Fast Forward: Lornah and her camp for girls

Day Four: Fourth of Five Parts

Fellows Fall 2001

By Lori Shontz

June 05, 2009

ITEN, Kenya — Like everyone else, Lornah Kiplagat got the word from the newspaper. That's what made her so angry. She didn't understand how the Kenyan Amateur Athletic Association could possibly announce in the East African Standard that it had canceled a 10-kilometer race -- the one she was organizing to celebrate the one-year anniversary of her running camp -- without warning.

Lornah didn't become the only Kenyan woman to open a training camp for runners -- while continuing a successful competitive career -- without having the guts to stand up for herself. Within hours of reading the paper that November day, she was on the phone.

First she called the reporter and demanded a retraction.

"The Kenya 3A, they are not doing anything for the women athletes in this country, not at all, and if I do something they want to complain," she said. "The Kenya 3A cannot say it is canceled. It is my place and my house, and the K3A cannot cancel it."

Next she tracked down the mobile phone number for the athletic association's chairman, Eljiah Kiplagat (no relation). By the time she reached him, television news had reported that the association might ban Lornah and anyone who ran in her race from competing for Kenya in international events.

When the chairman answered his phone, she said brusquely, "This is Lornah Kiplagat. What is going on?" When he didn't answer immediately -- Kenyan men aren't used to having a woman take such a tone -- she filled in the dead air. "Why are you threatening me? I haven't killed anyone."

Recounting the incident -- after she had agreed to change the date of her race to avoid a conflict with an association-sponsored event, and after he had accepted an invitation to attend her race and stay for lunch -- Lornah shook her head and laughed at her audacity. "Sometimes I say things," she said, "and later I am so embarrassed."

But she just can't help herself, an attribute that enables her to be a voice for young women who aren't yet prepared to speak up for themselves.

"I don't think I am different," Lornah said. "We all think the same, but because of oppression, well, not oppression, but because they don't like to talk about it, they don't like to tell out the truth. And I can't say anything else."

  • Some parents won't allow their daughters to pursue a running career because they believe a daughter is more valuable for the dowry she can bring as a bride.
  • Some girls compete but are taken advantage of, financially and sexually, by male coaches, agents and athletes.
  • Some successful women athletes have failed to reap their rightful monetary rewards because their husbands have squandered their earnings.

The solution, according to Lornah, is for Kenya and its athletic federation to stop neglecting the country's girls.

In case they aren't sure how, she is providing an example. She has spent all of the prize money she has earned since 1998 on her camp, which aims to give girls a chance to work toward a brighter future. And not just in sports.

Lenia Cheryiuot, who dropped out of running as a teenager because she got pregnant and married, spent a year at the camp and then won several thousand dollars on the European road-race circuit this past summer.

Jane Kiptoo, described as undisciplined and uncoachable by her male secondary school coach, finished second at 3,000 meters in the 2000 junior world track championships.

Hilda Rotich didn't run fast enough to distinguish herself in Europe, but she is studying physical therapy at a school in the Netherlands, and Lornah is paying her tuition.

Florence Komen, who lagged behind the other girls in training but read voraciously when she finished her runs and chores, is now the camp's assistant manager. Lornah is sending her to computer classes, and if Florence wants to continue studying at a university, Lornah will make that happen, too.

"We're not trying to give them a running career," said Lornah's husband and agent, Dutchman Pieter Langerhorst. "Just a career. A future."

Camp Culture Shock

Lornah's camp -- officially, the High Altitude Trainings Center -- is nestled on a brilliant green hillside at 8,000 feet, surrounded by clay huts and situated next to the weather-beaten Impala Inn (read: "bar"). The camp stands out because of its cream-colored concrete walls, its brick-red floors, which are scrubbed daily and painted regularly, and its blue-green metal roof.

And because of its size.

An entire family lives in each of the neighboring one-room huts. Lornah's camp has 20 rooms, and only two people live in each one.

The camp also has electricity, a common room with seating for scores of people, a desktop computer, a store and, most difficult for outsiders to believe, a shower in every room.

"I never thought I would do something that big," Lornah said. "I think it's about six times, seven times what I had in mind. When I decided to do it, it came into my mind that, 'OK, if you have decided to do it, you are going to do it right.' "

That meant building 20 shower stalls -- and buying a hot-water heater -- even though the Kenyan girls at the camp are content to take bucket baths.

Lornah did this to make accommodations more comfortable for the European athletes who train occasionally at the camp -- and who, unlike the Kenyan girls, pay for the privilege. She also wanted to cushion the culture shock for the Kenyan girls who end up competing in the United States or Europe.

Young Kenyan women with athletic potential who have graduated from secondary school can live and train at the camp for free. Europeans pay $20 a day for room and board and provide the camp's primary source of income. Some Kenyan boys are admitted, too, most of whom also pay.

