Imagining the future through running

The successes of elite Kenyan athletes should not distract from the ways ordinary Kenyans are using it to make meaning for themselves.

Senior men's cross-country race, Iten, Kenya, 2020 © Dawson McCall.

Once again, a Kenyan athlete has broken a major record in the world of athletics. Racing in Chicago in early October, Kelvin Kiptum shattered the men’s marathon world record, breaking the previous mark of Kenya’s “philosopher-king of running” Eliud Kipchoge by more than half a minute. A stunning achievement, Kiptum’s performance was not an outlier on this year’s athletics scene. In June, fellow Kenyan Faith Kipyegon broke two world records in the span of seven days, setting new marks in the 1500m and 5000m (Kipyegon’s 5000m mark was broken by Ethiopian Gudaf Tsegay three months later). While runners from other East African countries, most notably Ethiopia and Uganda (and at times Tanzania and Burundi), have also excelled on the international stage, Kenyans have often led the way in transforming international athletics and pushing the boundaries of physical achievement through running.

In Kenya, such performances are often imbued with deep symbolism, reflecting ideas of nationalism, political dissent, and local identities. After Kipyegon’s record-setting week, Kenyan President William Ruto linked her victory with notions of hard work and national pride. “Tenacity, focus, hunger for excellence, and a winning mindset are the formula for greatness,” he posted to social media. “What an athlete! What an inspiration! What a champion! Congratulations, Kenya is immensely proud of you.” Newspapers pictured Kipyegon and her family with Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua during a visit to State House, while others argued that her heroics exemplified how Kenyans “can succeed without Ruto or Raila,” a reference to last year’s candidates for the 2022 Kenyan Presidential election. Upon returning to Nairobi after Chicago, Kelvin Kiptum was served a gourd of mursik, a fermented milk popular in Kalenjin communities in western Kenya, the presentation of which has become a tradition dating to at least the early 1970s. Such patterns are familiar to anyone observing Kenyan running. Time and again over the last 60 years, athletics has provided quite literally a podium from which Kenyans have been able to display some of their greatest achievements, often linking them to larger social and political purposes.

Kenyan running has been of interest to writers from a range of backgrounds, with narratives of the sport centering the exploits of elite, world-beating athletes who use running to transform their lives, promote national unity, and inspire each other. While certainly important, such interpretations reify the sport as representing either larger totalizing political projects or an avenue for individual social mobility in which hard work, natural talent, and “culture” are the deciding factors for success. While a focus on elite athletes and tales of overcoming hardship can be inspiring, they often obscure the social dynamics of Kenya’s running culture, as well as ignore the broad range of ways Kenyans seek to find meaning and utility in the sport.

The social relationships of family, school, team, and community are the networks that underpin Kenyan running and its long and storied history. Kenyan runners will tell you as much. Speaking to me during an interview at his home outside of Eldoret (known locally as the City of Champions) in 2019, Kenyan marathoner Elisha Rotich highlighted the central role such factors have played in his own running career. “You know, in our culture we say kidole kimoja hakiui chawa (Kiswahili for “a single finger does not kill a louse”),” he told me. “One person can’t win gold. My team and family is very important to me. So, you see when you stay and understand each other in group, you will be getting strong, and [you will get] discipline and teamwork by working together. Without these things you will never achieve anything.”

Thinking about the social dynamics underpinning the sport and its history can lead to fruitful insights, such as the need to incorporate the stories of lesser-known individuals who have contributed to Kenya’s running tradition. Former athletes such as Naftali Mutwa, who was introduced to athletics as a student at Kapsabet High School and Thika Technical School in the mid- to late 1940s. Despite competing in a racially segregated system of colonial sport, Mutwa participated in several milestones in Kenyan athletics history. During the mid-to-late 1950s and early 1960s, Mutwa ran hurdles and competed in the jumps alongside some of Kenya’s most well-known early runners, such as Nyandika Maiyoro, Lazaro Chepkwony, Joseph Leresea, Seraphino Antao, and Kiptalam Keter. In 1959, he ran at the first athletics meet at the famous Kamariny Stadium, where he won the colony-wide individual championship in the 120-yard hurdles, repeating the feat in 1960. Doing all this while working as a teacher and games master (coach) at Kaptumo Intermediate School, Mutwa reaped little financial reward for his efforts. Yet, the satisfaction and pride that he took in these achievements was evident during an interview with me at his home in Koyo in 2019, where he enthusiastically recalled relationships with his teammates while looking at pictures. “This was Kenya’s team,” he proudly recounted. “And you know we are in possession of this [picture] so as to remember one another.”

