By Fredrick Nzwili
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Frequent stars of the New York City marathon and other racing events, Kenyan women are also champions off the track. Tegla Loroupe fights female genital mutilation. Lornah Kiplagat trains runners. Ruth Waithera saves street children.
NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENENEWS)--In New York City's 37th marathon on Nov. 5, Kenyan women, as usual, will form a formidable juggernaut.
Catherine Ndereba, 34, popularly known here as Queen Nderaba for her recent dominance of long-distance running, won the 2005 Boston marathon and the New York Half-Marathon earlier this year. Susan Chepkemei, 31, just put in a personal best run of 2 hours, 21 minutes and 46 seconds at the 2006 Flora London Marathon, where she came in third. In April, Rita Jeptoo, 25, won the Boston Marathon. Lornah Kiplagat, now running for the Netherlands after her marriage to a Dutch man, was a silver medalist in the 2005 International Associations of Athletics Federations' half-marathon.
Kenyan women hold five of the top 10 fastest recorded times in marathons--defined as 26.2 miles or 42.195 kilometers--and nine of the top 20 fastest times in half-marathons, which is a little over 13 miles. Kenyan women also hold records in distances of 20,000 meters, 25,000 meters and 30,000 meters.
For years, Kenyan male runners have enjoyed national and international celebrity. But in the past 10 years female runners have been gaining a bigger share of the limelight. Kenyans follow the women's races on TV and cheer when they win. Newspaper editors splash photos of them crossing the finish line in victory. Last year the government started rewarding medalists with cash awards, giving other types of prizes to marathon participants.
Kenya's fast-running women have also won their nation's hearts as champions beyond the course. Tegla Loroupe, Lornah Kiplagat and Ruth Waithera--two are retired and one is still competing--are prime examples.
Loroupe, 33, is the first Kenyan to set a world marathon record and winner of five world-class marathons, including the 1994 and 1995 New York City Marathon. But in late August--squatting on a stool and shining shoes for citizens and dignitaries strolling along Nairobi's Kenyatta Avenue--she was far from any pedestals.
"I have brushed shoes for everyone, but no one has brushed mine," Loroupe joked with Women's eNews.
As crowds gathered around her, Loroupe beamed up at clients ensconced in high throne-like seats above her. Musicians from the Pokot, her marginalized nomadic community, played traditional music while she worked.
Loroupe was leading a group of Kenyan female athletes in a four-day event to benefit her Nairobi-based Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, which the runner established in 2003 with $42,000 of her winnings.
The shoe-shining fundraiser, which brought in $5,600, was more about publicity than money for the Loroupe Foundation, which has total outlays to date of about $4.2 million.
Loroupe has invested $139,000 of her own earnings in the foundation and has raised the rest from donors. The foundation is building a boarding school and sports center in the Rift Valley town of Kapenguria for disadvantaged children from nomadic communities in East Africa and the horn of Africa.
Loroupe, who left her parents' home at 15 to stay with a sister who helped protect her from female genital mutilation, is also directing the foundation to build a safe haven for girls trying to flee the procedure. In 2001 Kenya outlawed female genital mutilation--the surgical removal of either part or all of the clitoris and inner labia--but the practice is still fairly widespread. About 38 percent of Kenyan women are believed to have mutilated genitalia and in some parts of the country the rates run as high as 80 percent to 90 percent.
Loroupe has also used her income from racing to send two younger sisters to U.S. universities and is supporting six nieces and nephews whose mother died in 1994.
"For me polishing these shoes is a parable," says Loroupe. "It means washing the feet for the children, so that they can build a better future."
Lornah Kiplagat, a native of the Kenya Highlands in the Rift Valley Province, is in the late stages of her competing career and specializes in road races, which are run on a measured course on an established road as opposed to track and cross country.
In 2000 she opened the High Altitude Training Center in the town of Iten, in the Rift Valley Province, to train Kenyan girls and teens to run at high altitude.
Kiplagat, who earns between $40,000 and $100,000 to participate in a race, started the center in 2000. It can accommodate about 20 athletes. Young women from Kenya stay for free, with their costs subsidized by Europeans and other foreign visitors who go there to train.
As a child, Kiplagat faced difficulties attending school; sometimes her father would refuse to pay her school fee. Today she believes Kenyan boys have had an easier time obtaining funding to support their racing careers and says she started the center to help rectify what she sees as a disparity.
Kiplagat was the first woman to win the Falmouth and Peachtree Road Races in the United States, which she won in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2005. After marrying a Dutch man, Kiplagat began running for the Netherlands in 2003.
Ruth Waithera, 48, a retired member of the Kenyan Air Force, was Kenya's top female sprinter from 1978 through 1987 and the first African female finalist in the 400-meter race in the 1984 Olympic Games. These days you can often find her supervising groups of children running up and down the hills of high-altitude Shamata, her home village.
In 1998 she opened the Avenue Sports Club with about $4,200 to turn orphans into competitors. Today it hosts six girls and three boys who had formerly survived by pick-pocketing and scavenging through trash cans.
Waithera says she recruits street children Nairobi and the towns of Nakuru and Thika by offering them a cup of tea and a piece of bread.
"I knew the children were hungry and would be happy to have a meal," she says. "Then I would take them through the paces." By that she means she takes them to the center, makes them feel at home there, enrolls them in school and begins to train them as runners.
"It is not easy to rehabilitate a street child," Waithera told Women's eNews during an interview in Nairobi, where she had come on a recent visit. "They come along with different mental states. One needs determination."
Fredrick Nzwili is journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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By Jen Ross