Ronkonkoma, N.Y. Resident and Peace Corps Volunteer Places First in Burkina Faso Marathon

June 23, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C., June 22, 2009 On Saturday, May 30, Peace Corps Volunteer Jennifer Lazuta of Ronkonkoma, N.Y., finished first among female participants in the annual Ouaga-Laye marathon in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

Burkina Faso, a landlocked country on the cusp of the Sahara, is one of the poorest countries in the world. Though open and welcoming, Burkina is culturally conservative and maintains extremely traditional gender roles. This greatly limits the opportunities available to women. For example, only 29 percent of girls finish primary school and only 17 percent of women are literate.

As a Volunteer, Jen works in a village in the windswept northwest part of the country, speaking Moore, the local language, and working with motivated, self-organized womens groups in her community. Jen has taught the women valuable, marketable skills such as basic accounting, soap making, gardening, and tie-dyeing fabric. In return, the community has embraced Jen as though she were a member of their family.

The marathon gave Jen a rare public forum to demonstrate gender equality. Of the 400 participants, only 10 women competed, and only two finished. As a result of 100 degree heat, more than two thirds of the participants did not finish, yet Jen persevered. The Burkinabe were inspired by Jens efforts, and they responded by inspiring her. Jen described the support she received throughout the race as phenomenal. Among the bystanders, there was an electricity and a buzz following Jen on the course, and the generally reserved Burkinabe loudly cheered Jen as she passed. As word of her progress spread throughout the course, the crowds increased, and the large crowd at the finish rewarded Jen with a standing ovation.

"Many people made it clear that it would be okay to drop out if I couldnt keep up, if I couldnt finish. So I can only imagine their surprise when the 'white girl' not only managed to finish all 42 kilometers, but also finished before many, many men," said Jen of her marathon experience. "Running that race was probably one of the hardest things I've ever done, but it was also one of the most satisfying as both a personal accomplishment, and as a way to show the Burkinabe that yes, women (American or otherwise) can do anything a man can do. I can only hope that my performance that day shared a little bit of American athleticism, and inspired Burkinabe women to take part in future races."

Jen and a male Burkinabe student from University of Ouaga met on the course and, in a wonderful cross-cultural gesture, ran the entire 26 miles together. Both insisted that they would not have finished without support from the other.

After finishing, Jen was treated like a celebrity. She was swamped with requests for interviews, and her photo and profile appeared in most of the local papers in the days that followed. Despite being in the midday sun and 100 degree temperatures for two hours after finishing a marathon, she answered every question with a smile. One of those questions was: "What will Jen do with her (modest) winnings?" The answer was that she will be donating them to her community to install fencing around the local garden.

Peace Corps Burkina Faso has a program of 20 Volunteers dedicated to gender equity. Among their activities, Volunteers work to build the self-esteem and self-confidence of school-aged girls by designing and implementing tutoring and mentoring programs, girls clubs, and life skills activities such as communication skills and personal goal setting and planning. They also improve schools and community environments by making them become more girl-friendly and build the capacities of parent associations so that parents, most especially mothers, are better equipped to advocate for girls education and empowerment and to take leadership positions in their communities.

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