“My brother used to cover for me, and tell my mom I was visiting my grandma when I was out running,” says Diane Nukuri. “But people in the village would tell on me—‘I saw your daughter running. Such a shame.’”
Nukuri, six-foot-fierce, a hundred-and-don’t-care, is from the African nation of Burundi but lives in the U.S. This past weekend, the 32-year-old professional runner went to work in the New York City Marathon, finishing in ninth place with a 2:31:21 time.
She holds Burundian national records at 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s a national hero. Running—sports in general—is not the cultural norm. Girls are expected to help around the house, “then be a wife and go to the supermarket,” Nukuri says. She tells me she still gets criticized for not living a more traditional life, and for “running around not wearing anything,” referring to the swimsuit-like uniform she wears for racing.
Successful African women—heck, successful women everywhere—have heard it before: They’re hailed for being successful and at the same time criticized for being independent and having non-traditional ambitions, for breaking with cultural norms—the very characteristics that bought them success.
“I’ve never been the type of person who cares what people think,” Nukuri says. “It’s a personality thing. I’ve always been stubborn and knew what I needed to do in order to achieve my goals. I knew eventually my mom would understand. When [Burundian] people say, ‘That’s not our culture,’ I say, I’m Burundian, I’ll always be Burundian. It doesn’t matter what I do or wear.”
As the fifth of eight children growing up in a rural village, Nukuri had plenty of household responsibilities, especially after her father was killed in 1993, at the beginning of what was to be a 15-year civil war.
“I started running at 13 but really, I’d been training all my life—going to get water, going to get food, walk a couple miles to school, walk everywhere. Your mom is not dropping you off. It was an active lifestyle. I always said, ‘I wish I had a car.’ Now I’m thankful I didn’t have one,” says Nukuri.
From the very first, running was a way to get somewhere, beyond the village. A gym teacher at her school said he’d take the top three girls to a 3K race in another province. “As a girl in the village, that was the only opportunity to go anywhere,” she says. “To ride in a car, have someone buy me a soda—it was really fun, an adventure.”
Even trips to a neighboring province were enough to give her a glimpse of what was out there. But it took a special sort of person—resilient, thick-sklnned, and determined—to endure the discouragement the village meted out. “The other girls [who went to those competitions], they all stopped running. They went back to the village. I’m the only one still running.”
Training on the down-low—Nukuri says she got in trouble if her mom found out she was running—she was talented enough to represent Burundi in the 2000 Olympics at 5,000 meters. She was 15 years old. “I didn’t have the time standard, but since there was no one else, Burundi was able to send one up-and-comer,” she recalls.
Nukuri also twice represented Burundi internationally at World Cross Country, adding fuel to her desire for something more than village life. As the Hutu-Tutsi violence got closer and closer to home, she made a plan to escape via running—from the country, the violence, and a traditional life. After competing in the 2001 Francophone Games in Ottawa, Canada, Nukuri phoned a cousin who lived nearby, and simply didn’t return to Burundi. She was penniless, 16 years old, spoke no English and only a little French.
She recalled the next three years as rough—homesick, worried about her family, and trying desperately to get up to speed in language, academics, and culture. But she kept running, which was a lot safer and more acceptable in her new home. She posted some impressive times, impressive enough to catch the attention of U.S. college coaches, including Layne Anderson from the University of Iowa.
As usual, Nukuri knew what she wanted. Thirteen years later, Anderson is still her coach, she still lives in the U.S. As of September 15th, she is a U.S. citizen.
Nukuri saw her family again for the first time since 2001 when she returned for a visit in 2009. She’s gone back four times since then to visit family and try to inspire other women to walk their own way. Like any local girl who makes good on the world stage, going home is a mixed bag.
Her mom has come around to the whole running thing, and is proud of her daughter’s accomplishments. She also digs the brand name gifts. “I buy her whatever she wants—jackets, shoes, like these,” Nukuri says, pointing to her neon pink trainers.
Her family has accepted her individuality; and she has come to appreciate the logic of traditional Burundian culture. “When I go back, I wear a long dress. There’s a time and place for everything—when I’m racing, I wear my work uniform, because that’s my job. But when I’m in Burundi, I want to respect the culture.”
While it’s still difficult for women to run there, Burundians are aware of the global success of Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, and of their own 2016 Olympic silver medalist at 800 meters, Francine Nyonsaba. Nukuri sees more girls running and more acceptance of girls doing sports in her home country. But she’s not sure girls from the village fully understand what she’s done to get where she is.
“They see pictures of me at races and say, ‘You’re so lucky.’ They don’t understand what it takes to maintain a job, to be a collegiate runner. They don’t understand what I have to do as a professional runner. It has nothing to do with luck. Nothing is for free. You have to surround yourself with people who work really hard, so you aren’t the one not going to work. Those are the people you should listen to, the people who should influence you,” she says.
Nukuri has lived in the “free,” developed world since 2001. In that time, she’s learned that Africa is not the only place women are controlled by culture.
“Conservative, controlling people are everywhere. There are people here [in the U.S.] wanting me to be traditional,” she says. “That opened my eyes. I never thought people here were like that. Everyone comes off as, ‘I’m totally independent. I’m for a woman doing whatever she wants.’ That’s not necessarily true. It’s just more subtle here. I like the fact that back home you know what’s expected. It may be misogynistic, but it’s overt. You know what you’re dealing with.”
Having just received U.S. citizenship, Nukuri reflected on the bittersweet dichotomy of both always and never truly belonging to the tribe of her birth, and on finding her own people.
“I love running, but more than that, I love that you meet people, you get to travel. I just want to be somewhere I can be free and be myself. I’m a free spirit. You can’t be too attached to your family. If you know what you want, you have to say, I’m going to do it, even if that means leaving. I don’t blame my mom [for discouraging her from running], but I’m glad I never listened to her,” she says.