On Sierra Leone

The Kiln Sierra Leone Marathon

In the insurance industry we devour statistics. We want to measure everything. Our understanding of the world around us is mostly numeric. How much; how many; how long are the questions we always ask. So a place that has endured 10 years of a brutal civil war; which is ranking 180 out of 187 in the UN index of human development; where 40% of the population is illiterate and 50% are under 18, turns out to be poor was not the surprise. That their people are generous and welcoming, optimistic for the future and organisations are so successfully rebuilding this broken society; that this lush fertile country is so stunningly beautiful is the part of the story that the numbers fail to tell, that I took away from my trip last week to Sierra Leone.

To celebrate fifty years in business, partnering with the Street Child charity, Kiln sponsored the first Sierra Leone marathon on 9 June in the northern town of Makeni. Taking a team of 20 employees from the company to participate in the race as part of an international contingent of 200 runners; to visit the projects, mix with the kids and be inspired by the volunteers and to see the bustling markets and remote rural villages was an experience that was so enriching that it shall stay with me forever. The cause, to get children off the streets; provide them with food, medical care, clothing and counselling and to offer the more remote rural communities access to basic schooling is vital to the future of Sierra Leone, its stability and prosperity. In organising the event the target was to raise £250,000 and we shall be close to achieving this thanks to the energy and tenacity of the participants and the wonderful generosity of those donating.

Race day itself will stick in the memory. At dawn the field of 386 evenly split between local and international runners headed off into the outer reaches of Makeni. Families came out of their huts and houses to see a spectacle probably beyond their imagination. The kids ran alongside us waving and crying out the by now familiar “Opoto!” basically “White Man”, many of the adults said thank you and an equally large number looked utterly bewildered. The compacted bouncy mud tracks were near perfect to run on and in the early morning light, shone a rich golden brown against the lush green canopy of trees and bushes. Those running the 5km soon left and after an hour or so the half-marathon crew were filtered off on their return journey back to the city. In a cloudless blue sky, sun beating down and temperatures rising close to 30 degrees, those like me on the full marathon course eventually left behind the remaining few houses and pounded on in silence up-country.

On undulating lanes, tracks and pathways, some shaded most not, the route wound its lazy way through forests, passing rice fields, traversing newly laid railway lines servicing the mines and at one point crossing the Mabole River on a high perilous bridge. Mercifully water stations were sited at frequent intervals but with a spread field and few bystanders, the journey was soon to become an inner battle as much as a fight with the terrain and the conditions. Most of the mile markers had been stolen the previous night for firewood so with no clear idea of orientation, when the course eventually returned to something approaching civilisation, the only thing to be trusted was the watch on your wrist and mine was telling me that I had now been running longer than I had ever done so before.

Thankfully there were few mad dogs as this Englishman had not bothered with rabies injections but the midday sun was beating down fiercely as the race entered its final stages in the lunacy of central Makeni with the Saturday lunchtime market in full flow. Dodging motorbikes slaloming erratically up the narrow streets and feeling the wind rush from the “poda-poda” minibuses grazing the arms, after an eternity the surroundings at last took on a more familiar feel: first the clock tower; the Street Child club house; then the Amzas hotel which was our base and finally the finish line with a big crowd of well-wishers back where we had started at Birch Field.

For number lovers, I had finished in 5 hrs 40 mins but someway behind the winner Idrissa Kargbo who managed a terrific 2 hrs 46 mins which was a remarkable achievement given the heat and track. Fortunately there were just 5 medical cases reported, all of which were quite minor with all 20 Kiln runners returning shattered but in one piece. At the evening party we drank so many beers that I lost count!  More importantly with your help today we are close to raising the £250,000. That would be enough to fund 500 children from a life on the street to a life at home; employ 200 nurses or social workers for a year; or put 6,250 kids into schooling. Please if you have still not done so give generously at www.justgiving.com/rogerbickmore

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