From Burundi to Canada to Kansas to Iowa, a star runner chases her dream.
When Diane Nukuri left her native Burundi for the Francophone Games in Canada, she told her family she wouldn’t be back. That was six years ago, and Nukuri—a distance runner who had competed for Burundi in the 2000 Olympics—was only 16.
“I wanted to keep running and going to school, and I didn’t know if I could safely do that back home,” she says. So after arriving in Canada, Nukuri called an emigrant cousin she’d never met, persuaded the woman to take her in, and slipped away from her teammates.
Nukuri’s flight wasn’t an escape so much as a pursuit. In fall 2006, her quest brought her to The University of Iowa, where she enrolled as a communication studies major and immediately became a standout athlete.
The drive that carried Nukuri some 8,000 miles from home also characterizes her racing style. “Diane isn’t afraid of anybody,” says Layne Anderson, Nukuri’s coach for cross country and track. “She wants to run as hard as she can for as long as she can, so we’ve been working on her patience and pacing.”
“Growing up, we’d run to school and everywhere else,” Nukuri recalls. Her mother tried to discourage her from competition, thinking it inappropriate for a girl to participate in sports. Her views eventually changed, but other challenges held fast.
Like its African neighbor Rwanda, Burundi was torn by civil strife. Nukuri’s father was killed in the conflict, and she and her siblings—five sisters, two brothers—grew up in the shadow of war.
“There were times when we had to leave our house and hide,” Nukuri says. “When I would go to the capital to compete, we’d sometimes need soldiers with us.”
With strong support from one of her brothers, she decided to chase her dreams abroad. Her Canadian cousin was surprised and a little wary at first, but she helped Nukuri obtain resident status and enroll in school.
Anderson ran across Nukuri’s name on a note in his new office after joining the UI coaching staff in 2003. He visited her in Toronto, and the two soon established a bond.
Fluent in Kirundi and French, Nukuri spoke little English. To boost her language skills and academic credentials, Anderson suggested Butler Community College in Kansas, where she studied and ran for two years before transferring to Iowa.
Nukuri hasn’t seen her family since summer 2001, and she talks to her mother only a few times a year. She reaches her brother more often, but although conditions in Burundi have improved, communications remain spotty.
“When I call and can’t get through, it’s hard to concentrate on anything,” Nukuri says. “I keep hoping my phone will ring, but it never does.”
Her teammates have become a surrogate family, and for them, Nukuri is an inspiration. “She’s a living, breathing example of why the little things that trouble us day to day aren’t such a big deal,” Anderson says.
Nukuri intends to keep running after graduation in 2008. “I’d like to compete professionally,” she says, adding that she plans to become a Canadian citizen. But she also hopes to eventually return home.
“I really want to run for my country, too,” she says, noting that at the moment she can't. “No matter where I go and who I run for, I’m still Burundian.”
Story by Lin Larson; Photo by Tim Schoon
July 30, 2007