Run for your life

Have you ever wondered why African nations have the best middle and long distance runners on earth? Ethiopians and Kenyans have high altitude on their side with lungs developed from the day they are born to suck every last bit of oxygen from the air. So when they run at sea level, the higher oxygen levels turbocharge their blood supply like jet fuel. But why is running such a popular and prestigious sport all over Africa?

My theory is that you don’t need anything to run. Just energy, determination and food for fuel. You don’t need a football or teammates, just the open road. And maybe a reason to run or something to run from.

Each year in rural Uganda, there is a cross-country running festival north of Lira. An area where Joseph Kony’s army once raged a civil war that kidnapped kids and turned them into soldiers. There has been relative peace in the north since Kony went into hiding. For a country torn apart by war, life has gradually been rebuilt.

Now, each year, several thousand barefoot school kids and some adult athletes gather at a sports field in northern Uganda on a hot November day to run a cross-country race. One that could change their lives. First place wins a brand new mattress with local fame and glory plus the chance at winning an athletics scholarship in the capital, Kampala. Every starter goes home with a free T-shirt and the whole district feasts on a barbeque lunch. There are tribal dances and speeches. Elders have smiles on their faces, even though they were once petrified by war and the night time kidnappings when children would be stolen and their families murdered or maimed.

A local boy ran a race just like this one on this same field, 30 years ago. His name was Julius Achon and he won that race by a long shot. He also won the next race and the next. In fact, Julius did not lose a running race until the Atlanta Olympics on another continent, many years later.

You see, Julius had been running for his life since he was a child. He was one of the wretched children who was kidnapped, given a weapon and turned into a child soldier. Julius was taken from his family, forced to kill his friends and learned to survive in the jungle.

By chance, he escaped on foot… and has never looked back. Refusing to hate his captors, Julius has always been a man of love and friendship. He later returned to his village to help make it a safer, healthier, happier place. Without so much as a pair of shoes, he focussed on running. Winning by such a noticeable lead, he won a scholarship for high school and eventually an athletics scholarship in the US.

Many years after he ran for his life, Julius Achon hosted the first cross country race in this home district. Here he is now a celebrity of kindness and generosity as well as Olympic fame.

In November last year, I traveled to Uganda with the team from Love Mercy Foundation to see the work they’re doing with women farmers. I wanted to see how they conducted a professional impact study to measure their programs and I also wanted my 14-year-old son to see what life is like without WiFi. The joke was on me because the WiFi in Uganda is better than Australia. But I didn’t expect this trip to be quite so life-changing as we traveled with Julius himself.

The program he created in Uganda, with the help of Australian Olympian Eloise Wellings, is all about building long-term independence and sustainability. A female farmer is loaned thirty-kilo bags of seeds. She plants and harvests her crop then returns a thirty-kilo bag to be loaned to the next woman in line. Every thirty dollar donation funds one of these never-ending sustainable seed loans.

Hudson and Julius

My son Hudson was in awe of Julius and whenever he was around, Hudson was all ears and eventually he plucked up the nerve to ask Julius if he would tell his story on camera. Hudson wanted to make a short film about the cross country race and Julius’ motivation for it.

And so, on a hot Thursday in November, Hudson sat down with the Great Julius Achon outside the mud hut he grew up in and interviewed him about his life, the horrors of the war and what has kept him running ever since. The footage Hudson filmed that day is now in a short film. This film is in the Run Nation Running Film Festival and is traveling Australia.

Our time in Uganda gave us both experiences that money can’t buy. We sat with women leaders under a mango tree and learned from their lives as farmers; then we danced with the woman as you do after all meetings in Uganda; and we were race martials in a rural cross-country race where kids feigned death in order to get a free T-shirt without having to finish the grueling run.

It was a privilege to spend time with a man like Julius and to overhear him say to my son, “If we hold on to the troubles of the past, it will make us bitter Hudson. It is love that keeps me going. Love for my village and my people. Love and persistence is everything Hudson.”

For tickets to see Hudson’s film as part of the Run Nation Running Film Festival click here.

To read the Love Mercy Foundation Impact study click here.

For info on the next Love Mercy trip to Uganda click here.

To make a tax-deductible donation to support women farmers in Uganda and a maternity hospital in the northern Uganda, click here.

See Julius below, front and centre, dancing his local tribal dance at the closing of the cross-country carnival. YEEEW!

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