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11 Ways Running is Like Learning a Foreign Language

Two accomplishments I feel rather proud of were accomplished in Africa. Here, I became a runner and here I learned a foreign language. Actually two: French and Somali. Both were incredibly hard and both changed the way I see the world. Amazingly, they have some things in common. Here are eleven ways that running is like learning a foreign language, in my case, Somali.

running and language

1. Its hard.

I thought I was going to die during my first mile-long run in Djibouti and I was already in relatively good shape from doing aerobics. At the end I put my hands on my knees and gasped. “People do this, like, for fun?!” Same with studying Somali. It was hard, required obscene amounts of time and strenuous effort.

2. Progress is slow and steady.

I added a few minutes to my runs each week and built endurance. A 5k turned into a 10k, turned into a half marathon, turned into three full marathons. But that took years. A grunted sentence in Somali, “Me like rice” turned into grammatically correct, multi-faceted sentences that include cultural knowledge as well as vocab, “I like rice that has been cooked on holidays and dyed pink and blue, with roasted lamb and hot sauce.”

3. There are pitfalls along the way.

Injuries, tripping over stones in the desert, getting lost while running in a new city. Mistakes in language usage that leaves one saying, “Do you want my husband?” instead of, “This is my husband.”

4. They change the way you see the world.

I now notice runners everywhere, I notice shoes. A guest leaves a pair of Asics by the door and I know she is a runner. I even know they are Asics. I see the world in terms of running trails and get to know new places while on my feet. Learning Somali has taught me new things about history and justice, camels and color and saying ‘Thank you,’ or not.

5.  They open up new communities.

I didn’t know people existed who use the word “bonk” in normal conversation or who eat Gu on purpose or who think nothing is wasted about four hours spent running solo or who don’t seem to want all their toenails. Not only have I met these people, I’ve become one of them. I didn’t know people who laughed back in their throat like Somalis or who could memorize entire poems and stories simply by listening or who would sweep and mop my house when I come back from time in the US simply because they cared about me. Now I call those people friends.

6. They are never done.

I can cross off a run for the day but I am never done being a runner. It is who I am now. I will never be fluent in Somali. I am now a Somali-language-learner.

7. They make you do embarrassing things.

Running in the hottest country in the world makes me sweat in unmentionable places. On the run things like farts, spit and other bodily fluids have been, um, encountered. Certain stories remain on the trail. Learning a language also brings up embarrassments. Giving speeches in broken Somali, being featured on YouTube under the title, “White Woman Speaks Somali!”, language mistakes (see #3).

8. They make you feel proud.

Not in a boastful, arrogant way. But they make you feel like you have accomplished something hard, worthwhile, satisfying. A marathon. The first novel read in the new language.

9. They draw strange looks from people.

Once at the end of a run in the hot season, a child saw me and was so frightened he tried to crawl onto the back of my guard, who was praying at the time. The kid screamed, “help me! help me!” When I asked the guard who the kid was he said, “I never met him before in my life.” When I speak Somali sometimes people have physically fallen to the ground in shock. Other times they simply stare. That happens a lot while I run, too.

10. They make muscles ache and make the muscles stronger.

My legs will never be the same. I’m no Paula Radcliffe but I think I’ve got some calf muscle that wasn’t there a decade ago. Don’t mess with my calves. Don’t mess with my uvula, either. Or whatever it is in my throat making those kh, q, c noises. The first few months speaking Somali made the back of my throat ache like my legs ached the first few weeks running.

11. They require support.

I needed the people who cheered me on during the marathons and other races, needed to see their faces and hear their cheers, needed to grab the Gu or the water bottle. I am so thankful they were there at the end, sometimes to literally catch me, that they were there while I trained. Biking alongside, taking care of the kids. I’ll never forget the chocolate-covered strawberries waiting for me at my front door when I got home from my first marathon, a surprise gift from my sister who lived states and states away. Learning language requires similar support, cheerleaders, encouragers, motivators. Maybe some fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie deliveries. People who notice the minutest increments of progress and who honor that.

Runners? Language learners?

Anything else the two have in common?

Djibouti Jones COVID19 Diary, Episodes 1-6

What is happening in Djibouti in regards to the COVID19 pandemic?

I decided to process it out loud, every day, just a a brief glimpse.

Have a listen. Enjoy.

March 17. Connected.

March 18. It Is Here.

March 19. We Know How to Take Care of Each Other.

March 20. What is Hoarding? Plus, a Car Accident.

March 21. Do We Stay or Do We Go?

March 22. COVID19 Has Left Djibouti. Plus, a Special Guest.

Available for now on Spotify and Anchor. Coming soon to iTunes and Google Play.

