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The Long Run, in the Big Roundtable

Quick link: The Long Run

Meet Kadra Mohamed Dembil, an obscure athlete from an obscure country,
racing for more than gold
The Long Run

By the time Kadra Mohamed Dembil went to the Junior Olympics in Nanjing China in 2014, when she was seventeen, expectations of female Djiboutian runners were clear. Last place. Maybe second to last.


She would be that final struggling athlete from a poor, obscure nation with a name people have never heard and can’t pronounce. The one spectators clap for in a semi-inspired, semi-pitying way, cheering home the biggest loser. Such a runner, reeled in by the cheers of the crowd long after the other athletes have cooled down and begun interviews, is encouraged. But she is also sometimes embarrassed.


Before Kadra’s time, Djibouti sent Roda Wais to race in the Sydney Olympics, in 2000. After placing dead last in the 800-meter race, she defected, with the help of a Somali Australian. Eventually she married an Australian, had children, and never competed for her country again. In 2004, Djibouti sent no athletes to the Olympics. In 2008, Djibouti sent Fathia Ali Bouraleh to race the 100 meters in Beijing. Fathia false started. And, on the second attempt, she was so nervous from the false start that she ran one of her slowest races of the year. She placed last in her heat, her time the second slowest overall. In 2012, Djibouti sent Zourah Ali to race the 400 meters in London. Like Fathia, she finished with the second slowest overall time, faster only than Zamzam Mohamed Farah of Somalia, Djibouti’s neighbor to the east. No female Djiboutian had yet won a medal for her country. None had ever even advanced beyond the first heat in a major international competition.


Kadra knew the history of female Djiboutian athletes and, for her international debut at the Junior Olympics, she had something else in mind. She knew she couldn’t win, but she had no intention of finishing at the back of the pack. She was determined to launch a new era of female racing in Djibouti. She wanted a race with her name on the announcer’s lips. She didn’t know if that kind of race was possible, but Kadra wasn’t going to Nanjing to aim for last place…

Click here to find out how Kadra does in Nanjing and read the rest of The Long Run

The Bookshelf: Finding Peace in Somalia, a mini book?

I hadn’t thought of this as a book for The Bookshelf until a couple of readers said they enjoyed my ‘short book.’ A longform essay is how others refer to it. A mini book? A long read? In any case, today on the bookshelf is my own story from the week.


The Proper Weight of Fear

I don’t know why a writer wouldn’t promote their work, we want people to read it, right? If I didn’t want people to read it, I wouldn’t publish it. Writing is about connecting. Its about finding that universal aspect of my story that expands outward and connects with the universal aspect in your story. But still, it can feel awkward to be shamelessly self-promotional. And yet, I know that how essays do bears weight on future projects so…here goes.

Another invitation. I’d really love for you to read, if you haven’t already, The Proper Weight of Fear, in The Big Roundtable. Some people have spoken of it as a book, but its a mini-book. One site marked it as a 50-minute read. So grab a cup of coffee and a snuggly blanket and enjoy. It is much easier to tweet and repost a list or a cat meme but still, I’d be ever-so-grateful if you’d share this, comment on it, repost the link…donate(?!) And fellow writers, The Big Roundtable is an excellent site to consider submitting to.

Here are two questions the editors asked me to think about.

1. Why did you need to tell this story?

I never thought of myself as a fearful person so when a suicide bomb attack in Djibouti filled me with nearly paralyzing fear I was shocked.  Someone suggested the reason for my extreme reaction could stem from a forced evacuation I had experienced eleven years earlier, in Somaliland. Three people had been murdered there, one of them a neighbor, and my family fled. We carried almost nothing with us and had no chance to say goodbye, and for all we knew someone with a gun would come after us soon. I don’t remember feeling afraid but now I most certainly was. I needed to understand that fear. Why hadn’t I felt it before, or had I? Why did I feel it so acutely now? How could I move past it? My husband was in Somaliland the week after the bomb and in order to escape the fear I felt in Djibouti, I returned—for the first time—to Somaliland. That seemed crazy—to leave one dangerous place and seek peace in Somaliland. But to deal with this surprising emotion, I had to face it in Somaliland: the place that birthed the fear and the place where I would lay it to rest.

2. What did you learn about yourself as a writer?

Through the years I’ve scribbled thoughts about the evacuation and aftermath but never fully addressed it on paper, especially not the emotional impact of it. Yet writing is how I process and understand the complicated swirl of expatriate life. And, I learned through working on this particular piece, writing is also how I let go and move forward. I don’t think I could have written about the evacuation soon after it happened, or if I had, the story would have been quite different. I needed this distance of more than a decade in order to unearth the deep ways life in the Horn of Africa has affected me, to understand how much this foreign soil has become my home. As I continue to write about living in the Horn, I’m encouraged by this realization. It means I’ll keep learning and will be able to write about it, with better reflection and perspective, long after I leave.

The Proper Weight of Fear

What I’m reading this week

Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists

Still reading Next Wave from last week.




Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War





The Tiger’s Wife: A Novel
(recommended by my sister. I started it before but didn’t get far. Am trying to read more fiction)




What are you reading this week? What do you think of long reads essays?

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