Rebecca Jacobson
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Keeping Pace With The Porters

July 12, 2010 @ 6:18 AM | Permalink

The World Cup might be the globe’s most sensational sporting event (and how I mourned its completion yesterday, though not as much as I’d bewailed Germany’s semifinal exit at the hands of — ok, header of — Carlos “Giving a Bad Name to Curly Haired People Everywhere” Puyol), but the Mulanje Porters Race is undoubtedly Malawi’s prime athletic contest. Imagine, for a moment, 200 participants, ages 13 to 74 (though I swear some must have been preadolescent), tearing up a rocky crag, traversing a grassy plateau, and then bouncing back down the mountain, logging 25 kilometers and about 2,000 meters of elevation change. Now imagine many of these participants barefoot, or perhaps in plastic sandals or beat-up Converse All-Stars, some in boxers or cuffed golf shorts or bedraggled denim cutoffs, and several of the women (that’s right, this is not just a stag affair) dressed in skirts or even swimsuit tops. With the fastest runners clocking just over two hours, the whole occasion makes for quite the spectacle.

I attended the Porters Race this past Saturday, rolling out of Blantyre toward Mount Mulanje at 5 a.m. in a 37-year-old, sea green Mercedes. (We didn’t return with the same grace — the clutch spring broke somewhere en route, and we lurched, rather than glided, our way back to the city.) The race was scheduled to start at 6 a.m., but this being Malawi, the runners didn’t pound up the mountain until 7:45. No matter — this being Malawi, I knew half of the attendees (ok, not half) and we sized up the competitors. The event is open to foreigners (26 took part this year, though the fastest non-Malawian man and woman finished about an hour after their Malawian counterparts), and numerous people asked me if I was participating. No way, I said — I’ve tackled Mulanje my share of times, but it’s a steep beast of a mountain (and did I mention it was 6 a.m.?).

I didn’t see the action up on the plateau, but judging by the participants’ post-race injuries, the mountain didn’t spare any punches. A cadre of nurses tended to cuts and abrasions, as well as some truly gnarly wounds. Runners finished with mud-splattered legs, and many with muddy bums (I could sympathize – I tore the seat of my shorts on a Mulanje descent in March).

When the Porters Race began 15 years ago, it was exactly what the name suggests — a contest between the porters who lug hikers’ gear up the mountain. It quickly expanded, though, including women in its fifth year and drawing competitors from across the country. Now, porters rarely number among the top finishers. Saturday’s male winner is a soldier in Lilongwe and said he spent the last two months training for the race. The female winner belongs to a local athletic club. She displaced a woman who has dominated the podium, losing the race only once in the last seven years.

As impressive as the competitors proved, I had to ask what heights they could reach with proper athletic training. When I spoke with the winner of the men’s race, he said he intended to put his prize money (about $300) to better training equipment and access to facilities. He had the lean yet powerful build of a marathoner and a confident gait. I’m no fan of financially swollen sports programs (or of the swollen egos of overpaid and overhyped athletes), and goodness knows other sectors in Malawi need the attention more. But I had to wonder — what if this country had proper athletics infrastructure? Could there have been a Usain Bolt at Saturday’s race? Just askin’.


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Rebecca: I love the ending and I LOVE the second picture with the bright blue guy and the sepia tobacco. Angela

Angela Allen on Trafficking in Tobacco 2009-09-29

Thanks Angela! The second photo is my favorite as well.

Rebecca Jacobson on Trafficking in Tobacco 2009-09-30

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