Kenyans have a well-deserved reputation as outstanding runners – they dominate long-distance running around the globe. In 2013, for example, as noted in the NPR article “How One Tribe Produces the World’s Best Runners,” the Berlin Marathon was won by a Kenyan. “But perhaps equally remarkable was that his fellow Kenyans also came in second, third, fourth and fifth place in this major international race. On the women’s side, Kenyans placed first, second, and fourth…. Two weeks later in Chicago, Kenyan runner Dennis Kimetto broke the course record there – after only having run for four years. Next in line behind him? Three more Kenyans.”
The article continues, “while we tend to think of Kenyans as really good distance runners, all these runners are actually from the same tribe of Kenyans known as the Kalenjin…. ‘There are 17 American men in history who have run under 2:10 in the marathon,’ Epstein says. ‘There were 32 Kalenjin who did it in October of 2011.’”
Even more fun are the many anecdotal stories that celebrate their global reputation. Chris, one of our team members was told of a t-shirt that said, “In my next life, I want to run like a Kenyan!” Lance, another team member and avid runner, got a chuckle about half-way through a San Diego marathon when he saw a large sign with an arrow that said, “The Kenyans went that way –> .”
Our Kalenjin Project Director, Abraham, is one of the lucky few who was a good enough runner to escape the grinding poverty of Kalenjin country, but too few are able to do so. It is those that are left behind that burden Abraham’s heart. His deep desire is to turn his community into a place that people don’t feel they need to escape. A place where his tribe doesn’t go hungry, where children can get an education, where those who get sick can access care. That will take money, and what better way to raise money than to capitalize on the running achievements of the Kalenjin? With running tourism becoming popular, he wants to develop a running tourist camp that will revive and celebrate Kalenjin culture while raising funds to lift Kalenjin villages out of poverty.
Although I am primarily responsible for designing the cultural side of the camp, I felt I shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to experience the running side of the camp as well, and Abraham offered to set me up with his sister as my Kalenjin “coach”. I take my dogs running 2 or 3 times a week, typically running about 1/20th of one mile at a time. If I push myself to the point of DEATH I can even run an entire MILE without stopping and do so in less than 13 minutes! I feel a bit intimidated by his sister. Perhaps a Kalenjin grandmother would be more my speed?
I think back to an experience I had several years ago. My daughters joined me on a visit to Meru, Kenya, and we happened to arrive at the time of bean harvest. We were invited to join a group of grandmothers who were harvesting the beans, and we eagerly accepted. The first step was gathering up the bean plants – shriveled and brown at this point. The plants were stacked into huge piles on top of tarps, and then the real work began. With long, heavy sticks the women beat the piles until the beans eventually separated from their husks.
My daughters were the first to try beating the beans. All the grandmothers beat hard and in unison. My daughters had trouble keeping to the pace and, being out of synch, often knocked the sticks out of the grandmothers’ hands. The grandmothers, laughing, chided them, not only for their slow speed, but for their weak strokes. Now it was my turn, and I felt I needed to redeem our family by doing well. Way back, oh, decades ago, I was a burly whitewater raft guide, so I knew I could suck it up and show my daughters how it was supposed to be done!
I wacked HARD – as hard as the grandmothers! And I stayed in time, matching each of their strokes. Oh, they were impressed! They told my daughters, “See? See how your mother does it?” I was secretly feeling a bit of well-deserved pride. Well, for about a minute. Then my muscles started complaining, and soon they were screaming, and I wondered how long I was supposed to keep this up? I hadn’t thought this through! Now that I had earned their respect, I couldn’t let up. How many minutes could I keep this going? I beat for five minutes, then ten minutes, then fifteen, and there was no sign this was going to be over any time soon!
As my muscles grew more desperate I realized I needed an escape plan. There was a little shack at the edge of the field. Less than a shack, really, but it provided a tiny bit of shade, if not protection from rain. More importantly, behind it we had a container of water. My plan started forming… I would tell the grandmothers I needed a drink of water, and once I got behind the shack I would hide! Maybe they would forget about me!
Just as I was about to implement the plan, a woman came to me with a big smile on her face. She told me when she and the other ladies heard that Americans loved them so much they were going to come alongside them and work in their fields, they just couldn’t believe it! She said they were amazed, and it meant so much to them that we would be willing to suffer by their sides because of our love! Ouch! How could I escape now??
The grandmothers in Meru almost killed me that day. Would the Kalenjin grandmothers be any less tough? After conferring with Abraham, I modified my plan. I will train with a Kalenjin GREAT grandmother! In fact, why restrict it to one? As many great grandmothers as want to can be my coaches! The word goes out, and I am excited! I will get to hang with the great grandmothers!!