Despite the use of sport in the colonial era as a means of social control and a way to erase and marginalize Indigenous sports, such as wrestling and dance, the experiences of athletes like Naftali Mutwa demonstrate the ways in which many young Kenyans, most often men and boys, took part and found meaning in colonial sports. Indeed, famed Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who ran cross-country as a student at Alliance High School during the 1950s, has written that distance running represented “a long story, narrated and acted by the runner with his body…a wrestling match between the determined spirits of the will and the persuasive devil of surrender.” For Ngũgĩ, “running [later] would become an important symbol” in his writing.

As the examples of Mutwa and Ngũgĩ show, school sport has been central to the social dynamics underpinning Kenyan running. Perhaps the most important school in this history is that of St. Patrick’s High School. Located in Iten, a small town in western Kenya referred to as the country’s Mecca of athletics and Home of Champions, St. Patrick’s was opened in 1961 as an all-boys boarding school through a joint effort between local politicians and Irish missionaries. Today it is noted across Kenya and around the world for its athletics achievements, but has also had major national success in volleyball, field hockey, basketball, and tennis. In addition, the school hosts one of Iten’s earliest training facilities, a camp for young, aspiring runners overseen by Patrician Brother Colm O’Connell, that provides coaching and other support for members. Dozens of runners who have trained at the school have run for Kenyan national teams, competed for US colleges and universities, and transformed international professional running. For example, St. Patrick’s alum Wilson Kipketer was one of the first Kenyan athletes to change citizenship and compete for another country, a pattern that has become more common in recent decades, eliciting debates in sports circles. The example of St. Patrick’s, along with schools like Sing’ore Girls, show how Kenyan institutions have shaped international running, an antidote to representations of African institutions as insignificant and ineffectual in global networks.

In addition to schools, the experiences of people who have built running careers outside of elite, record-setting professional running circles are central to a deeper understanding of the sport. In the decades immediately following independence, a number of Kenyan runners worked as police officers, prison staffers, and soldiers as they competed in international competitions for Kenyan national teams. Since the 1980s and the explosion of professional running, many “second-tier” professional runners have carved out careers racing abroad, where they compete for prize purses in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, often returning to Kenya to invest in land, education, or business. One example can be seen in the recent career of Everline Kosgei, who has competed in road races in Europe and Asia, and who told me during an interview in Iten that she used part of her winnings to enroll in vocational school in Chengdu, China. Furthermore, Kenyans from a range of backgrounds and professions, from pace-makers to coaches to training camp employees to resort owners and staff to athletics-themed souvenir shops, take part in and shape local and national running economies linked to Kenyan running.

At the same time, many runners struggle with the challenges of injuries, corruption, and pressures of new-found wealth, as well as poor facilities and a mounting doping crisis that threatens to undermine the sport’s credibility. Elder runners have often found themselves struggling with poverty in their later lives, at times expressing that they have been forgotten by Kenyan society. These challenges have often been magnified for the nation’s aspiring female athletes, who have dealt with barriers rooted in Indigenous and colonial ideas, as well as cases of deadly violence and sexual assault. Such tragedies and obstacles are a reminder of the limits of sport as a salve for some of Kenya’s most challenging problems.

Nevertheless, the experiences of Kenyan women runners have been central to the sport’s development. Highlighting Kenya’s Running Women, as historian Michelle Sikes does in her recent book, demonstrates the centrality of gender in shaping Kenyan experiences with the sport, while also spotlighting the divergent ways Kenyan girls and women have found meaning, joy, and purpose in the sport. Runners such as Sabina Chebichi, who after winning an 800m bronze medal at the 1974 Commonwealth Games as a teenager, told the East African Standard, “I like to run. It’s a good feeling to be better than the rest. I like people to point at me in a strange town, and talk about me because of my running. And when I hear the crowds shouting, it makes me want to run faster.”

At a time when many Kenyans are expressing deep discontent with political elites and struggling with rising prices, plummeting currency, dwindling economic opportunities, hollow political agendas, and increasing social inequalities, seeking an understanding of Kenyan running that shifts our attention away from a narrow focus on elites and world-beaters highlights the efforts of a broad range of Kenyans to connect with others, make meaning for themselves, find joy in their daily lives and imagine a better future for themselves and their communities.

Further Reading