Sierra Leone Marathon 2014

Policemen, soldiers, Ministers, Paramount Chiefs; marketing the marathon in Makeni

One of the nice things, but also one of the challenging things, about organising an endurance running event in Sierra Leone is that the country has almost no culture of long distance running. Sierra Leone's athletics pedigree is  slim to say the least and although the country's footballing achievements are not much more impressive, a near miss in qualifying for this year's the African Cup of Nations aside, the beautiful game is the unrivalled sport of choice for Sierra Leoneans. The only football that I've watched there so far was a fiercely contested match (complete with dubious penalty awarded for handball, subsequently scored with an assist from a spectator!) between two sets of schoolgirls in the remote Tambakha chiefdom. Even a game like this was testament to how seriously football is taken.




Returning to Makeni in November 2011 on a mission to raise the local profile of the marathon (and to design the half marathon course - see photo), my default assumption was that none of the various officials that I hoped to meet would have heard of the marathon format. As it turned out, most of them had, even if the idea of hosting one locally was a complete novelty, just as meeting Paramount Chiefs and army officers was for me. But then almost everything is a novelty when you're organising a marathon in Sierra Leone.


One of the joys of "lobbying" in Sierra Leone is the ease with which one can gain access to people in position of authority. Almost everyone, from Ministers to mayors to police chiefs, operates an open-door policy that frequently left me wondering how they find the time to get any work done. The charming Samuel Willams, local representative of the Ministry of Youth Employment and Sport (an unusual ministerial portfolio, perhaps), was no exception. Despite arriving without an appointment, I was immediately ushered into his office.  Serendipitously, Mr Williams was in the middle of a meeting with many of his Ministry colleagues and, somewhat incongruously, the manager of the Sierra Leone women's' national football team.  Whatever agenda they had been discussing was immediately shelved once I had pitched the marathon to them and a goldmine of good suggestions began to flow. Except from the poor women's football coach, who had nothing to say on the matter but sat stoically through an hour or so of debate.


Mr Williams also informed me that there was a to be a second marathon in northern Sierra Leone, in October 2012. It may be unusual for a charity to take the lead in organising a marathon, as Street Child is doing for the Kiln Sierra Leone Marathon, but the organiser of the race in October was even more out of left field: the Sierra Leone Political Parties Registration Commission were apparently at the helm of this one!


Next stop, and slightly more trepidatious, was Teko Army Barracks. The guard at the gate raised both eyebrows as I arrived on a motorbike, accompanied by John Momodu Kargbo, regional co-ordinator for HANCi (Street Child's Sierra Leonean partner organisation), and asked to see the commanding officer. But after a moment's thought, he waved us through to the administrative area of the barracks. There we found a typically Sierra Leonean scene: a meeting taking place in the shade of a huge mango tree. The Brigade Commander, Major Lavahun, quickly wrapped up the meeting, and John and I pitched the marathon concept to him. We came away with a commitment to provide vehicles, an ambulance, security personnel and, perhaps to the future regret of many of his men, a promise to enter a representative army team into the marathon.


I made equally successful visits to the local police station and branch of the Red Cross.  Everywhere I went, it seemed, I was pushing at open doors so far as securing messages of support and pledges of personnel and equipment were concerned. My final visit, to the home of Paramount Chief Kasangha II, went some way to explaining why.


The role of traditional rulers in Sierra Leone takes a bit of explaining. You can read more about it here.


PC Kasangha was away when John and I called at his home. In his absence, however, he leaves his deputy, Chief Benbella, to meet visitors and to be his mouthpiece. Chief Benbella received us in what I can only describe as PC Kasangha's chamber. At one end of the room were three throne-style chairs. The central chair was the tallest, with the name "Kasangha II" carved into the backplate and a cushioned footrest attached. To the left of it was a lower, but well-cushioned wooden chair and, to the right, another chair of darker wood and the familiar logo "EIIR". It was on this chair, presumably presented to PC Kasangha or his predecessor sometime between 1952 and 1961 (2011 was the 50th anniversary of Sierra Leone's independence from Britain), that Chief Benbella sat, suitably elevated. He thanked us for visiting and pledged both his and PC Kasangha's full support. This support went without saying, he explained, because both he and PC Kasangha were well aware of the excellent work done by HANCi and Street Child in Makeni and further afield, and would do everything they could to further HANCi's cause.


I realised that HANCi's reputation had already done much of my work for me I could probably have pitched the idea of organising the world's biggest egg and spoon race (maybe next year) in Makeni, and still have received the same level of interest and support.


Stakeholder meeting, Makeni


To thank the stakeholders for their time and good wishes, the brilliant Street Child team in Makeni helped me organise a lunch for them at the Clubhouse, Street Child's proprietary bar-restaurant (see photo). The attendance was great and, as I'd hoped, discussions around the table generated a long list of suggestions for the event itself.


Street Child is determined that the people of Makeni and its surrounding communities will have a significant stake in the marathon. To that end, there are many more stakeholders to meet in the coming months - the roads authority, taxi drivers union, market traders' association, and the chiefs of all the many villages and communities around the marathon course, to name just a few. But if they're half as welcoming and enthusiastic as everyone I've met so far, it's going to be fun.





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