Handful of Liberians Running to Prove a Point About Ebola

There’s a saying in Liberia: When wartime comes, the foot will help the body. On Sunday, Liberians lined up at the ELWA hospital compound were invoking this favorite phrase to help explain the confounding sight of their fellow countrymen running in a marathon.

“War business taught people to run,” joked Ahmed Fayi, a driver with a local business. “Wartime came, people had to run from bullets.” Mr. Fayi was hanging out with hundreds of other Liberians at the finish line on Sunday, cheering and heckling exhausted runners over the finish line.

Yes, heckling.

“Hurry up! Hurry up!” Sophie Dennis, a sociology student at the University of Liberia, yelled at a Liberian struggling to get to the finish line behind a white runner. “The white man beating you!”

But surely it was poor form to jeer at someone who had just run a marathon? Ms. Dennis grinned sheepishly. “I’m motivating him,” she said.

Liberians have always left the business of running to the East Africans. This is not a country with a culture of even 5K races, let alone marathons. And in truth, Sunday’s event, called the Liberia Marathon, was actually a half-marathon, with a course of 13 miles, from Freeport across the Mesurado River into and through downtown Monrovia, and then down Tubman Boulevard and on to the finish line at the ELWA (Eternal Love Winning Africa) compound, right next to the city’s only still operational Ebola Treatment Unit.

With the end of the Ebola pandemic that killed more than 4,000 Liberians, the country has come back to life, and Sunday’s half-marathon was meant to put a stamp on the idea that Liberians were healthy and running again. Except, well, Liberians have never been great at running.

When their fellow Africans were racing across the Serengeti with gazelles, Liberians could be found playing soccer in the dirt on makeshift fields or, much more likely, dancing and frolicking until all hours of the night.

So it was no surprise that people were surprised in 2011 when some expats organized the first Liberia Marathon — and Liberians actually signed up. (To keep the Liberian quotient high, organizers spoke of a rule that 99 percent of the runners had to be Liberian, although an unscientific look at the athletes indicated that the rule had not been very strictly enforced.) “We had the idea that what East Africans could do, West Africans could, too,” said Juliane Weymann, the deputy race director. After the 2011 race, people needed time to recuperate, so there was no race in 2012. There was one in 2013, though.

And nothing in 2014 because of Ebola. So on Sunday the marathon was back with a vengeance. More than 1,000 people signed up, many of them even Liberian.

“Any Liberians them na cross the finish line?” someone came up to Sophie Dennis and asked excitedly, after two brothers from Sierra Leone had victoriously finished the race, somewhere around the one-hour-and-13-minute point. When Ms. Dennis shook her head, a group of young women standing with her began clapping, dancing and singing.

“We waiting for Liberians, oh!” they sang. “We waiting!”

And wait they did. A couple of Liberian men in wheelchairs crossed, drenched in sweat from the tropical sun, their biceps bulging from the exertion, testimony to the resilience of people here who live in a country that has been through wars and plagues yet still retain the ability to laugh at themselves. The crowd cheered hugely. But still they waited for Liberian runners on two feet.

Another runner turned into the ELWA gate and the women surged forward. Then they moved back, sighing in unison. “That’s another Freetown man,” one said, referring to the capital of neighboring Sierra Leone.

Across from the women, a group of health workers from the Ebola Treatment Unit were engaging in the usual macabre Liberian humor, joking about where they all first started running.

“When those soldiers them attacked the Coca-Cola factory, that’s when people learned to run,” said Kou Kunkar, a nurse from Gbarpolu, recalling the 1990 Liberian civil war when Charles G. Taylor’s rebels were bearing down on Monrovia. Ms. Kunkar’s supervisor, Murphy V. Dolbah, was laughing.

“When you see bullets flying, you will run,” he said.

Samuel Johnson, a hygienist, said he had learned to run when he was 8 and his family had to flee from the Liberian Army that fired indiscriminately at villages near Lofa Bridge. The fleeing family walked — and sometimes ran — for three days to safety in Sierra Leone.

All of these horrifying stories were batted back and forth, as easily as if the group were just reminiscing about high school pranks.

Meanwhile, Sophie and her girlfriends were still looking for a Liberian to cross the finish line. Finally, around the one-hour-20-minute mark, two young men rounded the corner at the ELWA gate.

The women erupted. “Butterfly! Butterfly, let’s go!”

The first Liberian to cross the finish line, Prince Weah, 24, looked spry and forceful as he glided across, as if he could go another 13 miles. But his running partner, Anis Faraj, a.k.a. Butterfly, was dragging.

“Butterfly dying, oh,” said Florence Gadeh, another sociology student at the University of Liberia who was hanging out with Ms. Dennis. Indeed, Butterfly collapsed into the arms of a race volunteer after crossing the finish line.

Ms. Gadeh, turning introspective as workers revived Butterfly, said that a few months before, she had mustered the strength to do a run in Monrovia. “I ran from Nigeria House to Broad Street,” she said.

Was it hard?

Ms. Gadeh nodded her head. “It was too hard,” she said of her 5K race. “At times, you feel like fire pass in front of your eyes.”


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