(Photo's of Iten. Photo 2 is the 'centre', photo 3 is Dougie outside one of the shops)
I am writing this blog from my ‘new’ apartment. It is 9.30 on Friday evening, and Dougie and I are preparing for our second night here. We have just cooked for ourselves for the first time since arriving on Monday. I will write more about the living arrangements in a later post, as I will the food. Here, though, I’ll write a bit about Iten (pronounced ‘it’-‘en’)- the town in which we will be living for the next three months.
TaD unassumingly meandered down the dusty highway under the baking sun. Sometimes he stepped aside for the locals walking in the opposite direction to pass; sometimes they moved for him. As he passed the Mosque he flicked a casual hand to acknowledge the figures standing at the Kiosk. They smiled back at him. A number of small children ran up alongside him. They were dressed in their distinctive blue school uniform. ‘Jambo’ he said, lovingly, as their hopeful faces beamed back at him with happiness. ‘How are you?’ they all screamed in unison with excitement and delight. ‘Fine’ TaD replied, ‘how are you?’. ‘Fine!’ they shouted before scampering away.
On Monday and Tuesday we were two clumsy ‘Mazungos’ (white person in Swahili). We got sunburned. We got ripped off by the street-sellers. We stumbled on the broken ground. We said ‘hi’ instead of ‘Jambo’. Now we are at one with the town and feel at home. I’ve even caught Dougie speaking with a bit of an African accent.
I have taken some photographs of the town. Essentially made up of one long road and one large area packed with market stalls, cluttered and crooked, the ‘town-centre’ is fundamentally different from ‘towns’ in Britain. Whilst the centre is located in a basin, what we would call the ‘residential area’ sprawls out, up the sides of the basin, on to hilltops. Except for the main road, all of the paths and minor roads are rock-hard: made up of broken rocks and dried mud. On a clear day, of which there are many, one can get some fantastic views of the ‘Kerio valley’ which stretches away for miles and miles.
What the photographs do not convey is the friendliness of the town. Although now, after furnishing our flat, we have a reputation as dangerously hard barterers in the local market, we are yet to encounter any outward signs of unhappiness, anger, or frustration. In our early ‘obviously-Mazungo’ days the people flocked around us putting out their hands for us to shake and telling us their names. The children, in particular, are very welcoming. Though some are shy and will run to hide behind a tree, most will shout ‘how are you?!’ (Admittedly, this is rapidly becoming somewhat irritating). Yesterday when we passed a school a hundred or so very young kids ran to the fence and put their hands through the bars. They were chanting ‘how are you’ and laughing. Great fun!
Perhaps one explanation for the friendliness here is the athletics. As Ambrose (our host at the Too Guesthouse on our first night) told us, Iten is a ‘running town, for athletes.’ In a similar vein, a local told us ‘these people are Kalenjins, they are good people’. The Kalenjin are the tribe native to the Rift Valley area to which most of the great Kenyan runners belong.
By producing great runners Iten has become renowned across Kenya, Africa, and the world, for being a hotbed for middle- and long-distance running. This has bred more success as that thousands of young aspiring athletes- rich and poor- have packed in their jobs and made the trip to the town to live and train. Indeed, whilst many of Kenya’s great runners have grown up here (for example Wilson Kipketer, David Rudisha, Isaak Songok, Silas Kiplagat, Augustine Choge- who all attended the town’s famous St Patrick’s school [of which there will be a later post about]) many of the others have moved to live here. This has become increasingly common amongst Western athletes: Great Britain’s Mo Farah came out here a couple of years ago for 9 months of un-interrupted training, as have the great French steeple-chasers Bob Tahari and Mehdi Baala. Last night, Dougie and I went to the ‘Kerio View Hotel’ for an evening meal and sitting on the table next to us was the Italian renato canova possibly the world’s most famous marathon coach.
As TaD wrote he contemplated the increasing Westernization of Iten and the effect this has had on society in general in the town and upon the running community in particular. But TaD was tired and needed to be alert for training in the morning. He finished writing his thoughts before making his way down the hallway and into his bedroom. There, he sank onto his mattress, secured his mosquito net, zipped up his sleeping bag and promptly went to sleep.