Fast Forward: Looking Toward a New Kenya

Day Five: Fifth of Five Parts

Fellows Fall 2001

By Lori Shontz

June 05, 2009

The problem with the hut was obvious, its owner said: "It was raining inside." The solution was elusive; he had no money to fix the leaky straw roof.

Joel and Evaline Jepleting had one room, one cow, three acres ... and 11 children. Keeping everyone fed and clothed was a challenge. Dry was a bonus.

The Jepletings lived in the hut for more years than they can recall. They remember clearly, however, when they moved out--in 1997, the year after their daughter, Prisca, came home with more money than they had ever seen just because she could run fast.

Prisca's winnings built a tiny house of brick with concrete floors and a metal roof, amenities that double as status symbols in the village of Mosoriot and throughout rural Kenya.

Not far away, in a village called Matugen, sits another house with a concrete floor.

Its owner, Margaret Kosgei, has hung a poster that reads, "Prayers and faith can move mountains." She has always believed that God will provide, and six years ago she discovered how--with the strong legs and fleet feet of Rose, the sixth of her eight children, whose athletic ability has transformed the family's farm.

Their two-acre shamba has grown by an acre and a half, and the new land is more fertile because it is deeper in the valley. The Kosgei family now owns two vehicles, an electric generator and a television--the TV so prized it is locked in a cabinet.

Such details don't appear in the official results of the 1996 world cross-country championships, junior ladies division. The record books stick to the basics, that Rose Kosgei of Kenya, age 16, won the world title and that Prisca Jepleting of Kenya, 15, finished second.

To take the results at face value, however, is to misunderstand them. Rose and Prisca didn't merely win medals. They won the chance to make meaningful improvements in their families' lives--like growing numbers of young Kenyan women who are making a career of running.

They are following the example set over the past decade by the first Kenyan women who have earned enough money on the international racing circuit to help their families and, in the process, elevate the status of women.

Catherine Ndereba is paying for her siblings' education, and she sometimes presses handfuls of Kenyan shillings into the hands of less fortunate neighbors. Tegla Loroupe has sent two younger sisters to U.S. universities, and she is supporting six nieces and nephews whose mother died in 1994. "If I was not running," she said, "the six kids from my sister, they would be street children."

And then there is Lornah Kiplagat, who is taking the next step. She is helping not only her family, but the next generation of female athletes, as well, an investment that is beginning to pay off in ways likely to improve Kenyan society at large.

Lornah's "Development Project"

Lornah considers her High Altitude Trainings Center just that--a place where runners can train at 8,000 feet and where young Kenyan girls can develop their athletic talents. It is evolving, however, into a homegrown development project of sorts, with striking similarities to the programs operated by international agencies aimed at improving economic opportunities in poor countries.

Her camp employs about a dozen people--including a cook, cook's assistant, manager, carpenter, assorted handymen and drivers--in jobs that didn't exist two years ago. Now each of those families can rely on a steady income.

The camp, situated high above the Great Rift Valley, attracts European runners who want to get away from the stresses of everyday life and train at high altitude. They pay room and board, subsidizing the Kenyan girls who pay nothing, and they spend money in town, buying food and goods from local merchants. Lornah hopes fees from paying customers will eventually cover all of the camp's operating costs.

The Kenyan girls, meanwhile, get an unprecedented opportunity to divorce themselves from the daily struggle to help put food on their families' tables and a chance to hone their athletic abilities. For some who fall short athletically, the camp provides skills or schooling that might prove useful in pursuing other careers.

Florence Komen, 18, grew up in the village of Kaptich and was one of the top students in her secondary school. She wanted to attend a university, but her family was too poor to send her. Instead she found a job at a grain mill, working 11 hours a day, six days a week, and earning about $15 a month.

She quit her job and began training at Lornah's camp nearly a year ago; five months later, having made little improvement in her running times, Florence became the camp's assistant manager. She attends computer classes at a nearby school, and if she goes on to university, Lornah will cover her tuition.

Florence can't believe her luck. "You can't imagine that someone has given all of that money to assist you," she said.

Women with Money

When reporters ask Kenya's male running stars, particularly the young ones, how they plan to spend their prize money, they typically list the traditional measures of wealth in Kenya--houses, land and cows.

They share some of their riches with their families, which can be a giant undertaking. The concept of family in Kenya is so sweeping that it's often difficult to decipher the relationships. The brother of your father is also called your father. Aunts are mothers. Cousins, even distant ones, are brothers and sisters.

Once they have helped their families, however, many splurge on themselves. At a cross-country meet in Eldoret this past November, four former Kenyan stars arrived in separate Mercedes-Benz sedans, all with curtained windows, each driven by a chauffeur. Two-time Boston Marathon champion Moses Tanui has built himself a mansion so large that acquaintances wonder if he sleeps in a different bedroom each night of the month.

