Former Hawkeye runner helps women in Burundi find athletics

BY TOM CLOS | OCTOBER 05, 2012 6:30 AM

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It’s tough to find something fun to do while growing up in one of the poorest nations on the planet.

It’s even tougher when you’re repeatedly punished once you’ve found it.

And such is life for a female in the small African nation of Burundi.

So former University of Iowa long-distance runner and two-time Olympian Diane Nukuri-Johnson has traveled to Africa to organize an athletic event to shed light on the opportunities sports can provide for young Burundians. The event this weekend includes two races: a 5K for women and a 10K for men.

“I basically want to show young kids that even though they all live in Burundi, it doesn’t mean they can’t one day make it out and do something special with their lives,” Nukuri-Johnson said. “I also want to keep the sport of running growing and possibly find new talents here.”

The ex-Hawkeye hopes that not only this weekend’s race but also her personal journey will encourage the country’s youth to embrace the liberties athletics can yield.

After all, she’s been in their shoes.

The native Burundian was discouraged from participating in any athletics event deemed for men and was repeatedly punished by her mother for running while growing up. She was raised under the philosophy that women are meant to take care of a family and make sure the home is comfortable for their husbands.

Somehow, though, Nukuri-Johnson was able to wade through that culture and make it to North America, where she flourished. The runner enjoyed an accomplished career at the UI, and she has twice represented her native land in the Summer Olympics, including this past August, where she carried the Burundian flag into the opening ceremony in London.

Being a female athlete in Burundi is rare, and Nukuri-Johnson is one of the country’s most famous athletes.

“I’ll walk into a village, and they’ll recognize me from the Olympics,” she said. “It’s good to see that the children have some idea of how sports can change their lives, but again, most of them aren’t allowed to participate.”

She had thought about putting on an event like this for several months prior to the Olympics, but it wasn’t until she returned to the Summer Olympics this past year that she put the idea in motion.

“The idea was really small before the Olympics, but afterwards, I figured, ‘Let’s do it,’ ” she said. “Just seeing how really positive people were about me representing Burundi in London encouraged me more and drove me to go through with this.”

Nukuri-Johnson headed straight from the United Kingdom to her homeland, taking advantage of the free flight to anywhere in the world that is offered to athletes following each Olympics, determined to follow through with her cause.

The event is set to take place in the small, one-street village of Ijenda, 3 to 5 miles from where Nukuri-Johnson grew up.

There was only one problem: She had no money to back the idea and neither did anyone in the country.

Burundi’s almost 9 million inhabitants seem too large for a country with one of the lowest per capita gross domestic products in the world.

Ronald McMullen, a native of Iowa and University of Iowa alumnus who has served as the U.S. ambassador to Eritrea, said the developing country of Burundi was not only one of the poorest on the planet but also one of the most quarrelsome.

“Burundi has had terrible civil wars between ethnic groups for a number of years,” said McMullen, whose UI Ph.D. dissertation covered the economic effects of coups d’état in Africa and who is now a UI visiting associate professor of political science. “International peacekeepers have since resolved the fighting, but tension remains high, and in turn, society is very poor.”

Nukuri-Johnson traveled to one of the few well-developed cities in Burundi, going to several financial institutions asking for contributions.

She said even though banks have the funds to help, they still frequently gave her the run-around when she finished her sales pitch.

“I’ve been trying to get at least $3,000 to $4,000 U.S., which should be enough to run everything,” she said. “But when you go to the banks, they tell you, ‘Oh you know, this isn’t a good time, or we don’t have any money.’ ”

Nukuri-Johnson expects to hear back from several of the banks before the race, but the difficulty in raising funds forced her to turn to husband Alex Johnson.

Johnson, a former reporter and editor at The Daily Iowan and current UI law student, has taken to Facebook, mass emails and old-fashioned personal conversations with friends and family to try to build monetary support.

Nukuri-Johnson said her spouse has raised more than $1,000 from family and friends in the States and said she couldn’t get over his successful fundraising given how late the planning for the event started.

“Alex has actually done most of the legwork,” Nukuri-Johnson said. “He’s done so much for me and has raised more money than I would have ever imagined in a month.”

Her husband insisted he doesn’t deserve much credit for his efforts and that Nukuri-Johnson is doing most of the work because she’s actually in Africa. The reception he and his wife have received from their American friends has been quite the surprise, he said.

“The fact that people are supporting this cause the way they have is phenomenal,” he said. “And, hopefully, in the community, we can one day start something here that will directly support the races she puts on in Burundi.”

The couple said they had raised more money than they initially expected, and the event is slated to go off as scheduled.

“We didn’t set a fundraising goal, but if we had, we would have already passed it,” Johnson said. “We’ve gotten quite a bit of donations.”

One of the couple’s personal contributions was from Nukuri-Johnson’s coach from 2006-08 and current Iowa women’s track & field skipper Layne Anderson.

Anderson worked with the Burundian leading up to the 2012 Summer Olympics, and he said he knew how she was raised and how her running is indicative of how she handled the adversity of a male-dominated society.

“I’m well aware of her background having recruited, coached and grown close to her over the past couple of years,” Anderson said. “She’s talented, a hard worker, and just has a natural ability to run.”

The Hawkeye coach pointed out that female runners from poor nations similar to Burundi are few and far between in the U.S. college ranks, which served as added motivation for him to give his support. He said he ultimately donated to the cause not only because it was a good idea but because the event had the opportunity to jump-start the winds of transformation in a developing country.

“She’s got a real cultural challenge in trying to put this thing on, but if you can change one person, you have a chance to change many,” Anderson said. “So hopefully, this is something that sparks a difference in how the athletics society is in Burundi.”

Johnson believes his wife’s plan carries larger implications than just getting people involved in sports.

“We’re talking like the turn of the 20th century in the U.S. — that’s what her country is like,” he said. “The opportunities are that minimal for female athletes.”

He has no qualms about the event making a difference, based on his spouse’s will.

“Diane is a very savvy person; she gets things done that she wants to get done,” Johnson said. “And she’ll find a way to make sure this thing gets done.”

Nukuri-Johnson is just happy to be home, see some family members, and, hopefully, make a dent in the society she endured for the early part of her life.

“Even if I wasn’t running, I’ve always wanted to do some charity work in Burundi,” Nukuri-Johnson said. “After all, it’s where I come from.”

Where she comes from is what she calls a society of discrimination, but it’s a type of persecution that Johnson said isn’t personal, it’s just the way of life in a small mid-African country.

A way of life his wife conquered.

“It wasn’t that Diane’s mother didn’t want her to succeed; it wasn’t that kind of thing,” Johnson said. “It was because in Burundi, women athletes simply didn’t work … but Diane made it work.”

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