Actually, the heavens had something different in mind. Our trip was planned for the end of the dry season, but heavy rains started early. The roads are covered with a soft clay which made driving an incredible challenge and running impossible (at least for us Americans – the Kalenjin were still out in force on their training runs). No matter which route we tried to take each day to the Matungen area where our future project would be located, we ran into impossibly huge mud puddles of slick clay that bested our two-wheel drive vehicle. Thank goodness for us there is tremendous unemployment in Kenya, so at each big, muddy trap, young Kenyan men were waiting to help cars like ours make it through for a tip.
Despite the heavy rains we were able to visit the proposed project site for our running tourist camp at the base of Torok Falls – a spectacular site on the “hanging valley” portion of the escarpment which is a shelf between the top of the escarpment and the valley below. The area is amazingly lush and beautiful. It borders agricultural land on one side and a forest filled with baboons on the other, a waterfall and creek flowing through, and incredible views of the escarpment cliffs as well as the valley below. The drawback? The land is steep, filled with boulders, and there is no road to the location. It will be a challenge to build, so we have revised our timeline to at least three times what we originally thought!
We were also able to meet with community members in Matugen and Chebior to push the water project. Everything stalled on our project when the government, trying to win support in the elections last fall, promised running water for the villagers. They made some motions, but eventually the project collapsed because it was never designed for success – only for votes. The villagers, now angry, are more motivated than ever to support Abraham in his efforts, so hopefully things will now proceed quickly. Or as quickly as things do in these areas.
Once our work was done in Matungen, we left Kalenjin country and headed towards Lake Bogoria and Lake Baringo to evaluate potential extensions for the tourist trips. This is Njemps territory – a small tribe related to the Maasai and Samburu. Our first day in the valley, a Saturday, we headed to Lake Baringo. Every Saturday the government provides insecticide baths for the Njemps herds, so driving was a slow process. One herd after another – cows, sheep, goats all mixed – were being shepherded down the road towards the baths. With no school on Saturdays, the young children helped their parents with the herds so it was like an Njemps version of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
We eventually made it to Lake Baringo where we met Henry – our boat captain who grew up on one of the islands. He took us around to see weaver birds and eagles, hippos and crocodiles. We even visited giraffe island where we had the island to ourselves to wander amongst the giraffes and ostriches. But the highlight for me was a visit with an Njemps fishing village. A friend of Abraham’s arranged for us to meet Bonnie. Despite her age (low sixties) Bonnie is the champion of the Njemps boat race which takes place January 1st each year. At the end of this year’s race she collapsed and fainted, but she beat all the younger competitors.
Being a Saturday, children were out of school, so there was a crowd of children and adults waiting for us. Tourists visit this area to see the bubbling thermal waters and purchase hand-crafted souvenirs, so “muzungus” (white people) are not a rare sight. But visitors don’t normally try their hand at the traditional ambach reed boats, so the villagers were eager to see the show. Bonnie and her son were dressed in traditional garb and ornamental bead necklaces, and they were Chris’ and my instructors with the boats. I was a whitewater kayaker for many years, but I can tell you these boats were very difficult to keep upright! Chris and I both capsized which was quite entertaining for the village children! Once I got a hang of things, Bonnie challenged me to a race. I stroked hard and represented the USA quite well, I thought! The villagers all laughed and cheered and had a great time! It’s funny how such simple things can bring joy and connection between two peoples. (I did not win the race, btw).
Afterwards, as I examined a wide assortment of decorated gourds to purchase as souvenirs, I was surrounded by vendors encouraging me to buy from their stock. It was a bit intense, but also fun. It was also quite distracting, and I didn’t notice our team board our boat and head out. When I realized I was left behind, Bonnie and I had a great laugh! They decided they would have to adopt me into their Njemps village!
The following day we were back at Lake Bogoria. The valley is much drier than on top of the escarpment, so finally our team had a chance to run. We got up early – earlier than the game wardens and guides at the Bogoria National Reserve – but we let ourselves in (with a little help) and had a fantastic run along the lake among impalas and gazelles, dik diks and greater kudu. The main attraction, however, were the flamingos. This time of year, there are very few – about 2,000. The vast majority migrate to Ethiopia to breed and return after their young are old enough to fly. Although the flocks were small by Bogoria standards, they were still amazing to us.
Because Kenyans have such a good reputation as runners, I’ve heard that many American runners have a unique item on their bucket lists: Run with a Kenyan. I finally got my turn the next morning. 15 great grandmothers, ages 60 to 87, assembled to run with me, and what an entertaining sight we were! Communities around Lake Begoria are small, so the women knew each other well. They greeted one another warmly and chatted excitedly as we headed out. I couldn’t understand their language, but I understood their laughter and animated expressions. They had never done anything like this before, and they took particular delight in the puzzled expressions of young men and school children we passed along the road. We even picked up a 16th old woman along the way who was a bit confused but joined us all anyway. It was great fun for me, and even more so for them, I think. They all have a wonderful new story to tell their grandchildren. And for me? Bucket list: check!