Tuesday, 2 November 2010

This is Kenya

Yesterday, for the first time, I heard a Kenyan child cry. The reason for the toddler's tears were not that he had fallen and grazed his pride, not that he had no shoes on his feet, not that he had been denied a fist full of hyperactivity inducing sweets, nor that his parents had refused to buy for him the latest games console. The reason for his tears were that he just couldn't keep up with me running no matter how hard he tried to make his little legs run... and this in Kenya, even for the youngest of the Kalenjin tribe, is classed as failure. I have no doubt that soon this child will be keeping up with the mazungus visitors to Iten, and who knows, maybe one day he will join the long list of Olympic and World Champions that this tiny Rift Valley town produces; for running in Iten is everything.

Nowhere else in the world is your '42 kilometer' (marathon) PB so valuable, yet a sub 2:10 clocking potentially so insignificant. For each of the last 2 years more than 100 Kenyans have ran faster than 2:10 for the marathon. While Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie still holds the world record for the distance, Kenya dominate the IAAF World Lists, filling the top 4 spots in addition as well as many more further down the list.  15 of the top 25 ranked athletes are Kenyan. Last weekend a Kenyan won the Venice marathon, another the marathon, and just yesterday the Frankfurt, Athens and, not surprisingly, the Nairobi marathons were won by Kenyans. Figures of 2:05, which wouldn't even guarantee you a place in a Kenyan Championship team, would make you a running hero in Europe or America.

The question I feel is not 'why are the Kenyans so good?', but rather 'why is running success so important to them?' Why do young men from all over the country leave their homes and families to travel to Iten, and other similar training venues, to pursue running success? Why, with no guarantee of ever even getting a trip to Europe, do they put everything into training for those 26.2 miles of cardiovascular endeavour?

It seems that in Kenya, more than anywhere else in the athletics world, role models are a major player in the running success of the nation. In a town the size of Iten, Joe Jogger (by Kenyan standards), has the opportunity to train among world record holders. Everyone knows the ordinary guy next door who has reached international stardom. Athletes view those who are successful as being just like them, and rather than thinking of their more illustrious piers as been genetically gifted, they believe that if they too train hard enough, they can be the next Kenyan success story.

Just this morning I was training in the gym alongside recent world 800m record holder David Rudisha. Conscious of not distracting him from the work at hand, I failed to pluck up the courage to ask him to pose for a photo with me. Later I found that he was not only a celebrity among us wazungu, but a star attraction among the Kenyans who are very proud of their athletics star. Like everywhere in the world, football in Kenya is big business, but it is here that athletics comes closest to rivaling 'the beautiful game' for popularity.

Because I have been to Kenya 5 times before, and because I am not necessarily seeing things for the first time, I feel that I have been depriving you, my avid readers, of some of my observations and experiences of this beautiful country. That, I now intend to rectify!

Kenyans, like most Africans, are very laid back people. Hakuna Matata (no worries), is very much the order of the day. That is, of course, with two exceptions: driving and running. Then, almost like as if they have transformed into different people, Kenyans are suddenly in a hurry. Kenyan roads have no street lights, in fact most of them are not surfaced, and having arrived at Eldoret airport after dark on Tuesday 5th October, I was reminded of how crazy the roads are. As we drove from the airport, in some heavy drizzle, the headlights of the taxi showed locals cycling along the side of the road without any form of lighting that either reveled the road ahead or indicated to other road users their presence. And I'm not talking about one or two cyclists, I mean hundreds of them.

Matatus - crammed full Toyota Hiace vans - are the usual form of transport in Kenya. The drivers communicate with other road users, friends, and potential customers in a complicated series of horn beeps. Indistinguishable to the untrained ear, the relevant beeps can mean 'howaya', 'get the hell out of the way', or 'matatu approaching, climb on in with your chickens, sack of corn and empty buckets; we're full, but there is always room for more'. And these machines know nothing of road safety, common road courtesy, or patience on the roads. Totally mad! On the up side though, they are cheap, and you usually don't have to wait for very long to be picked up by one.

In Iten, the children are either very cute or very annoying, depending on what mood you're in, how fast you're trying to run, or how many days you've been there. 'Mazungu', (the Swahili word for foreigner or white person) 'how are you?' is the common cry of the local young (and sometimes not so young), as they attempt to high-5 you, or run alongside you, as they make their way to school. The special skills of the Kenyan child means that he can spot you from miles off, and often you can hear the distant cry 'how-are-you-mazungu' without actually being able to see anyone. One morning earlier this week, I was 'how are youed' by a small child squatting in his front garden - the Kenyan child is never too busy with the task at hand to greet a foreigner!

The spectacular views of the Kerio valley, which forms part of the Great Rift Valley, are breathtaking, and are part of what make Iten one of my favourite places in the world. I never tire of the views, and it was nice to reacquaint myself with Kerio Valley once again. The Rift Valley is a massive geographic trench running approximately 6,000 kilometres from Syria in Southwest Asia right down through East Africa to central Mozambique, but the views are at their most spectacular as it passes through this part of Kenya. Formed by tectonic activity, the Rift Valley is what causes much of Kenya to be at high altitude, without being mountainous.

As I said in one of my very first posts, Kenya is everything that I expected of Africa, and more. Even after 5 visits, I never tire of this very different way of life. It is a privilege to witness the best in the world training, but also to live for a short while among Kenya's very laid back and friendly people. Part of me is sad when, over the 5 years that I have been visiting the country, I see how little change and development is occurring; how far behind the west the country still is; and how poor so many of it's people still are. Part of me is happy that things are not changing; that the Kenyans remain true to their simple and happy existence. But the largest part of me is angry, when, just like the rest of the world, people think that money will give them a better life. In the past, I have been used to the children cheekily asking for money. This time the popular request was 'mazungu, give me my sweets'. They may root away their teeth, but maybe they won't root away their souls.

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