Running With The Kenyans

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I just finished Adharanand Finn’s recent book, Running With The Kenyans, and enjoyed it very much. In it, he attempts to explore the secrets of Kenya’s tremendously disproportionate success in the world of distance running. Within Kenya, it is the Kalenjin ethnic group specifically that dominates, and it would be difficult to exaggerate their level of dominance. Though they comprise approximately 0.06% of the world population, in 2011 they claimed 66 of the top 100 marathoners in the world. There are also countless hundreds of runners very nearly as good as these 66, who don’t have the opportunity to travel abroad for big races. Frankly, the most competitive races in the world are likely held in Kenya among the hordes of stellar athletes there competing with each other for an opportunity to represent the country in the Olympics or World Championships. In one national event the author witnessed, for example, several world champion Kenyan’s didn’t even crack the top ten in their events on that particular day. Astounding really.

There is clearly no magic formula for their success, but it is no accident that all of their best athletes come from the poor rural areas, and none from a wealthier background in the larger cities. This is because they grow up running barefoot for practical reasons. To get to school they often run several miles barefoot each way for the privilege. The contrast with the lifestyles our kids tend to share in the west is stark, at best. The need to get our kids more active couldn’t be greater in my view.

This probably isn’t the place to put this, but here’s a column I wrote a few years ago about a friend of mine from Kenya. It feels appropriate, and yeah this is a bit long for a blog I must admit. I won’t be offended if you need to skim but there are lessons for all of us here I believe (runners or not):

An under-appreciated resource in Duluth is the large number of eager students here from foreign countries. They arrive from all continents, with the exception of Antarctica.

I had the pleasure recently of visiting with 23-year-old David Rohno from Kenya, who happens to be a member of my church.

His life spans almost exactly half of Kenya’s post-colonial era.   This is a strategically located country in the Horn of Africa, being bordered by such hotspots as Somalia and Sudan, and also by the Indian Ocean.

David grew up among a huge extended family.  His grandfather had 3 wives that averaged 8 kids each.

Prior to his grandfather, his family lived a semi-nomadic tribal lifestyle much like the Maasai (which is closely related to his own tribe), but after independence there was a big push to settle the land.  These are the kinds of tales locked up among many international students who often have little opportunity to engage in much more than working and studying.

David grew up in eastern Kenya in the Great Rift Valley close to Uganda and within a couple hours of Lake Victoria.  The equator bisects the country, and his village lies slightly to the north.

It is a region that produces the country’s greatest runners.  In fact, he knows many of them, and was able to lure his brother-in-law, Francis Kipketer, to participate in this year’s Grandma’s Marathon.  With a personal best of 2:10:47 he will be one of the top contenders here.

One of the main reasons Kenya has such an abundance of great athletes is that poor kids in rural Kenya grow up running barefoot everywhere for practical reasons.  David lived about 3 miles from school, and ran there and back 4 times per day through all kinds of weather.  Some kids lived much farther from school, and it was essential to run to be there on time.

This was important given the common practice of rigid corporal punishment (officially banned but still widely practiced) in the schools.  Even given the long distance they traveled, many of the teachers showed no mercy on a child that arrived 5-10 minutes late as they took it out on them with a cow whip.  They literally drew blood for such infractions.

The bottoms of David’s feet display an interesting array of scars and puncture wounds from rocks and thorns that penetrated the outer callused layer.  Each day he ran home for lunch and watered the cattle before grabbing a bite to eat.   He ate in great haste so he could make it back to class in time.  Sometimes after the great effort put into getting home there’d be no food to eat, and he’d just run right back to school without having lunch.

He laments driving everywhere in America, which is causing him to become out of shape.  When I joked about how his family would pinch the extra layer around his mid-section, he laughed and said that was a good thing.  They’d think he’s wealthy if he came home fat!

Life is lived day to day in his village, and the reach of their world typically doesn’t extend far.  The nearest large town is just 8-10 miles away, and his mother would walk there about once a year for shopping.  That is the outer limits of the average village person’s world.

His family, like all his neighbors, purchases their necessities on a daily basis.  They use what they have been blessed with each day to purchase what they need to get through that day.  For example, if they have a surplus of five eggs they’ll be able to use the proceeds to purchase a small cup of kerosene for that night’s light, a small cube of cooking fat, and perhaps a small amount of salt.

These types of consumables are purchased in very small quantities since there is no money available to purchase enough to make it through a longer period.  Sometimes they could not afford kerosene, so David would have to run to school two hours early so he could complete his homework where there was electricity before school started.

Unlike most international students that come from elite families, Rohno was able to transition from this world to one where he has had the opportunity to dine with two African presidents, and begin a First World education.  This resulted from his work with the Young Farmers Club of Kenya and the Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth (Great Britain) in which he labored for sustainable farming practices that benefit rural economies and the environment.  I also enjoyed observing that his secondary school graduation certificate identified him as, “A boy with a bright and promising future.”

Kenya’s Minister of Agriculture promised David full financial support for the half of David’s tuition not supported by a scholarship at a school in North Dakota.  Ironically though, he landed in America on December 27, 2007.  That was the date of Kenya’s disputed elections that resulted in much bloodshed, such as the death of two time Grandma’s champion, Wesley Ngetich (from Rohno’s tribe).

David couldn’t afford to continue school where he started and transferred to Lake Superior College last year.  He has no financial support other than what he’s able to earn through employment, and much of that he sends home to help his family purchase food, medical care, and pay for his brother’s school expenses.

Given that Kenya is crucial to the overall health of Africa due to its strategic location, resource wealth, influence, environmental and cultural treasures, and a multitude of other reasons, it would be nice if we could find a way to connect David to forms of educational assistance such as various scholarship opportunities.  Unfortunately he hasn’t received help locally with finding scholarships available for international students.  After spending time with this young man I’m realizing just how important these educational opportunities are for someone like him.

This is an opportunity for us to benefit the life of someone who will promote sustainability in poor villages, viable self-sufficient rural economies, and peacemaking in a society that can be quick to devolve into warring tribes.  Every dollar spent on higher education for someone like this clearly is multiplied exponentially when taking into account the potential good it can produce over the long term.

The photo is from http://rbgsocialclub.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/kenyas-elite-runners-a-study-on-the-diet-of-african-champions/


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