the Northern region of Uganda; an area scourged by war for up to 20 years. To give you some history- starting around 1986 a group calling itself the “Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)” launched a bush war in Northern Uganda against the then government of Uganda. This war was to have devastating effects on everyone caught in its path. No more so than Agnes and Moses, who spent their childhood in various war camps set up by the then government to protect the local people against the LRA rebel group.

Training with Fame Athletes- Including Agnes and Moses (1st and 2nd from right)
Training with some of the Fame Athletes at their camp in Jinja- Including Agnes and Moses (1st and 2nd from right)

When I heard from Coach James that two of his athletes grew up in the North, I was interested to know what effect the war had on them and their families. And indeed, how they came from those conditions to be involved with Fame Athletics Club. After much hesitation, both Agnes and Moses agreed to talk to me about their time spent in various war camps during the 90s, and how they came from such terrible conditions growing up in war-torn Uganda, to discover running and Fame Athletics Club.

Agnes has competed at world youth level and Moses is a district champion and national representative hoping to gain an athletic scholarship to university next year. Both athletes talked vividly to me about the conditions they faced and described some of the experiences they witnessed during the war.

Agnes and Moses Hill Bounding
Both athletes training

Moses tells me how he can still hear the bullet exchanges between the LRA rebels and government soldiers. Off camera he tells me how he still fears the dark; a fear stemmed from experiences of the LRA rebels often attacking under the guile of night. Coach James tells me how the conflict was often described as a “night war”.. When I first arrived in Uganda I shared a room with Moses at the Fame Athletics Camp in the town of Jinja, and I wondered why he slept with the light on. I now know why!!

Moses explains how he lived in various war camps for 13 years, and describes how he regularly lived in fear during his time in the camp. I asked him to portray that fear to me.. He explains how under a hail of bullets he ran. He ran anywhere because he feared the bullets. Literally running for his life!

Running saved Moses life!
“Running saved Moses life!”.. Leading the pack (navy t-shirt) during a hill session.

Agnes spent 2 years living in a war camp, before being taken by her uncle to Tororo in Eastern Uganda. However, as Agnes describes, she was basically taken from one nightmare to another- distilling alcohol and “working the bar” for her uncle until she was 17.

"On the Road to Riches".. One rep at a time.
“On the Road to Riches and the Diamond League”.. One rep at a time”. Agnes in the gym

Coach James talks about how he first discovered Agnes as an athlete at local school competitions and immediately recognised an athlete with potential. However, when Agnes started training with James and his group he discovered the true story about Agnes. “She was coming to training late and often in tears” James says. “I looked into why this was happening and discovered what she was doing- Working in an illegal brewery for her uncle, toiling up to 14 hours per day. It was child labour”. When Agnes returned from Italy following her world youth appearance, James decided that the living conditions she found herself in were not conducive to an athlete of her calibre. So after some consultation with his wife Harriet, they took Agnes under their wing and nurtured her talent away from the “alcoholics and drug addicts”.

"Lightning fast"!! Agnes training for Europe next season.
“Like a Cheetah”!! Agnes training for Europe next season.

Coach James has a great way with words, and explained to me that “when two elephants fight it’s the grass that suffers”, describing the families and individuals who found themselves caught up in the LRA war.. If Agnes and Moses had not discovered athletics and running, then one can perhaps assume that they would have ended up as child soldiers. A devastating fact that is true for so many children who found themselves born into a battleground of devastation and destruction in the Northern region of Uganda during that time.

Watch the full video interviews on my YouTube channel here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VX0bQ2CcAck

Fame athletes putting in the hard yards, including Agnes and Moses
Fame athletes putting in the hard yards, including Agnes and Moses

This weekend I travel into the mountains of Kapchorwa where I will spend the next 3 weeks living with and profiling the athletes there. An area that has produced world class athletes namely Olympic marathon champion Stephen Kiptorich and Moses Kipsiro, the current Commonwealth Games 10000m champion. But before I leave Tororo and Fame Athletics Club I must say a massive thank-you to James, his fantastic family and Fame Athletics Club for hosting me this last 5 weeks. When I was packing my bags for Uganda 5 weeks ago to embark on this journey I knew it would be special. But already, through my time with James, his family and Fame Athletics Club I can honestly say that it has been more than special. I upload regular photos and videos so that people back home can get some perspective as to how wonderfully different Uganda is and how welcoming the local communities are to foreigners and “mazungos” like me.. I feel It is imperative that people now consider visiting this amazingly different world and experience everything it has to offer .. You haven’t really lived until you experience Africa!

Some of the local kids (and a plate of chicken legs)
Some of the local kids (and a plate of chicken legs)
"They see me rollin".. Hitchin a ride Uganda style
“They see me rollin”.. Hitchin a ride Uganda style

The locals I have met tell me that not many “mazungos” have visited Tororo. I find it quite amusing when I jog in the morning down dirt roads, and through the local villages that I find shop owners, street vendors and kids on their way to school laugh, cheer and encourage the “mazungo” as I run! “A mazungo in our town? They say.. “Surely not!”..  A mazungo running! Surely, surely not!!”.

Local kids cheering as I run
Local kids cheering as I run

There is no doubting people here live hard demanding lives in comparison to what we have back home.. But how joyful and appreciative the local community are really amazes me.

"Its a long road to the top"
“Sometimes you are pushing.. and pushing.. and pushing.. But then you realise, it’s a wall that you are pushing”

Without doubt Project Africa and Fame Athletics Club have built the foundations for a partnership that will last well into the future. Fame will be an important affiliation club for Project Africa as we move into the New Year, and indeed over the coming months and years.

With James and his wife Harriet
With James and his wife Harriet
Jame and I in Iten Kenya having some watermelon with London 2012 Olympic 5000m bronze medallist.
Jame and I in Iten Kenya having some watermelon with London 2012 Olympic 5000m bronze medalist (2nd from left).

Onwards to the mountains I go….

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