Running on the Streets of Dakar

[Editor's Note: Please welcome our newest contributor, Rachael Cullins. Rachael is an American living in Dakar. Learn more about Rachael on our Contributors page.]

A street in Dakar / Rachael Cullins
A woman running, much less alone, is an unfamiliar sight in Corniche, the stretch of scenic road and sidewalk that runs along Dakar’s western coastline.

Recently, however, in the middle of three male joggers -- a more than common sight here in Senegal because of how important fitness is to men’s lives -- I watched a woman, clad in braids, a faded white t-shirt and long gray sweatpants run by. From my side of the street, I noted she had the easy, natural loping gait of most Senegalese runners, one they achieve without the aid of the latest in athletic garb such as wicking-material or the latest in running shoes. She fit right in with her male running companions.

Since I arrived in Dakar nearly a month ago, this female Senegalese runner is the first I’ve seen. Although Senegal is much more advanced in women’s rights than some African or Islamic countries, the concept of fitness for females hasn’t yet taken a strong hold. I see men jogging everywhere, quickened by with their long strides while my short ones are not able to keep up with even the slowest of the local runners. But I am almost always the lone female, matched only occasionally by a fellow expatriate.

I’m not the only one who has noticed the distinct lack of woman athletes in this country, either. Running Times magazine ran a feature in early 2009 about female Senegalese runners, noting that it’s often difficult for them to find places to train, to receive athletic encouragement the same way a man would, and to dedicate their lives and talents to something other than child-rearing. As one interviewee in the article said, cleaning house and raising children is “what it means to be a Senegalese woman.”

The Senegalese Olympic team has had precisely zero female medal winners in the history of the games, according to the International Olympic Committee –- although the country does field men’s and women’s teams in some sports each year. Some traditional Muslims perceive women’s athletics as inappropriate due to the “revealing” clothing they must wear, such as a jersey and shorts on the track field. Others are just too steeped in traditional gender roles to see women as strong and capable when it comes to sports.

My time in Dakar will end in the summer of 2013, when my husband and I will pack up our belongings and two dogs and head to another foreign post as part of his career with the United States government. But I’d love to come back to Senegal someday, perhaps decades from now when our first abroad post seems like a distant memory, to see how the place might have changed since our time here. I’m hopeful those changes will include seeing many, many more women jogging along the Corniche, with just as much commonality and athleticism as the men who match them stride for stride –- and maybe even struggle to keep up.