 

Stronger than Death Book Tour Comes to Djibouti

I am so excited to share that the Stronger than Death book tour continues, and it has come to Djibouti.

An international book tour is every author’s dream and it certainly helps that I live abroad! This will be the third country I’ve visited to talk about the book. After a month in the United States, I spent four days in Kenya and spoke to about 8 high school classes about the book, about writing, and publishing, and more. And now, the book discussions are in my “home” country, Djibouti.

If you live here, come on out!

If you can’t make these dates, I’d still love to connect with you about the book. Maybe a local book club? A coffee date to talk writing? A student or school group interested in the writing and publishing process?

Get in touch!


Here’s where the book and I will be this week.

Thursday, November 14, 6:30 pm (1830h) at Ecole Emanuele, sharing with English language learners.

Saturday, November 16, 4:30 pm (1630h) at Villa Camille. Enjoy the beautiful atmosphere of this unique cafe and social space, order delicious food from their menu, and hear about the fascinating life and work of Annalena Tonelli. Book discussion, audience Q/A, and book signing. (There will be books available for purchase).

 

The book is also available for purchase at the International School of Djibouti (and out of the trunk of our Jeep! There are also hard copies of Finding Home and Welcome to Djibouti available).

 

When Things Crash and Stories from the Horn

Don’t let me hold your phone, drive your car, or borrow your computer. Don’t ask me for tech help on your blog, newsletter, Facebook account, or anything else.

I have been run into twice in the past few months by motorcycles. They literally ran right into the car. Once on the driver’s side and once on the passenger side.

Both times the motorcycle driver was at fault, like going the direction on the road, passing on the wrong side, not using turn signals, multiple witnesses all agreeing with them being at fault, all kinds of at fault. I will not publicly go into all manner of not okay-ness in how I was held to blame.

Sometimes, Djibouti wins.

I downloaded an update on my phone and it never worked again. Go to the Apple store, says the internet. I say, “The nearest Apple store is off the continent.

The water proof bag I used to carry items wasn’t actually water proof. Not for me. For so many others, yes. Me? Not this time.

My website crashed.

My computer crashed.

I ruined my newsletter list.

I can fix it. We can fix it. The technician and mechanic can fix it.

But what a headache. Aren’t all these things supposed to make life easier?

I’ll tell you what was easier: not having a phone because it broke. No pressure to take photos – just memorize the moment, just experience the moment. No pressure to respond to messages. No need to post updates.

Still.

Writers gotta internet. Or something like that.

And nowadays, writers gotta newsletter.

This is what is drilled into us everywhere I go online. Build your email list. Facebook and Instagram could crash or close (like they did on July 3 this year – anyone else have image issues? I swear I had nothing to do with that). Don’t let someone else have control of your work.

And I’ve discovered that I really love working on my newsletter and building that email list. People don’t comment on blogs that much anymore and Facebook and Twitter sorta overwhelm me. But in my newsletter, I get to be myself without blabbing it all over the internet. And I get to respond, one on one, to comments and questions and feedback.

I get to work on essays that in the past I would have tried to pitch to magazines but now I love keeping them just my newsletter.

Here are some of the wide-ranging recent topics:

  • How love in dating is different to love in marriage
  • Female genital mutilation from the voices of Djiboutian women
  • The story of a man who lived with a bullet in his head for 18 years and what happened when it came out
  • The next one will be about the cheek kissing greeting. Ever wonder if people accidentally kiss on the lips? I don’t know about people, but I do know about me

I curate stories from the Horn of Africa and Somali news from all over the world. I love doing this – keeping myself and readers up to date on what’s happening in the places we care about, super cool stories about the new superfood: camel’s milk or about Somali yoga lessons on the beach in Mogadishu or about the apparent new Cold War between China and the US taking place in Djibouti, about disastrous White Savior problems in Uganda…

I give loads of book recommendations, including Kindle Deals for the best books, usually under $3.00.

And we do this silly thing where I take quotes from famous people from Gandhi to Oprah to Mr. Rogers and replace the word “struggle” with the word “snuggle.” Because we could all use a little more snuggle in our lives these days.

Its kind of like letting people see the things I love to talk about. Like if we sat down over coffee, I would probably ask you what great book you’re reading. Or what fascinating story has gripped you lately? Or do you have any idea how to untangle the mess or how to celebrate the successes in the Horn lately?

Last week, I switched email providers because I wanted to be better able to provide great content and meet the needs of readers.

Alas.

Remember how nothing was working?

That didn’t work either.

I feel like an idiot. I probably am one. Or didn’t read the instructions well enough, though I felt certain I did. I don’t know.