When Lornah returns home, she and her husband, Pieter Langerhorst, live in a dorm room at her training camp, just as the up-and-coming runners do. They own a Mercedes, but it is 16 years old.

All of Lornah's prize money is devoted to the camp. She and Pieter live off the money he earns as a marketing consultant for shoe companies and an agent for runners. His earnings have provided a spacious home in his homeland, the Netherlands, but in Kenya they stay in the dorm. Their primary vehicle is a matatu, a covered pickup truck with benches in the back--and room for the campers to ride.

Lornah's investment in young women mirrors a phenomenon well known among experts working to improve living conditions in developing countries--that the best way to alleviate poverty is to target programs and direct financial resources to women.

"If you put money in women's hands, good things will happen," said Ritu Sharma, co-founder and executive director of Women's EDGE, the Coalition for Women's Economic Development and Global Equality. "They will take that money and they will buy better food for their kids. They will put their kids in school. They will be able to access health care for themselves and their families. Women are extremely responsible with the income they are earning.

"Studies done in developing country after developing country show that men have a much lower tendency to invest that money back into their families. For a whole variety of reasons, men tend to spend on themselves."

An organization called Oikocredit, which loans money to enterprises owned and operated by poor people in developing countries, gives preference to projects in which women are both direct beneficiaries and participants in decision-making.

"Women are more responsible," said Tor Gull, general manager of Oikocredit, which is based in the Netherlands and affiliated with the World Council of Churches. "They feel an obligation to repay the loan, where a man will often take the money and you will never hear from him again."

The World Bank took up this theme in a report last year that documented the benefits of gender equality--everything from poverty reduction to better governance--and it has since made gender a bigger factor in how it lends money to governments.

"When we offer policy advice, we are doing it to increase women's income-earning opportunities--whatever is required in a particular country to do it," said Karen Mason, director of the bank's gender and development group. "Because when women use their earnings, they use them differently than the earnings of men."

Income from athletics is no small matter for Kenya. According to a November 2001 article in the East African Standard, it is a leading source of foreign exchange even though it is not acknowledged in economic surveys with such exports as coffee and tea.

So as Kenyan women win more road races and track meets, they are gaining control of substantial amounts of money--a once unlikely prospect for women who weren't born into wealthy families. Equally as important as the money itself is the fact that they earned it, with their own hard work.

"It doesn't matter how you get money in terms of how you use it," Sharma said. "But in terms of women's self-esteem, their ability to survive in the long term, absolutely it matters how they get this money. Once a woman begins to earn her own money, she is valued immediately by her family and her community. Her self-esteem goes up. She becomes more vocal about other issues.

"And when daughters and sons grow up with a mom who is making money, she's a great role model. She fundamentally changes the way they look at women."

Too Far, Too Fast?

These unprecedented opportunities for Kenya's aspiring female runners come with pitfalls. Many Kenyan girls aren't prepared to stand up to overbearing agents, fend off sexual advances from male athletes and coaches, or protect their winnings from relatives who feel entitled to a share.

It's impossible to know how many promising careers have been derailed by such problems; the situation isn't discussed openly. It is clear, however, that many of Kenya's talented girls never advance beyond the junior level.

Despite their early promise, for instance, neither Rose nor Prisca has posted significant international results since the 1996 world cross-country meet. It would be a surprise if they had. Since 1991, only three Kenyan girls who won junior world cross-country medals duplicated their feat at the senior level. During those years, Kenya's junior girls cross-country team won 21 world-championship medals. But at the senior level--which has double the medal opportunities--Kenya won only 11.

Brother Colm O'Connell, an Irish Catholic missionary who has coached Kenyan runners for 25 years, estimates that a boy excelling at the junior level has a 1 in 3 chance of similar success as a senior. For girls, he said, the chance is more like 1 in 5.

Exactly what holds back so many girls is up for debate.

Some get married young and are forced to stop competing. Marathon world record holder Catherine Ndereba and her supportive husband, Anthony Maina, are still exceptions to the rule. Some have too many time-consuming obligations, such as tending crops, to practice. Others fall victim to peer pressure. "If I was married and still lived in the village, I could never train," said Esther Kiplagat, who attended college in the United States and moved to the town of Eldoret when she returned. "The villagers would never allow it."

Prize money, despite its potential for good, can pose a problem, too. It can drive girls to compete before they're ready, so they burn out. Unable to see past a new roof or an extra acre of land, some girls--and their families--focus on the present at the expense of the future.

Worse, following the money sometimes causes girls to neglect their education. If hey get injured or pregnant, or simply lose interest in the sport, they have nothing to fall back on.

"We tell them when you run for money, things that are gotten very quickly just get away very quickly," said Rosemary Chemutai, one of a handful of female running coaches in Kenya. "Things that are gotten slowly, they stay with you for a longer period."

