In late October, tech industry executive and avid athlete Rhonda Vetere participated with eight other women in the inaugural Serengeti Girls’ Run—a 55-mile, five-day journey through the Serengeti in Tanzania. The goal of this new conversation initiative, co-hosted by the Singita Grumeti Fund and Singita, both of which are invested in preserving African communities and wildlife, was to raise money to support the next generation of female leaders through education, scholarships, building life skills, internships, and training.
Donations from the fall run allowed the Singita Grumeti Fund to host three girls’ empowerment events for more than 1100 local high school girls. At the events, they delved into an array of important topics, ranging from reproductive health and menstruation to career development and confidence-building.
The young girls weren’t the only ones who benefited from this unique experience. Below, Vetere shares her personal story of this life-changing adventure as told to writer Cassie Shortsleeve.
When I first arrived, the 400 girls were all lined up in their uniforms. They looked so professional—long skirts, maroon sweaters, shoes, purses. Most of all, I noticed their quietness. They didn’t seem free. I wanted them to be able to express themselves. Knowing that many of them had short hair, I took off my baseball hat and let my long hair down. They all went crazy.
Before I began my keynote speech, I could feel the energy. I had them say, “I am beautiful,” then got them hugging each other and dancing. I had them repeat “I’m beautiful” once again and added the chant, “I can do it.”
Afterward, altogether, we ran 3.8 kilometers. The girls were singing, dancing, running, and asking questions about the upcoming five-day run across the Serengeti. They were thirsty for details and so smart. The next day, the challenging multi-day, 55-mile run kicked off.
When I had visited the Serengeti, staying at various Singita Resorts in June, I had met a female guard named Helen. I was so moved by her that I requested that she join us on this run. She is one of the only female guards to work for the government. When I saw her, she hugged me tightly and told me how thankful she was just to be a part of this.
I have to admit, the first three miles of the Serengeti run were overstimulating. This is not Central Park in New York City. It’s not what I’m used to. We were running with guards, protecting us from wildlife, including the big five, like lions, buffalo, and elephants.
But then, I got into the groove. Folks’ energy levels eventually calmed down, evening out, and we all broke off, running at our own paces. We all got into our zones. The middle of the Serengeti is so tranquil, inviting us to focus. I tried to lift my head up and enjoy the moment.
Training is a big part of my life, but 55 miles was nothing to blink at. It was challenging. At times, I thought, ‘I don’t want to get injured. The terrain is different.‘ You have to watch out for rocks and mud. But my mind was also with the girls and the run we had done the day before.
I made close bonds with women, who were initially strangers, too. One of the women, the only local female running the 55-mile distance, wanted to give up during a part of the run. I ran with her and repeated, “You’re not giving up.” After the run, she sent me a message saying “thank you” for the encouragement to keep going. She was so proud of herself. Me, too! A communal effort can be very powerful and motivating. We all came to this event from different places and we are now bonded for life.
That’s what’s sticking with me: After the journey is complete, what you’ve accomplished hits you.
I traveled 237 days overseas internationally last year for work, but this re-entry to my NYC life has been different. I ran a race no one has ever done before, connected with people and organizations that want to make a difference, took a leap of faith, and immersed myself in nature. Now, I’m back in my concrete jungle and, somehow, I feel more connected to everything. All that active meditation in a wonderful place with genuine people, opened my mind to appreciate experiences far more greater than “things,” which is a good feeling to having entering the holiday season. This wasn’t just a run in the Serengeti with lions. This was a bigger event holistically.
Looking back, one moment stands out the most. It was during the community run with the school girls. Out of the blue, one came up to me and grabbed my hand. We ran three miles together singing a Beyonce song in Swahili. I wouldn’t let go of her tiny palm and neither would she. You could feel the pulsing, the sweatiness, that “I am free” feeling. She had this big, beautiful smile. Her eyes were sparkling. The girls’ energy, I have no doubt, will carry them.
For me, at the end of the day, I’m thankful. You could give yourself a million reasons to cancel out of things—we’re all busy in life—but these are the moments you have to embrace and be present for.
I’m taking each moment one second at a time right now, channeling energy to make a difference to the bottom line at work and in other people’s lives.
Video Courtesy of Black Bean Productions