World AIDS Day with youth: Never let anyone tell you that you can’t

Post by Erin Poirier, Halifax, NS

I marked World AIDS Day on December 1 by giving 2 presentations to the student bodies at Prince Andrew High School (where I work) and Dartmouth High School, with the NSGA’s Muhammed Ngallan.  Muhammed and I met in The Gambia 4 summers ago when we worked on the NSGA Peer Health Education project together.  It was pretty special for us to be in front of youth again. To share the stage together, this time in Canada with Canadian youth.

We had an amazing day and the youth were amazing.  We showed them my Love4Gambia Radio Documentary, which you’ll find at the end of this post.  Then we each spoke to them.

I had a few rough notes in front of me to keep myself on track, mostly to ensure that I didn’t get carried away and eat up all of Muhammed’s speaking time.  Before hand, I pulled what I wanted to say from my blogs and put it together so that I could share it with you here.  So here it is.

When Muhammed and I finished speaking, many youth wanted to talk to us individually.  Two youth stood out for me.

The first was a shy girl.  She spoke so quietly that I could barely hear her.

“Thank you for talking about how a woman can achieve anything,” she said. “I want to do a career than usually men only do. I want to be a paratrooper. People tell me that I can’t because I’m a girl.  So thanks for saying that I can do it.”

The second girl was not at all shy. She demanded.

“Who is the father of your baby?”  

I laughed.

Word AIDS Day Love4Gambia Speech

December 1, 2011

Since I’ve returned home from The Gambia, I’ve spoken to a lot of people about my run and my team. Most people ask, “How did you actually do that?  How did you actually run all the way across a country?”

I don’t really have an answer other than I trained really hard.  I was really, really determined.  And I really, truly believed that I could do it.  That’s what I want to talk to you about today.  We’re lucky to have Muhammed with us; he’s going to talk about The Gambia and HIV in The Gambia for us while I talk about the run. For most of this, you don’t have to be runner to understand it.

A friend listened to this radio documentary on the day that it played on CBC radio and then said to me, “oh, it made your run sound so easy.”

Maybe this is the case, I don’t know. I can only look at the run and listen to this documentary having been the girl who actually ran it and I’ll tell you, it was far from easy.  But this was just a 25-minute snapshot, it’s not the whole story.

This summer, there were never any moments where I thought that I would give up but it was far from easy.  I always knew, or I guess believed, that I would make it but there moments were it was hard.

  • I ran 424 km
  • I was running 25km/day: more than a half marathon
  • In units of time, I was running 2.5 hours a day but 25 km took longer than 2.5 hours.  We rested 90 minutes at the 20km mark.  I stopped every 20 minutes to drink more water at our truck.  So in total, our running day was  8am to 1:30pm.
  • Our motto was Eat, Sleep, Run

The heat:

This is the first think that I want to touch on that I had to deal with; that made it so that the run was not easy.  It was HOT. It was 38 degrees every single day and 42 degrees on many. The heat never impacted my running performance because I chose not to let it.

Sometimes after I explain this, people will say, “oh, so the heat wasn’t that bad.” I explain that that wasn’t it at all. It was very hot; 42 degrees is very hot.  It’s 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It was so hot that 2 pairs of my sneakers melted.

I couldn’t do anything about the heat. I had a 25km goal each day, regardless of the air temperature. I had no control over the heat. But I did have control over how I responded to and dealt with the heat. I coped with the heat by not even considering the heat.  I never, ever considered that the heat might cause me to stop running because there was so way I was going to stop running. Stopping was never in the realm of options.

Managing 42 degree heat was all about being strong.  The human body will allow you to be strong enough if you will it to be strong enough.

The people who would say to me, “I could  never run in that heat,” they are wrong. They could. The human body can do it.  I think that they’ve just never put themselves in a situation where they are determined to reach their goal, no matter what.

Besides the heat, I had to get through a lot of other challenges including the South Bank Road, my legs and setbacks. 

Setbacks happen in running as in life. You need to be prepared for them.  For me, for my team, the remarkable days were the ones that were unremarkable.

