Feature09 Mar 2024

Eritrea on a mission to empower female athletes


Ariam Hadish, Maria Ali Kote, Almaz Kiflom, coach Shewit Tesfagebriel, Diana Shishay, Fiori Ghebrehiwot and Snit Samson (© Michelle Katami)

To close the gender disparity gap and ensure more female athletes remain in athletics, Eritrea is on a mission to empower women.

The country has had seven female Olympians in the sport so far and the Tokyo Games had the highest representation of four female athletes. At the World Athletics Championships, performances are led by Nazret Weldu’s fourth place in the marathon and Rahel Daniel finishing fifth in the 10,000m in Oregon in 2022.

Now there are a number of rising athletes looking to follow in their footsteps.

In November, the Eritrean National Olympic Committee sent six female athletes aged between 17 and 21 to Kenya for 45 days for advanced altitude training at the Kipchoge Keino High Performance Training Centre.

The athletes – Almaz Kiflom, Diana Shishay, Maria Ali Kote, Ariam Hadish, Snit Samson and Fiori Ghebrehiwot – are under the Eritrea National Olympic Committee female empowerment programme aimed at developing women in different sports practically and technically. The goal for the group is to qualify for the African Games, the Olympic Games in Paris and the World Athletics U20 Championships Lima 24.

“We have female athletes at grassroots, and then the youth – at that level we are like half-half with the men. When we go to the juniors, we have a few remaining,” explains former athlete Shewit Tesfagebriel, who is the only female athletics coach in Eritrea. 

“It is hard to work in athletics because of the culture and financial issues. The family wants you to get married. But if you are good in school, they push you to school, not sport. When you are 18 you have to go to the military. Then most of the time they want you to get married and have children.

“We believe in gender equality. In the government, there is gender equality. I want it to be the same in sports,” she adds. “If they send four men, they send four female athletes. But for that to happen, athletes need experience in competitions outside the country, like this in Kenya.”

The 42-year-old mother of three was bestowed the responsibility to chaperone and coach the girls in Kenya. It was an opportunity she couldn’t refuse.

“It was quite hard because it's for 45 days, but when they told me that they are only female athletes, I was happy, because I don't want them to be like me. I was a good athlete in my time, but I didn't progress,” explains the coach, who is also an educator on anti-doping, nutrition, mental health and reproductive health. 

At the camp, they were inspired by Kenyan legend Kipchoge Keino, who they spent their Christmas with. They also celebrated his 84th birthday together.

Opening doors

While in Kenya, the girls trained on the track and hit the forest trails. They did fartlek, speed work and hill work sessions on the roads and incorporated gym work into their programme. They also took part in the Athletics Kenya track and field meeting in Nairobi and a cross country event in the Rift Valley.

“We lack competitions in Eritrea. When we go to the international competitions, we don't have experience. That's why we fear,” says Tesfagebriel.

On the day of the interview, training includes a track session at Kip Keino Stadium in Eldoret. With a timer in one hand, coach Tesfagebriel watches the athletes dig in their heels for sprint work on one side of the track. This is their last training session in Kenya. Their competitive spirit oozes; there is hunger to rewrite the female athletics story in Eritrea. 

“Coming to Kenya is part of learning,” says Tesfagebriel. “From the altitude, the culture, the food; everything is quite different from our country. This is their first time. They miss home, but for athletes, it's an excellent project that can open so many doors in our country. We have to be good, to change mindsets at home.”

Sprinter turned coach Tesfagebriel Shewit leads her athletes to training at Kip Keino Stadium in Eldoret

Sprinter turned coach Tesfagebriel Shewit leads her athletes to training at Kip Keino Stadium in Eldoret (© Michelle Katami)

Tesfagebriel was a sprinter between 1998 and 2007 and she represented Eritrea at the All Africa Games in Nigeria and Tunisia, as well as at the Africa Military Games and the East African Championships. When she missed out on a scholarship to the USA in 2006, she transitioned to coaching in 2007, pursuing a level-one coaching course.

“I didn’t get the chance to continue to level two due to cultural and financial issues,” she says. “A woman could not work in coaching. I stopped coaching in 2008, then I got married.”

But her husband was not oblivious to her love for athletics, and he encouraged her to return to the sport. In 2012 she became a sprints and hurdles coach, and in 2017 she was among the coaches selected to guide 10 athletes on an Olympic scholarship for the Tokyo Olympic Games. Five of the athletes – including Dolshi Tesfu – qualified for Tokyo.

“From that time, I changed my field to middle- and long-distance coaching,” she adds. “Now I am a senior coach in the country. We have 20 registered coaches in the national federation, but I am the only female coach.”

The eldest child in her family, the push was mainly on education. But Tesfagebriel’s persistence and performance in athletics bore fruit and she gained her family’s support. 

“Normally, when you are the first born, the younger ones have to follow in your footsteps, so you have to be perfect,” she says.

“You need a family that understands athletics if you want to stand on your feet. The federation and the Olympic Committee support me a lot. That's why I am standing on my feet now.” 

Standing on her feet now includes taking up the mentorship role of six young girls with grand dreams. Assisting her with coaching in Kenya was Peter Sitinei, the running coach at the Kip Keino centre.

Next steps

The camp in Kenya is homely, surrounded by green trees and plantations away from the hustle and bustle of Eldoret town. 

Among the group of six athletes is Almaz Kiflom, a runner who specialises in the 800m and 1500m and was attracted to running after watching athletics on television. 

“I have gained a lot of new experience in Kenya. Most of the time we are busy with training, so we haven't spent more time enjoying ourselves. I have improved, I competed with different strong athletes here in Kenya,” says the 18-year-old, who has competed at the East and Central African Championships in Tanzania.

