Three weeks into our Duke Engage sejour, Dr. Piot told us about an upcoming race in Faren-Pouh, a village neighboring Kuwde, where we were staying. It’s a race with ceremonial significance: it showcases the athleticism of young male initiates while also preparing them for a ceremonial dance the following year. I was excited to simply watch the event, but when Dr. Piot said I could participate, I was ecstatic. Two other classmates and I decided that we would be partaking in the race the following day.
On the day of the event, we were led by local village chiefs to a small mountaintop. On the mountaintop was a semicircle of deliberately placed rocks, around 50 yards in circumference, overlooking a valley containing the village of Farende. We had a view fit for a still life masterpiece: tens of mountain peaks with various weather patterns, some exposed and green, others covered with clouds, with the light of the heavens creating a golden hue where it burst through the grey. While admiring the view, we were told by a race official, who also would lead the ceremony, to pick a rock and squat on it. We were specifically told not to sit down on the rock. We could only squat.
This went on for about 25 minutes, and my knees and my calves started to burn. My classmates and I had picked rocks separated a good distance from each other, so we couldn’t share our misery with each other as we struggled in the squat position. During that time, I thought about how peculiar my situation was: I was in an African village, participating in a shirtless race for which I didn’t know the course or the length, and having a harder workout than I had experienced in a while, even though the race had not even begun yet. Though I found this hilarious, I was also immensely appreciative for the experience that I was having.
As time went on (about 30 minutes of squatting had gone by), I started a conversation with the man next to me in French. He asked me if I was Togolese, and I responded “No, but my ancestry comes mostly from this area and Benin.” I asked him about himself and he told me that he lived in the city, but he had returned specifically for this race and for the ceremonial dance next year. For the next 5 minutes we had a riveting discussion about witchcraft and African modernity (I kid you not, this is what we discussed). As I was in the middle of phrasing a sentence to him, I heard loud, frantic shouting by a ceremonial leader in Kabye (the local language) and the man burst out of the squatting position towards the cultivated fields behind us. Startled, I sprang up and looked around to see almost all of my competitors sprinting in the same direction. My instincts kicked in, and I ran as hard as possible behind them. The race had begun.