The Kalenjin and the East African Running Phenomenon
As a runner it is a strange but fantastic experience to be in a part of the world where people get excited about watching a marathon on TV. This morning Dougie and I went to the ‘High Altitude Training Camp’ (owned and managed by Lornah Kiplagat) where we watched the Kenyan Patrick Makau beat the Ethiopian Haile Gebreselassie in the Berlin Marathon. In the process Makau set a new world record over the distance: 2.03.38. The Kenyan guys, who we watched the race with, jumped out of their seats to celebrate when Makau crossed the line and cheered in the way football fans do back in the UK when their teams score.
Over the past week, by providing their readers with daily coverage of race build-up, Kenyan newspapers and media agencies have seemingly been both caught up in, and a key factor in exacerbating, the excitement. For Dougie and I, predictions over the outcome have been the bread-and-butter of our small talk with the locals.
This is a small example of the cultural importance of distance running in Kenya. Indeed, the importance of running in this part of the world also has economic (with thousands of professional East African athletes, running is very much a major money-making industry and a viable career option) and socio-political (for example the intense rivalry between Ethiopia and Kenya) dimensions. Running is deeply engrained into everyday life here. A teacher at St Patrick’s High School, an all-boys boarding school in Iten, told Dougie and I that about 25% of the boys in the school want to be professional athletes when they grew up.
Undoubtedly the importance of running is an effect of the great success Kenya has had in the sport. In turn, however, the fact that so many young adults sacrifice everything to train to make a career in athletics can also be seen as a major cause of Kenyan success.
A similar environment has been cultivated in neighbouring East-African countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda. The latter half of the twentieth century (particularly the period since the early 1990s) has witnessed an ‘East African running phenomenon’ with athletes from this part of the world becoming dominant over distances from 800m to the marathon. For instance take today’s world records:
800m: David Rudisha, Kenya, 1.41.01
1500m: Hicham El Guerrouj, Morrocco, 3.26.00
3,000m: Daniel Komen, Kenya 7.20.67
3,000m: Steeple-chase: Saif Saaeed Shaheen , Quatar (formerely Stephen Cherono of Kenya. Defected to Qatar in 2003) 7.53.63
5,000m: Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia, 12.37.35
10,000m: Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia, 26.17.53
Half-Marathon: Zersenay Tadese, Eritrea 58.23
Marathon: Patrick Makau, Kenya 2.03.38
Only one of these athletes is not from East Africa (the North African, el Guerrouj).
A number of arguments have been employed to try and explain why East Africa has reigned supreme: the high-altitude, the active-childhoods, the desperation to escape poverty, the abundance of role-models etc. However, as those who have analysed this phenomenon have pointed out, success in distance running is not uniform across ‘East Africa’- some regions have achieved more than others. Many regions in East Africa (such as the east coast of Kenya) have significantly underwhelming athletics success- comparable to many other regions across the globe.
This is where I want to talk about the Kalenjin, a predominantly Kenyan tribal group native to the Rift Valley. The Kalenjin make up 1/2000th of the world’s population. Yet, in 2003, of all of the all-time top-10 male performances for the 800m, 1500m, 5,000m, 10,000m, 3,000m steeple-chase, and marathon, 50% of them were achieved by Kalenjin athletes: a truly astonishing statistic. Furthermore there appears to be an ‘ethnic dimension’ to the ‘East African running phenomenon.’
Most of the population of Iten are Kalenjin. Perhaps it is such proximity to this particular tribe that has encouraged me to romanticize their traits: of all the tribal groups in Kenya, I find the folk-lore that surrounds the Kalenjin the most rousing. There is a consistent narrative amongst the locals about how the Kalenjins are honest and fair but at the same time fearsome warriors; they are, apparently, brave and courageous; a tribe of people who are capable of withstanding, and indeed of thriving in, a climate of extreme pain and hardship.
There are some stories of the old rituals of the Kalenjin that, whilst shocking and appalling to a Western audience in the 21st century, indicate how brutality and bravery are intimately related in Kalenjin culture. For example, as john Manners has written,
‘[In the nineteenth century], before marriage, every Kalenjin adolescent had to undergo ritual circumcision as initiation into adulthood. The slow and painful operation was observed by watchful elders looking for the slightest flinch by a young initiate, which would cause him [or her] to fail this very public test and to be permanently labelled kibitet [chebitet for girls], or coward, and be consigned for life to a kind of internal exile.’ John Manners Raiders of the Rift Valley
Manners has spent decades researching Kalenjin culture in order to explain why they are so successful at distance running. He has argued that throughout their two-thousand year history the Kalenjin deliberately encouraged the breeding of brave children and promoted repeated tests of courage (such as the circumcision ritual) which tested ‘not only the ability to withstand physical pain, but also to hold up under pressure in a long-anticipated trial...perhaps not unlike an athletics competition.’ Ultimately Manners has argued that the history of Kalenjin ritual practices is the history of a tribe trying to ‘strengthen their military forces’. In so doing, he believes, they ‘have fostered the development of traits that have made their modern heirs conquerors in an entirely different realm.’
Regardless of whether or not such theories are true, they play a fundamental role in how many Kalenjin perceive themselves today in Kenya. Most of the athletes I have spoken to have told me of their natural endurance ability. Perhaps this sincere belief in their capabilities as modern warriors gives many of these athletes the mental edge required to claim victories over their (as they see it) tribally-inferior opposition.
(Note: The more time I have spent in this part of Kenya, the more I have realized how important tribal identity is here. Indeed, State House politicians in Nairobi are currently pursuing plans to remove the tribal classification from Kenyan citizens’ official documents as they believe that it has the potential to be so strong, it could cause damage to attempts to unify the Kenyan people under the banner of one nation. Related to these political manoeuvres is the court International Court Case in which senior members of the Kenyan government are being tried for crimes against humanity after being charged with inciting and assisting the tribal violence that broke out after the 2008 elections.)