In any case, a lot of people’s emails fell through the cracks. Like a lot, a lot.

And if you don’t want to read Stories from the Horn anymore and your email fell through – no worries! I’m glad you hung around for a while and you’re welcome back any time, but you are also totally free to head out in other reading directions.

If you do subscribe and still want to, Aweber has assured me, they have solved the problem. So hang tight, some of you have contacted me and I will make sure you’re all added in correctly. I’m so sorry for the hassle and confusion.

If you have never subscribed but are intrigued by what is on offer, I’d love to have you join in. Its totally free, I will never sell or give out your email address. You’ll get a free download: 25 Things You Need to Know but No One Will Tell You about Moving Abroad (and a bonus, secret free download too, once you confirm.)

And if you do subscribe and hit reply to the email when it comes into your inbox, to send me a message or ask a question, I promise to respond. I read every single email and (so far) am able to respond to them all. It might take a day or two, but I love hearing what drew you to Stories from the Horn or ideas on what you’d like to hear more about from me, suggestions on how I can serve you better, or just a “hi!”

Here’s a link for signing up, if you haven’t already seen it posted like, everywhere, on the blog.

Do you have a newsletter? I’d love to check it out.

Send me your link or include it in the comments.

Pirates! Poverty! War! FGM! On Manipulating Headlines to Capture a Reader

How the heck do writers get people to care about other parts of the world?

Editors often tell me (in my many rejection letters) that North Americans don’t care about the Horn of Africa.

Unless I can come up with a salacious or titillating angle (both intriguing words), why would a reader in, say, Minnesota, care about Djiboutian girls making bead jewelry? Maybe they like working their hands to create beautiful things. Maybe they are serving their families by earning extra income, maybe they are developing math, business, negotiation, marketing, and general work ethic skills, maybe they are forming a beautiful community.

But.

Who cares?

Clearly, I do. And clearly, I hope you do. But writing about community, creativity, and beauty isn’t click-bait the way other things are.

(By the way, you can see the handiwork of these young women on Facebook and Instagram and you can even purchase it as of April 2 here)

Stories of hope and joy out of a far away region and culture, struggle to capture the attention of a general reader.

This is why Syrians are crying out for people to care but few respond. It is why many have not even heard of the war in Yemen, what has recently been called the worst humanitarian crisis in 50 years, even with Syria in the picture.

How do writers up the readership on stories from this part of the world which I find inherently fascinating and which I love, but about which few outsiders care?

Here’s what I came up with (while on a run with a friend who also cares about this part of the world):

It has to be about FGM. Female Genital Mutilation. Or pirates, poverty, war.

So here are some possible headlines, to get clicks, readers, and attention. Whether or not they actually represent reality is highly debatable.

For a story about Dreamer and Co, the bead business:

Girls Saved from Pirate Marriages Turn Trash to Treasure

(granted, they were never at risk of getting married to pirates, but I suppose its possible, in the sense of all things are possible)

For a story about the most amazing place I visited in Hargeisa, Somaliland during Marathon week, a place that almost made me cry:

They Don’t Have Clitorises but They Have a Library!

(because who wants to read about a library in Somalia, even if it is the most inspiring place in the entire city)

For a story about the incredible strides Somali women are making in medicine:

Raped in the Middle of the Day, Now a Medical Student

(as if sexual assault has anything to do with her capability as a student or doctor)

For a story about the running club in Djibouti, Girls Run 2:

With No Bras, Underwear, Socks, or Shoes, Girls Still Run

(as if the most important thing about them is what they lack, rather than what they have to offer)

Of course FGM, piracy, poverty, rape, war…all these things are significant issues for the region, for the world. I’m not saying they don’t matter or shouldn’t be written about. I write about them, I talk about them with friends. And there very well could be a place in an article about the first class of medical students to graduate to write about assault and trauma. But using those kinds of troubling details as the main point or a kind of requirement for getting through the editorial doors, skews stories and perpetuates the ‘exotic’ otherness of people, rather than our shared humanity.

We are all broken, broken in unique ways. We can also all celebrate unique stories of healing and beauty, while lamenting the brokenness, without dehumanizing each other.

Maybe it is wishful thinking, to imagine people care about those far away and outside our own borders. There is both too much brokenness and too much beauty to expect anyone to hold it all. I can’t summon the emotional energy to care about all the joys and problems of the world. But at the same time, there are billions of us. Surely there is room for all the stories, surely we can diversify a little bit more, stretch our minds past presidents, past preconceived ideas, past our comfort zones.

Surely we can tell all the stories, in all their dark and beautiful complexity, without insisting on twisting them.

(and no, I will not be using any of those headlines. Preempting the fail of sarcasm online here)

 

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