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Run for Life!
The images of golden bread swarmed his brain. Acid burned the walls of his empty stomach. His chest swelled to painful extremes as he inhaled gust upon gust of dusty air. While he forced his calves to propel him as far forward as possible, he swung his arms powerfully at his sides. His hands, he kept tightly clenched to protect the coins he had pilfered. When the insults that his victim was spewing behind him faded into the distance, he finally slowed down to a jog- another successful escape!
Just like waves never leave a sea, such escapes had stained every single one of Shai Habasha’s days. Since he threw dust onto his father’s casket, it was by picking a pocket here and snatching a wallet there that he had managed to sustain his family. Though many celebrated prosperous businesses in the Eritrean town of Tesenay, none of his mother’s ventured been successful. His attempts to acquire a decent job had also been in vain. So Shai found salvation in the criminal life. However, each time he seized what he did not own, each time stolen food soothed his tongue, shame, failure and worthlessness plagued his soul.
Shai wondered in the outskirts of the city for the rest of that afternoon. Only when the grayness of dusk had come to shield him, did he dare to return to the market. After tracing his usual route in the darkest alleys, he walked into a small grocery store. “Bread please,” he ordered, clanging the pilfered coins on the counter. As he waited, anxious to return to the safe darkness outside, an advertisement on the radio made his heart palpitate faster: “…2000 Nafka for the best runner! Only 10 kilometers.” His fingers itched as he pictured the crisp notes in his hands.
The next morning, as the rays of the sun shattered the comforting darkness, Shai pondered wearily on how he would conquer yet another day. Then, the words of the advertisement echoed in his head. ”2000 Nafka.” That would grant clean hands for an entire month! How often was he compelled to use the speed of a cheetah to escape his victims?
On the banks of the Gash River, the grass blades shivered in the breeze. More than sixty anxious runners hopped and stretched on the starting line. One athlete who, due to his bare feet and long trousers, looked rather peculiar stood motionless at the corner. A feeling of dejection settled in Shai’s heart as he realized he was a chicken among eagles. How had he dared to believe he was anything more than a cursed thief? Shai took a step back. He was turning to walk away when the sound of a whistle pierced the air, announcing the start of the race. Perhaps out of shock Shai jerked forward with the others.
Yellow sunrays kissed the surface of the river, giving it the luster of a mirror. Occasionally, the water was darkened by the shadow of tree branches and also that of running men. Lumps of earth were tossed onto the surface of the water from the bare feet of one runner- a runner who moved with a musical rhythm. The elegance of his motion portrayed a man who ran even in his mother’s womb.
It was about 20 minutes into the race when the feeling of dejection in Shai’s heart transformed into new determination. He had angled his head to peek at the progress of the runners behind him and with astonishment he observed the encouraging gap that separated him from them. Only one man dashed on ahead of him. Was it truly possible? He filled his lungs with air and, surging more power into his legs, he accelerated forward.
A few meters from the finish line, the spectators on the banks of the Gash River cheered with increased fervor. Shai’s muscles bellowed in pain, depleted of all energy. Nonetheless, he sprinted on forward, closing in on the leading runner. To this attack, the runner responded with discouraging acceleration. Then, along with the shouts of the spectators, came the screeching voice of a child: “Daddy, that’s the man who stole my wallet!” Adrenalin surged into Shai’s veins. His heart knocked at his chest with increased force. Without increasing his effort, he felt his body flying forward, passing the leading runner and leaping across the finish line. There was a deafening applause which was followed by sudden silence when Shai, without pausing for a moment, ran off right into the woods.
It was a fortnight later when a new chapter of Shai’s life began- a day when he was cursed with a failed escape. He was attempting to slither his fingers into a merchandiser’s pocket when alas, the man seized his arm.
“I have caught a thief!” the man exclaimed.
Shai punched and pulled in vain to free his arm. The man delivered a forceful kick at Shai’s shin sending the boy plummeting to the ground. He would have added another blow at the ribs had it not been for another man who yelled: “Mercy, please! I know him. Leave him to me.” Though with a charged curse, the merchandiser complied.
Shai rose slowly to his feet. He glanced at his savior- a man with a bright red whistle around his neck. When the crowd had dispersed the man said in calm voice: “Life is meaningless that way son. You are talented. I will give you a much better life.” The man continued to speak for a while and Shai listened silently. When he had finished, Shai’s face was wet with tears- tears of joy and hope.
The sun’s ray’s sparkled on the thatched rooftop. When Shai turned to cast a last look on the shack that had housed them since his birth, a smile wreathed his face. “I will build you a real house, mother!” He laughed in joy as he said this. He then embraced his mother tightly and kissed her teary cheek. Together, they advanced towards the vehicle that would take them to the capital. The driver wore a bright red whistle around his neck.
A rapturous applause resonated through Asmara Stadium. Thousands of spectators raised from their seats as Shai ascended to the rostrum. With a gold medal adorning his neck, he raised his hand to wave at his country. His heart fluttered in excitement as pictured waving at the world.