The lower-level meets, even the world junior cross-country championships, don't award cash. But runners who make a name for themselves attract the attention of agents and shoe companies, who are eager to associate themselves with fledgling stars. They shower young girls and boys with everything from track suits and running shoes to money for school fees--public education is not free in Kenya. This is how Prisca and Rose were able to afford their home-repair projects.

It takes time to build up to the big-money events like the Chicago Marathon, which has a prize purse of $450,000 for the top 10 male and female finishers, or the Grand Prix track circuit in Europe, which pays six-figure appearance fees to top athletes just for showing up.

Most of Kenya's female running stars have taken the long way to the top. Neither Lornah Kiplagat nor Catherine Ndereba competed beyond the local level until they finished secondary school. Both are now elite runners and rich by Kenyan standards.

When Catherine set the marathon world record in Chicago this past October, on a single day she earned $75,000 for the victory, $100,000 for breaking the world record and a 2001 Volkswagen Jetta worth $26,125. She also received an appearance fee for simply participating, an undisclosed sum that is certainly six figures.

The average annual income in Kenya is $360.

High-pressure climb

At first glance, it is nearly impossible to distinguish Viola Kibiwot from the 466 other students at Matugen Primary School. Like most of the other girls, she is so shy that she avoids eye contact. On the rare occasions when she speaks, she ducks her head and all but hides her face in her left shoulder, muffling her words.

Viola is 16 years old, about average for an eighth-grader in Kenya, and like her classmates she comes from a poor family. She and her seven siblings live on a tiny, one-acre shamba, where they raise skinny chickens and a mangy cow.

Their school is dilapidated but surrounded by remarkable beauty. It is perched on the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley, giving it a view that would scream for a four-star restaurant in a richer country.

The students here, however, receive daily hot lunches from the World Food Program, available only to the world's poorest schools. The teachers eat as eagerly as the students.

Most of the children can't afford shoes, and many are dressed in school uniforms--green sweater, orange shirt, blue skirt or shorts--that are so badly shredded they are barely more than rags.

Viola stands out in this respect. She wears shoes, and her green sweater is clearly not a hand-me-down. Such details provide the only external clue that there's something different about Viola. She's a two-time junior world cross-country champion.

Inside, she no doubt feels a great deal of pressure. Everyone expects that someday soon, this 16-year-old will become her family's primary provider.

A faded, hand-painted slogan above the door of her classroom sums up Viola's situation: "There is no lift to success, you have to climb the stairs."

All the students at Matugen face a steep climb. About three-quarters of them will go on to secondary school, headmaster Amos Rono said, and only a third of those will attend college. Because jobs are so scarce, more than half of the university graduates will end up in the same place as less-educated classmates--back in Matugen, farming for subsistence.

So despite the pressure to perform, Viola and a handful of other promising athletes at the school, including two-time junior world championship qualifier Charity Kiprono, are luckier than most. "Here we do believe that God has blessed them with talent so their families can come up another way," Rono said.

High expectations have colored the way Viola and Charity see their sport. When asked about their goals, they don't talk about setting world records, competing in the Olympics or winning gold medals.

Charity sets a towering goal for a Kenyan schoolgirl: "I want to be a millionaire."

Viola is more down to earth: "I want to buy a shamba." She has even picked out a spot for her family's next farm, lower in the valley where it is greener, flatter and more fertile. "It is good to grow wheat."

Ripple Effects

Not every successful Kenyan woman runner is going to be a Lornah Kiplagat who spreads her wealth beyond her own family by investing in her nation's next generation. Not every successful athlete of either gender in any sport or country does so.

But Lornah had no such grand notions when she started her camp, or as it evolved into a mini-development project providing spinoff educational and economic benefits. She remains focused on running and her runners, and she makes no apologies for not giving back to her country in other ways.

"Some people say, 'Why not a dispensary? That would be nice to do,' " Lornah said. "A dispensary is something nice to do, but that is for something else. They are good athletes, and they should have this."

It is not uncommon, however, for initiatives like Lornah's to ripple through societies in unforeseen ways.

When the government of Bangladesh set out to control population growth, it borrowed money from the World Bank, and the family planning programs it created did more than reduce the number of babies born.

Women went door-to-door to provide counseling and other services, which was controversial, to say the least. It wasn't unusual for people to throw things at them. But they persevered.

"Over time, what happened was that these women became role models and agents of change," said Mason, the World Bank's gender and development director. "They had motor bikes, they had income, they traveled, they spoke out freely. They helped people to see a new concept of what was acceptable behavior for women."

While Mason doubts that Lornah's camp alone could make such sweeping changes in Kenya, she wouldn't be surprised if it has a significant impact.

Neither would Esther Kiplagat. Her running career began in the 1980s, when few women dared to compete, and she continues to post strong results among an ever-expanding group of talented young Kenyans. As she celebrated their accomplishments during a visit to Lornah's camp, she smiled and said, "We can run, and we can change the world."