BUEA, CAMEROON – Sarah Liengu Etonge, 47, did not finish primary school because her family could not afford it. Married at a young age and a mother by the time she turned 14, she says she relied on her first husband for financial support.
But he died when her youngest child was still a toddler, she says. Suddenly, she found herself unable to provide for her seven children in Buea, the capital of Cameroon’s Southwest region.
Desperate, she registered for one of Cameroon’s premier sporting events: the Race of Hope. Winners claim a significant monetary prize.
The annual race loops around the summit of Mount Cameroon, an active volcano that is also West Africa’s highest peak. The course is approximately 42 kilometers (26.1 miles).
“The death of my husband, coupled with the burden of looking after seven children, forced me to enroll as an athlete for the Mount Cameroon Race of Hope,” Etonge says. “When I registered, I was determined I was going to make it someday because I needed the money to take care of my seven children.”
She took a chance on her athletic ability, she says, and it paid off. She won first place, taking home 1.5 million Central African francs ($3,000).
Etonge says that she does not have a good mind for years, dates and times. But there is one thing she does know: She has run the grueling course 10 times and has won seven of them.
The Regional Delegation of Sports and Physical Education for the South West Region confirmed that Etonge won the race seven times.
In 2005, race organizers decreed that any racer who wins first place three times in a row would assume the title of King or Queen of the Mountain. Thanks to Etonge’s four consecutive wins between 1996 and 1999, she became the only participant, male or female, to earn the race’s royal title.
“Even though I did not go to school,” she says with a broad smile, “God has made me to use my talent as an athlete to become successful in life.”
Despite multiple wins, Etonge withdrew from the race following the homicide of her son in 2009. The trauma of his death, which remains unresolved, kept her from competing for three years, she says.
But in February 2013, the Queen of the Mountain returned to the Race of Hope in a triumphant comeback to win second place. In addition to the prize money, Ethiopian Airlines gave her tickets for a trip to Paris.
The Ministry of Sports and Physical Education, in partnership with the Cameroon Athletics Federation, organizes the Race of Hope once a year.
The first three men and women to finish win monetary prizes. Winners now take home 3 million francs ($6,000). Competitors win 2 million francs ($4,000) for second place and 1 million francs ($2,000) for third place.
Etonge’s feats have not only lifted her and her family from poverty. They have also inspired her community.
Thomas Ngomba, 59, a resident of Buea, says he wakes up early on race day each year to watch Etonge take off up the mountain and waits to watch her return.
“Sarah Etonge has made me to understand that you can use your talent to make money,” he says. “She did not go to school, but she has become famous and rich thanks to the mountain race.”
In 2008, Chantal Biya, Cameroon’s first lady, included Etonge in a ceremony honoring high-achieving Cameroonian women.
“It was a thing of joy for me to be decorated among professors and big businesswomen in Cameroon,” Etonge says.
Her achievements have brought stability for herself and her family, she says. Although she did not complete primary school, she is making up for lost time by taking adult literacy classes.
In 2010, official race organizers offered to buy a plot of land in Buea and build an apartment for her, she says. The minister of sports and physical education and the president of the Cameroon Athletics Federation laid the cornerstone of the home.
As Etonge grows older, some of her fans wonder whether she will ever stop running.
“At her age,” fan Julienne Tambe says, “a normal Cameroon woman is worn out by childbirth and only able to do her daily routines, not able to run a race – talk less of a mountain race. Sarah Etonge has proven to us that practice makes perfect. She is a rare talent.”
Tambe, 24, says she cannot even run for two minutes without losing her breath, so she wonders how Etonge can run for hours up a mountain.
Ngomba says that Etonge has given older women a reason to be proud.
“Sarah has achieved wonderfully, and she deserves it,” he says. “She excels in both national and international races. She deserves more for making women of her age proud, for making Cameroon proud.”
Etonge has represented Cameroon in athletic competitions around the world, including in Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Senegal, Switzerland and France.
Although the poverty of her youth is behind her and she has earned enough to support her family, Etonge says she will not consider quitting. For the lone Queen of the Mountain, the Race of Hope is about more than the prize money.
“I will continue running even at the age of 60,” she says. “It is good for me. I will continue to keep fit and not for the prize.”