Here are the setbacks I face: I didn’t always want to run

  • Day 5: guts turned on me during the raining, spam saved the day.
  • Day 6: km markers appeared.  I had run 150km already=  awesome! But 280km to go, not so awesome
  • Day 7: my setback was emotional, not physical. Emotions were stronger. Happy was happier. Sad was sadder.
  • Day 9: poisoned myself with water and ran 25km anyway
  • Day 15: no food.  Skin bleeding and no Brikama at 26km
  • Day 16: traffic tried to end our life by swallowing us up, see here

(read more about what I talked about in detail in this blog titled “How to be Strong”)

Being a Woman

Being a woman has been a dominant theme of my running days.  I anticipated this but not to the extent that it played out.  I expected that my running expedition would exhibit female athletic ability and facilitate breaking down gender barriers in endurance sport participation for women.  I knew that this was a male dominated society. Women in The Gambia are not political leaders.  They are not athletes.  To many men and women, I was an oddity.

When we meet people, Pa Modou and Kebba would proudly introduce me as the runner who is running from Koina to Banjul.  The person would look at me a say, “Her?!”  They were never able to hide their disbelief.  In fact, I’m pretty sure they didn’t even try.  Most often, they would follow this up with, “Well, how can a woman do that?”  Or “I can’t believe a woman can do that.”

Pa Modou and Kebba would reply, “Yes, she can, she is very strong.”  I told these people that I’d see them in Banjul.  They knew that wouldn’t believe it until I actually did it.

In the end, reaching the shores of the Atlantic, 424km from Koina, wasn’t even enough.  On day 16, Spider’s coworkers came to watch us run.  We ran passed these guys and waved at them.  When Spider returned to work, these men interrogated him.

“Is she really a woman?”

”How do you know?  Have you seen her woman parts?”

Even after seeing me their with own eyes, they doubted that I was actually a woman because of my athletic ability. For these Gambian men, it was easier to believe that I was actually a man.

I met one of Pa Modou’s football teammates after the run ended.

“I’ve been waiting to see you,” he said, “Can I see your legs?”

I’m not sure what he expected but he seemed a disappointed with my sinewy calves.

Ashley and I were on the news on the eve that our plane arrived in The Gambia, before we traveled to Koina to begin the run.  The news is very important and if a Gambian owns or can access a television, they tune in.  A number of people would approach Ashley and I on the street.  They would look at Ashley and say:

“I saw you and that man on tv.”

‘That man’ would be me.  I do not look like a man.  But it was so hard for Gambians to believe that a woman could run all the way across the country.  It was easier to just believe that I was a man.

Meeting your goals and dreams:

A lot of people thought that I was crazy and didn’t think that I would make it to the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, when I got home in August, people would say to me, “I didn’t think that you make it.”  I would want to reply, “Thank you, I also don’t think that you are going to achieve your life goals.”  But I wouldn’t.

The thing was, it didn’t matter what they thought or what they believed. I made it to the ocean only because I believed that I could do it.  My belief was the only one that mattered.

And it put in the hard work to make my goal, my dream happen.  I didn’t make it 424km across a hot African country by sitting on the couch.  I made it by training and running 6 days a week for 7months.  Hard work, preparation and belief in yourself are how you make dreams happen.

That’s my message for you, my high school students. You are the beginning of your lives. If you have a dream: be it to go to university or NSCC, to become an artist, to become a mechanic and own your own garage, become a famous mathematician, become a better athlete, run across an African Nation… You put in the hard work to prepare. You don’t just sit on the couch hoping or waiting for it to happen- you put in the hard work.  You believe really hard that you can do it and you don’t listen to anyone who says you can’t.  The only person who can tell you that you can’t is yourself.  So you go out there and you make it happen just like I did and don’t EVER let anyone tell you that you can’t.

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2 Responses to World AIDS Day with youth: Never let anyone tell you that you can’t

  1. Norma says:

    Well, Erin…you certainly fooled me! All this time…I thought you were a female but now you are really pushing it with the fake pregnancy to prove you are female-hehe!!

  2. Well said! That is a powerful message.I hope they all were listening. Can’t wait to see you @ Christmas.

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