Topping the most read chart over at the BBC News website this morning is a report from Tim Franks titled ‘Burundi: Where jogging is a crime’.
The article explains how running has been banned by Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza, fearing it was being used as a cover for subversion in a country with a long history of ethnic conflict. Rather, the people of the city of Bujumbura, gripped by fear, frustration and claustrophobia started to run in large groups as a means to vent such feelings. Regardless, the practice of jogging is now criminalised in Burundi, with some people spending lengthy sentences in prison because of it.
Influencing the acceptability of activities?
The legality of running something that really grabs my attention as a geographer (and runner; and a running-geographer). It links to wider questions regarding the acceptability of certain practices and activities in particular places and times. Obviously this is an extreme and direct example of how such activities and those that undertake them are designated as in-place or out-of-place, as belonging or alienated. Yet not all influences or clues about such designation are quite so palpable – but they are certainly there to be explored.
The influences on constructing activities as acceptable or otherwise can broadly (and simplistically) divided into ones that assert their influences from the ‘top down’ or the ‘bottom up’. Top down influences include statutes and the legality of activities but can also be found in the policies of various governments, messages spread through film, music, literature and other cultural media as well as through the physical design of places. For example, the increasing use of ‘hostile architecture‘ such as homeless spikes and anti-skateboarding benches are a means by which to physically influence behaviours and lead to the exclusion of particular people and activities. The bottom up influences are centred around how people who do particular practices experience them and what the reaction of others to such practices are – e.g. how do runners and pedestrians encounter each other.
Is running an acceptable activity?
Before the running-boom of the 1960s and 1970s, jogging certainly was not a commonplace activity and running is public places could see you brandished as mad. In some cases, running was even discouraged as this surreal and comic-book public information broadcast from 1978 demonstrates:
Much has changed since that video – running is a hugely common practice and even our political leaders encourage us to do it and do it themselves. This does not means that runners are totally accepted however. In previous work I have used head cameras to look at the meeting of pedestrians and runners on the street. This showed that runners, almost all the time, are the ones who have to take responsibility for ensuring the encounters pass without incident. Runners are the ones who must change their direction, reduce their speeds and disrupt their rhythms as they twist, shake and shimmie around pedestrians and the physical space. This implies that pedestrians are in a position of power on the street, with a prior claim to the space resulting in runners being subordinate and thus the ones having to make concessions in the favour of others.
I am just at the beginning of my MA dissertation, which was going to explore how running and runners have been constructed as in-place or out-of-place in much wider terms – combining the experiences on the street with wider discourses about running in film, policy, media, literature, statues etc. I have since changed my topic (more on that another time), but it is still something I hope to explore over the course of my PhD. It would certainly be interesting to see how such influences and narratives about the acceptability of running has impact or affects those who run and those who encounter runners.