Postcard from ... Addis Ababa

I’m standing with three strangers in the centre of a 40-strong circle, a mug of beer in my hand and excited chatter in my ears. A grey-haired Ethiopian in mud-caked trainers is holding his beer bottle aloft. “When we say down, you have to drink it quick. If it doesn’t go here” – he gestures to his mouth – “it will go on here”. He pats his head.

It’s a typical Saturday afternoon with the Addis Ababa Hash House Harriers, a running club, of sorts. Every week, come rain or shine, old hands and new recruits gather at the Addis Hilton before piling into cars and heading off to run, or walk, at that week’s scenic destination: perhaps the stunning willow-lined slopes of the Entoto mountains to the north or the eastern fringe of the city, where there are panoramic views.

But running’s only half the fun, which is just as well, since today the views are not so magnificent. The incoming rainy season has dulled the skies and churned up the hilly trail into mud – and that’s before the heavens open. Luckily, the post-run ritual is also a sight to see.

It revolves around the “Hash circle” – the merry forum wherein runners, leaders and cheaters find themselves praised, punished and, mainly, heckled good-humouredly. First up: the “hares”, who set out first, leaving a paper trail for the following main group of runners – who today are not entirely satisfied. “Too dry!” someone jokes. “Too flat!” The punishment: kneeling and drinking, accompanied by the crowd’s chants and the singing of the Hash “choir” – an enthusiastic dozen whose effect is more football match than cathedral. Hash “virgins”, old hands who are about to leave and those who took short cuts on the run are, in turn, herded into the middle and invited to down their drink of choice.

But regular Hashers are by no means left out: the day ends, as always, with a mass migration to a favourite drinking hole to reward their hard work with a pint or three. It’s here that Glyn Riley, a Briton who helps run the group, sums it up: “Addis Hash is a drinking club with a running problem.”

And so it should be, as a chapter of the global Hash House community dedicated to exercise and ale alike. The movement was born in 1938 when a group of British colonial officers and expats in Kuala Lumpur started a Monday run to atone for their dissolute weekends – and then rewarded their efforts with another drink. The group’s constitution lists four aims: “To promote physical fitness among our members; to get rid of weekend hangovers; to acquire a good thirst and to satisfy it in beer; and to persuade the older members that they are not as old as they feel.” The organisation remained small until 1962, when another group, or “kennel”, was established in Singapore, after which it spread throughout the world. There are now more than 1,700 kennels, including two in Antarctica, and a biennial international gathering, “interhash” (the next being in Hainan, China).

The Addis Hash was started in 1981 by a group of friends including 10 teachers at Sandford, a British international school, and has grown to include a devoted mix of Ethiopians and expats, young and old. “It makes it easy to find friends when you’re new in Addis,” says Marion Gruber, a non-governmental organisation worker from Vienna. “It’s a really friendly atmosphere and you get to see parts of the city you couldn’t by yourself.” For many, it’s clearly much more than a run and a drink: it’s a language, a brand, and, most of all, a community. Members sport a colourful variety of T-shirts, jackets and bags carrying the group’s logo; they volunteer in the MisManagement, as its committee is known; and they master its parlance, from the circle songs to the “On! On!” shouts of mid-run motivation. Initiates even get their own Hash nicknames (which in many kennels are as insulting and politically incorrect as possible).

It may not be quite the thing for any future Haile Gebrselassie but the Addis Hash is a memorable addition to Ethiopia’s illustrious running tradition. Even if, as our post-Hash drinking session draws to a close, it’s clear some of the participants might not be able to remember too much about it.

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