Africa University International Peace Marathon Unites the Community

Nov 13, 2002 03:00 AM EST

MUTARE, Zimbabwe - About 1,500 runners braved 90-degree heat and a difficult course to compete Nov. 9 in the inaugural Africa University International Peace Marathon.

The marathon, launched as part of the 10th anniversary celebration of the founding of Africa University, was aimed at promoting peace in Africa. The United Methodist based school's yearlong observance will culminate with several events Nov. 15-17.

The race attracted the best of Zimbabwe's junior and senior middle-distance runners and wheelchair athletes. High school teams and amateurs ran in the half-marathon and relays, while more than 450 youngsters from primary schools turned out for a special casual run. Even 3 to 5-year-olds had the chance to run and win in a race for pre-school children.

"We've had a great turnout and wonderful support for this first marathon," said Augustine Dzathor, the Africa University lecturer and alumnus who conceived and spearheaded the event. "We wanted a mass event with lots of participation from ordinary people, youths and the community, and we definitely got that."

For the professionals and super-fit, there was a full marathon. The 26-mile course took runners from the city center in Mutare, through dusty roads in the high-density suburbs of Sakubva and Chikanga, where people stopped their Saturday morning chores and work in the fields to cheer them on. For many, the ascent over the Christmas Pass proved to be the most challenging leg of the race. Once over the Pass, runners still had six miles to go before reaching the finish line on the Africa University campus, outside Mutare.

"Getting up the Christmas Pass was really tough," said Vimbai Tsopotsa. Though she only began running in September 2001, Tsopotsa took on the half-marathon - a 13-mile race from the city to the campus - and came in fourth. Tsopotsa, who graduated with a master of business administration degree from Africa University in 1998, said she was thrilled that her first big race involved the university and helping people to contemplate and discuss about peace.

Sixteen athletes from across Zimbabwe competed in the five-mile wheelchair race. Elford Moyo, a receptionist and wheelchair basketball enthusiast from Harare, came in first. He has racked up seven wins and no losses this year, but he insists on gaining additional experience to improve his skills.

Fellow wheelchair athlete Edmund Makutya, who placed second, said he races because he doesn't want to pity himself or have others pity him. He's represented Zimbabwe in wheelchair athletic competitions in the United States, Japan and Germany.

"I want to face the challenges and show people that disability doesn't mean inability," said Makutya, a 37-year-old sales manager and father of three. Competitive sport teaches important lessons that can help people build and sustain peace in African countries, he said. In situations of strife, people hold on to pain, loss and anger, and that often hinders reconciliation.

"Engaging in sport, I've learned not to focus on what I've lost but on what I have. My legs may not perform, but I have my hands," Makutya said.

The day's big winner was primary school teacher Nicholas Mugomeri. He covered the 26 miles in two hours and 32 minutes and won the first prize, US$4,000. Mugomeri, who has been competing in middle-distance races for more than seven years, said he usually comes in second or third. Then, at the end of October, he won an under-18 mile road race in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city.

"That was my first time winning, and it really boosted my confidence," Mugomeri said. "But I wanted to run in this race because I'm very concerned about peace and also to encourage young people to get involved in sports."

It was a great day for 11-year-old Susan Chandiwangirira of St. James Zongoro Primary School. She ran with 14 other children from her rural school, located about 12 miles from the Africa University campus. A classmate came in fourth in their category. After having a good look around the campus, Chandiwangirira said she'd be back one day to study nursing.

A highlight of the awards ceremony after the race was the unveiling of a peace pole on the campus. The pole, which carries the prayer "May peace prevail on earth" in eight languages - English, French, Hausa, Lingala, Portuguese, Shona and Swahili - was erected with support from the Division of Ordained Ministry of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. In erecting the pole, Africa University joined a network that spans 70 countries and includes more than 62,000 peace poles worldwide.

In his address, Dingiswayo Banda, the Zambian ambassador and acting dean of the African Diplomatic Corps in Zimbabwe, reminded race participants and the university community that peace is still an extremely scarce commodity in many African communities. The ambassador commended Africa University for the marathon and other initiatives that focus attention on the issue.

"Peace in Africa means life," he said. "Peace means stability and the actual peace of mind to engage in matters of development."

More than 150 runners walked away with cash and other prizes, thanks to the support of the Zimbabwe business community and friends of Africa University. Kingdom Bank and the Nigeria High Commission in Harare emerged as premier sponsors of the event. Other major sponsors included South African Airways, the Crowne Plaza Monomutapa Hotel in Harare, Holiday Inn Mutare, CocaCola/Mutare Bottling Co. and Rennies Travel.

Professor Rukudzo Murapa, Africa University's vice chancellor, thanked the participants and sponsors, and called on the athletes to be ambassadors for peace in their homes, schools and workplaces. He also urged organizations and individuals from all sectors of society to help create conditions for sustainable peace in Africa.

The university plans to make the marathon an annual event that attracts runners and sponsors from throughout Africa and the world.

By Andra Stevens