“The coach is like our mother. She cooks for us, she advises us, makes fun, she does not stress us, and we do not feel lonely. My teammates are funny, we love each other. We are strong.”

This is a sentiment that her five fellow athletes endorse.

Kiflom draws inspiration from her namesake Almaz Ayana, the Ethiopian Olympic champion and two-time world champion. 

“I want to be a world champion. That's what I am striving for,” she says. “I need to work harder; I need to gain more experience like this. Then I will be strong.

“My dream for this year is to compete in the Olympics or the World Championships. If not in 2024, then 2028 for the Olympics. I want to make my country proud.” 

For her fellow 18-year-old Diana Shishay, who has completed her military training and competes in the 1500m and 5000m, training in Kenya was very progressive and empowering.

“This project will help not only us, but others in our country to improve, because we have just a few female athletes,” says Shishay, who is ever smiling and shy. “We are lagging. With this training, we are now different athletes. I want to be a special athlete this year.” 

Shishay’s talent was spotted by a coach while she was still in school. Now she harbours a dream of becoming the world U20 champion and ultimately following in the footsteps of her Eritrean heroes Tesfu and Weldu. She has competed at the East and Central Africa Championships and the African U20 Championships. 

The athletes are focused and enthusiastic, with giggles and laughter in between. Tesfagebriel – who wears the hats of a coach, big sister and mother – acts as translator for five of the girls, who are all like sisters. 

“The first thing I told them is that I was a champion in my country, but I did nothing. I don't want you to be like me,” says Tesfagebriel.

“They are female athletes; if they just miss one road, they go to the left side. So, mentoring means we have to tell them which right path they can choose.”

Tesfagebriel was at this same training camp herself in 2003 and she understands how challenging it can be for young athletes to be away from home for lengthy periods. 

“I was crying all day. I was the only female athlete with five boys. No one would understand me,” she says. “I just dream of changing athletes in my country. For them to change their life, their future – this is one step in their life.”

One of the youngest of the six athletes is Maria Ali Kote, who is 17 and quite shy. She is the national U20 record-holder in the 5km with a time of 16:18, which she achieved during her major international debut at the World Road Running Championships in Latvia in October.

“I want to be a winner and I want to improve my time,” says Kote. “I learned so many things in Kenya, sharing ideas with those different athletes.”

Weldu, Tesfu and Daniel are Kote’s role models.

“They are champions in our country, so I want to be like the three of them,” adds Kote, a member of the Setit Athletics Club. “I want to participate in the Olympic Games, that's a big dream. I want to raise the flag of Eritrea and put my name out there for my country. I want to be the best athlete for Eritrea and my club.”

Almaz Kiflom in the 1500m at the Athletics Kenya track and field meeting in Nairobi

Almaz Kiflom in the 1500m at the Athletics Kenya track and field meeting in Nairobi (© Michelle Katami)

Ariam Hadish, a 1500m and 5000m runner, is also 17. She is the most confident of the group and undertook mandatory military training after dropping out of school. 

“I love athletics. Athletics makes me happy,” she says. “I want to be an Olympic athlete. We have few Olympians, so I want to join this group of Olympians, and also be a role model for the other athletes.”

Her role models are Ethiopia's four Dibaba athletes, who she dreams of meeting, and in Eritrea the Debesay cycling family of six siblings. She also keenly follows Weldu, Tesfu and Daniel. The first born in her family, Hadish’s three siblings are runners, too.

“I want us to be a group of athletes from one family representing Eritrea, like the Dibabas or Debesays,” she says. “I want us to be referred to as the Hadish family runners.”

The athletics journey for most Eritrean athletes commences during the bi-annual school games held by the Ministry of Education. The robust school competition in athletics, basketball, volleyball, football and other sports attracts a large number of athletes, but female athletes tend to drop out along the way. 

“The culture in our country is quite different; you have to stay with your family even if you are 30. So, it's quite hard to leave your family,” says coach Tesfagebriel. “That means you are disobeying them. That's why we are lagging. But these days, the gates are open, they are given a choice.”

Snit Samson and Fiori Ghebrehiwot are the other two athletes involved in the project and 17-year-old Samson knows the female empowerment project will open doors for Eritrean female athletes.

Snit means love and she says she loves athletics from her heart. As a child, Samson loved to run and jump around, and her family advised her to try running.

“The federation believed in us, they sent us to Kenya so that we can do our best,” adds Samson, a 400m and 800m runner.

“The weather, the altitude, the food – everything at first was very tough for me. But we had a plan and aim to be good athletes, we controlled the feeling of being homesick.”

Samson is confident that she will follow in the footsteps of her Eritrean idol Tesfu and the Dutch star Sifan Hassan. She led the Eritrean relay team to fifth place at the Athletics Kenya meeting in Nairobi – her second time competing outside of Eritrea following the African U20 Championships in Zambia.

A 5000m and 10,000m specialist, Ghebrehiwot is 21, the eldest of the six and like a big sister. 

She has learned what she needs to do to become a champion like her idol Letesenbet Gidey, the 2022 10,000m champion, and Tesfu and Weldu.

“I am happy being with this group of athletes because we have worked hard and shared ideas,” says Ghebrehiwot, who is in the Ministry of Defence and who finished ninth in the 5000m at the 2021 World U20 Championships in Nairobi. “We all want to be role models in our country so that others can learn something from us."

The group leaves a deep impression of girls who are united by a common goal and commitment to excel and shape the future of female athletics in Eritrea. 

Their dream is to raise Eritrea's flag high and keep it flying. Already two – Kiflom (400m/800m) and Ghebrehiwot (10,000m) – will fly their flag at the upcoming African Games in Ghana. The six are yet to qualify for the Paris Olympic Games but they are training with the national team with the hope that they will make it.

Michelle Katami for World Athletics