Where Chaos Reigns Kenya's Runners Race through Fear
The world's fastest long-distance runners normally train in the Kenyan highlands. Since the outbreak of ethnic unrest in the country, two athletes have been murdered, and many feel threatened. Yet, they remain. And they run -- afraid.
Kenyan runner Sammy Karanja. The country has some of the best athletes in the world.
Birth of a Disaster
The catastrophe descended upon Kenya in late December, when it was revealed that President Mwai Kibaki had come to power in a rigged election. Within days, barricades were burning throughout the country and, in Eldoret, people were burning, too. They were members of the Kikuyu ethnic group, which Kibaki belongs to. For five years he has ruled this country. His cabinet is considered one of Africa's most corrupt, and his associates are notorious for having brazenly filled their pockets and given preferential treatment to members of their own ethnic group -- in a country with more than 40 tribes.
After the election, members of the Kalenjin tribe set fire to a church in Eldoret. Thirty people, mostly women and children, died in the blaze. Most of the residents of the Rift Valley are members of the Kalenjin tribe. Many Kalenjin, who consider themselves the true masters of the country, feel besieged by members of the Kikuyu tribe who have settled in the region. Many runners also belong to the Kalenjin tribe.
Since the fiery death of the 30 Kikuyu in Eldoret, the unofficial death toll in Kenya is 1,000, though the real figure is probably higher. The victims have been hacked to death with machetes, killed with poison-tipped arrows or shot by the police. There are 300,000 internally displaced people.
Despite the danger, Ali completes his daily training regimen. A specialist in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, he brought home two gold medals from the 2005 Asian Indoor Games in Bangkok. He is ambitious. He runs at six every morning, shivering and afraid for his life.
'Giving Up is the Worst Thing to Do'
"Should I tell him: Go home, neglect your profession, drop everything and leave it alone?" asks Ali's coach, Yobes Ondieki. Discipline, says Ondieki, is the only way to overcome one's own fear and concerns about one's family. Ondieki, a former world-class runner, was the first man to run 10,000 meters in less than 27 minutes. That was in Oslo on July 10, 1993.
Ondieki is sitting in the restaurant of the Kerio View Hotel drinking a Coca-Cola, facing an enormous glass wall. Perched on a cliff, the restaurant offers a magnificent view over the tops of acacia trees and of the broad valley below. Ondieki looks down. In the grasslands below, bush fires are burning. The milky-white smoke, typical of a bush fire, looks like fog. The smoke from house fires is dark, almost black. Before now, no one in Kenya would have paid much attention to the color of smoke.
Ondieki has received anonymous text messages, too, disparaging him for being a Kalenjin -- and a murderer. "The country is in ruins," he says. "There is no longer any security anywhere in Kenya. The police are even shooting at children with live ammunition." It is virtually impossible for the runners to focus on their training here. Kenya's national Olympic trials would normally be held soon, and the season of major marathon races in Europe and the United States begins in April.
"Giving up," says Ondieki, "would be the worst thing to do now." He tries to preserve at least the appearance of normalcy, hoping to keep the runners from becoming discouraged, even as everything else around them falls apart.
Bad Time to Be a Hero
In Eldoret, Moses Tanui has barricaded himself into his Hotel Grandpri. The former 10,000-meter world champion has hardly even ventured into the street since the evening of Dec. 31, when his best friend, 400-meter runner Lucas Sang, was murdered. Sang and Tanui were close friends, almost inseparable. They met in London in 1985, shared the same manager and trained together in the highlands.
Sang got mixed up in a Kikuyu riot. They hacked him to death with machetes. "Everyone knew Lucas," says Tanui. "He was a hero." Sang and Tanui are members of the Kalenjin tribe, which can be a death sentence in the new Kenya.
Tanui is also well-known in Kenya. Tanui also has money.
But his wealth can't protect him. On the contrary, money is one reason why Kenya's top athletes live in fear. There have been rumors that Kenyan runners are funding tribal militias, including a group called the "Kalenjin Warriors," and that the athletes use their money to buy weapons, transport the weapons in their big cars and allow the militias to meet in their large houses. "There are people who claim that my hotel is a meeting place for groups of killers," says Tanui. "But that's nonsense. We are athletes. We want to run, not fight." Then he locks the door and glances over at the street. "We are on the path to civil war," he says. "It is a war between one tribe and the rest of the country, and it will be terrible."
The ethnic violence in the Rift Valley has worsened in the wake of the murder of an opposition politician by a police officer two weeks ago, and there is no end in sight. In a place where public order no longer exists, old scores are settled and long-forgotten rivalries are suddenly reignited. The conflicts get so caught up in each other that you can hardly separate one from the other. Each side has its dead to avenge, and each side fears the revenge of others. This is not an African phenomenon. The situation was no different in the Balkans.
The disputes are about clan allegiances. About land. About money. Envy plays a role, too. Where chaos reigns, the underprivileged are quick to turn to violence. There is a vast divide between rich and poor in East Africa.
- Part 1: Kenya's Runners Race through Fear
- Part 2: A Dream Profession Turned Nightmare