My dream of a club that can get the community active has finally been realised
The Big Half is London’s community half marathon. It is both a festival of running and a celebration of the wonderful diversity of our capital city. In a series of features, we meet some of the people who are helping to bring London’s unique identity to the event on Sunday 3 September.
Mohammed Ismail is the founder of Uffo Athletic and Leisure Group, a south London organisation that spearheads running, walking and football sessions for all but with a focus on the city’s Somalian and East African communities.
Uffo is a Somali word which is hard to translate exactly into English because it describes a sensation that is quite unique to that part of the world. It is the word we use to describe the lovely smell you get just before rain arrives. In the Horn of Africa where it is hot and arid, the rain is welcome and Uffo is a metaphor for something good coming.
Just as the wait for the rain in the Horn is often long, so has been the creation of the Uffo Athletic and Leisure Group but now it is here, it certainly has been something very good.
I’ve had the dream of setting up a community club for the Somalian and Horn of Africa diaspora in London for many, many years but it was the Covid pandemic that was the catalyst for me getting round to doing it and when Uffo Athletic was born.
There is a big Somalian diaspora in London but the community is under-represented in community sports here and that did not sit well with me. There are cultural barriers we have to overcome to help our community be active. I have been a runner all of my life and a member of clubs here and I do know about this. For example, part of the running club culture here is to go to the pub afterwards and that is not something that can work in a Muslim community.
This is something I wanted to address. I wanted a club or organisation where everyone was welcome and that is what Uffo Athletic is. We are predominantly for the Somalian, East African and Muslim diaspora but we have people from all cultures join us. We are open to all and have a set up that is based on our own experience, culture and values.
We have natural talent for running middle and long-distance events. We just need to organise ourselves and get our children into physical activity and encourage it.
We have had 120 children, aged between seven and 17, taking part in athletics and football camps during school holidays which is amazing and we’ve got an adult running group of close to 40 which ranges from people who just want to take part in local Parkrun events to top distance runners, in fact we had a new member join a few months ago who has run a marathon in two hours and 21 minutes! Equally important, our runners’ background range from recently arrived refugees to members of the judiciary and we always go for a coffee or tea afterwards.
At The Big Half this year, we’ve got 20 runners taking part (myself included!) and we’re really looking forward to it. I did The Big Half in 2018, the very first one, and it’s a fantastic event and a way to connect with diaspora people. Just last year, we connected with a team in the New Balance Big Relay which included two sisters. Those sisters are now part of our running group which is brilliant and, we hope to encourage other women to come and join us.
Next year, I hope we can not only have a team of runners in The Big Half, but to bring teams to the New Balance Big Relay and a group of children to do The Big Mile and that will really show how we have grown since we were formed.
Of course, there is one very famous member of the Somali diaspora who knows The Big Half very well and will be the star attraction this year and that is Sir Mo Farah.
Mo is an icon for us and a great example. He is your typical Somalian. He comes from no great tradition of running in his family and has gone on to be an Olympic and World Champion. I know him a little bit but I am fascinated to learn about what Mo has inside that saw him progress when others fell by the wayside. That is not talent alone, that is mental strength and fortitude.
I know he has a few races left before retirement, including The Big Half, and has much bigger priorities but I will certainly be trying to pick his brains when he is retired. He is an inspiration to us all.
For more information on the Uffo Athletics and Leisure Group, visit the UFFO Athletic and Leisure Group website.