Running in Kenya

While running down the main street in Kitale I run past the grocery market, past the piles of used clothes, past the lumberyard, and towards the coffee shop with wifi that just closed last week. A young man starts to run beside me. He begins talking to me in Swahili. This is pointless for two reasons. One, I’m running and really not in the position or mood to strike up a conversation. Two, the chances of me, a young, wide-eyed, muzungu knowing Swahili at a conversational level is almost statistically insignificant. Kenya has two national languages, Swahili and English. This makes the incentive to learn Swahili, past polite greetings for an English-speaking foreigner, very little.

This scene happens every time I go for a run, often multiple times. It strikes me as interesting for several reasons:

1. Kenya is perhaps the most well known country in the world for producing top-flight world-class distance runners. While this statement is true, it is missing nuance. In the four weeks I have been in Western Kenya I have surprisingly seen no Kenyan’s running or training. This likely is due to a small sample size and the fact that I’ve spent most of my time in the wrong areas. Even so, I thought I’d see one or two.

As I wondered where the historic record-setting runners of Kenya were, I began to ask around. It turns out that while the country of Kenya may get the credit for producing Olympic runners, the most gifted runners are really the product of one ethnic group in particular, the Kalenjin. The Kalenjin people are actually comprised of several historic ethnic groups including the Kipsigis, Nandi, Marakwet, Tugen, Keiyo, Pokot, Terik, and Sabaot. They all speak the same ethnic language but have different dialects. These groups united to become the Kalenjin in response to colonialism as a way to advocate their interests more efficiently to the then British government. They are most centrally located on the western edge of the Rift valley and make up about 12 per cent of Kenya’s total population.

I also asked what makes them so good at running. I suspected I’d receive an interesting answer, as the scientific thinking behind genetics hasn’t really reached all minds in Western Kenya. It turns out, I did. I was told that the Kalenjin drink a lot of milk. Apparently everything they eat, they make with milk.

2. Why would someone drop what he (it has always been a young man) is doing and run along side me unsolicited for half a mile? I’ve done a lot of running in my short life and nobody has thrown down his or her rake to join me before. It seems there are several possible reasons why this behavior exists.

One, they are making fun of me. While this may sound strange, it is not totally out of the question. When I ran in the United States I regularly was honked at or yelled at. Usually with the quote from Forest Gump, “Run Forest, Run!” This could be just the Kenyan way of poking fun of the lunatic who runs in a circle in his spare time.

Two, they could be trying to help me with the hope that I will pay them. This is a frequent phenomena. In fact, it is common for a young boy to help you pull out of a street-side parking space and then stare you straight in the eye with his hand held out. He is looking to be compensated for his unsolicited services. Unfortunately, most of the time it is not too difficult to pull out of a parking spot so the value added, and his potential profit is very slim. This is the case when I run. I don’t need any help navigating the bustling streets of Kitale. Sure, it is hectic and sometimes I think I’m going to get hit, but I really don’t need someone helping me navigate. Also, I never carry my wallet when I run.

Three, there is something ‘cool’ about being seen with a mzungu. I’m always a bit uncomfortable about the reality of this and I’m not even sure ‘cool’ is the correct word to use. I am regularly given undue respect and influence simply because I come from the United States. Last week I was asked to stand up in a wedding! For readers who may not know, I’ve only been in Kenya for four weeks! In Ghana I was stopped on the street multiple times just so someone could take a picture with me. It is just part of the stench that hangs in the air left over from the colonial era.

Four, the man is just trying to be friendly. The cynic inside me says this is ridiculous and out of the question. I suppose, however, it is possible and probably likely.

3. Invariably the individual who runs with me clearly does not run on a regular basis. They are usually wearing flip-flops and tattered pants. It strikes me that even though running may be the simplest sport in the world to participate in, it may be out-of-bounds for many Kenyans for a key socioeconomic reason.

Soccer, the world’s most popular sport requires a large flat area, a ball, and—preferably—something to resemble a goal or a net. As I type this sentence there is a group of pastors playing volleyball outside my room. Both of these sports, while very simple, require much more sophistication than running. Namely, they both have rules. Running is easy, there are no rules, you just run.

It occurred to me, after viewing this chart over the weekend, that many Kenyans might not be able to spare the calories to run on a regular basis. Running is one of the most calorie intensive sports and is typically anti-social. Two details that just don’t make running as popular as you’d think it would be for Kenyans.

There is one thing troubles me when reflecting on this behavior. It is the congruencies between their seemingly odd behavior and my own behavior. Like my brief running mates, I am only living in Kenya for a short time. I am not here for the long-haul just like they do not run with me for the entire loop. I wonder if the people around me wonder the same things I wonder about those I interact with while running. Perhaps the stereotype that all mzungus have exorbitant amounts of money is being smashed. Just like my stereotype that all Kenyans are good at running was deflated. Maybe they are wondering why I am here. Am I here for my own enjoyment? Am I here for my own enrichment? Is there something ‘cool’ about spending a year living in Africa?  Am I here to be friendly, to make a positive difference, and to help others? The cynic inside them probably thinks this is ridiculous and out of the question.

I would probably answer affirmatively to all of the above questions. If I’m truly being honest, I think the behavior of running in flip-flops and tattered jeans for a half mile with someone who can’t communicate with you and isn’t going to pay you is kind-of nuts. It is likely the choice to engage in this behavior is a combination of all the possibilities mentioned above. The equivocal cause of this behavior make it seem impulsive and potentially irrational. This is what is troubling. Is my behavior also perceived as kind-of nuts, impulsive, and potentially irrational? Am I running with flip-flops and tattered jeans?

One thought on “Running in Kenya

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