Runners train twice a day, once at 6 a.m., again around 4 p.m. The rest of the day they help the cook prepare meals, keep the camp clean, run errands and wash clothes -- including those of Lornah and Pieter, who stay in one of the camp's dormitory rooms because they are saving money to build their own house in Kenya someday.

Everything about the camp has broadened the horizons of the girls who live there.

Most hadn't met white people. Most hadn't seen a relationship like Lornah and Pieter's. Most hadn't met a woman like Lornah, who is comfortable being in charge.

"She's very, very different from the normal Kenyan woman," said Vivian Ruijters, a Dutch runner who has periodically trained at the camp. "Kenyan women still serve the men dinner. She does take care of Pieter, but Pieter also takes very good care of her. Their relationship has an equality. It's good for the girls here to see that."

Even the chores take on deeper meaning because the girls and boys share the work. They take turns washing dishes, they wash their own laundry, and they divvy up other daily tasks. One of the first girls to live at the camp was so shocked to see a boy scrubbing the floor that she averted her eyes.

Lornah made her look. "I told her, 'That's why you are here, to learn,' " she said. Lornah laughed. "Now she tells them what to do."

Thank-you notes from Lornah

Lornah, now 28, absorbed such lessons at a young age.

She grew up on a shamba, a farm, in the heart of Keiyo territory, a part of the Kalenjin homeland so remote that she doesn't go home for a visit unless it's a sunny day.

It is too far to walk from the camp, and only a four-wheel drive vehicle can get there if it rains because the road turns into a ribbon of mud. This quasi-road -- which passes the childhood homes of an Olympic champion, a world junior cross-country champion and a handful of other running stars -- ends before it reaches the shamba, anyway. Lornah needs to cross through several fields to get home.

Lornah grew up in two huts much like the others that dot the Kenyan highlands. Her family was different, though. None of the neighbors knew what to make of the Kiplagats, who moved there in 1964, just after Kenya became an independent country.

They appeared normal enough, although they were wealthier than many. Lornah's father owned 300 acres of land and the area's only cheese store. As befitting his station in life, he had two wives.

But Kiplagat's sons, unlike the other boys in the village, couldn't just toss their dirty clothes on the floor to signal that the women should wash them. If they wanted their sisters to wash their clothes, they had to say please. And the sisters -- no one could believe this -- had to agree.

As for Kiplagat's daughters, well, no one thought they would ever find husbands. Kiplagat refused to have them circumcised. Custom dictated that a girl wasn't ready for marriage until undergoing this painful and potentially dangerous initiation ritual, in which an old woman of the tribe uses a knife to split open the clitoris, making a young woman "clean."

Kiplagat didn't care. "I have a lot of farm," he used to say. "If anybody doesn't want to marry my daughters, they can stay home. I have enough place for them."

Lornah doesn't know where her father got such ideas. He wasn't a feminist; sometimes he refused to give his daughters money for school fees, and they had to devise ways around his whims. Lornah succeeded in doing so and finished secondary school in 1993, at age 20.

She spent the next four years confounding her family and friends.

"I do my own thing," Lornah said. "I don't know why."

She received a scholarship to study medicine in India and turned it down because a cousin had embarked on a similar program and returned three years later with mental problems. "Up to now, he is completely nuts," Lornah explained. "If that could happen to a nice guy, a quiet guy, it might happen the same to me."

She left home three months after graduation without saying where she was going or what she planned to do, and traveled two hours to the city of Nakuru to turn herself into a world-class runner -- even though she had never advanced beyond local competition in secondary school.

Lornah's cousin, Susan Sirma -- who in 1993 became the first Kenyan woman to win a medal at the world track and field championships -- gave her a place to live, and one of Sirma's friends offered Lornah a job looking after her children.

Lornah provided her own motivation

She improved her times so much that the late Kim McDonald, one of the world's leading agents, offered her a plane ticket to Europe, where she could compete for prize money. She turned him down.

"My friends were asking, 'Are you normal? You must be crazy,' " Lornah said. "I said, 'No, I'm just going my own way.' I just started running and I'm not at the top, so I won't want to start at the top and come down. I want to start down, and then I go up."

Lornah eventually went to Germany and succeeded on the European circuit. She then turned her attention to the United States, where there are bigger prize purses.

Lornah first attracted the attention of Pieter, her future husband, when he was director of marketing for Saucony, a company that manufactures sporting goods. Pieter sent her some running equipment in 1995 after a friend alerted him to a young woman posting good results, and a few days later he received a thank-you note.

He was stunned, especially when the notes kept coming. "Every time I sent a pair of socks, she thanked me," Pieter said. Most runners, "you send them five pair and they say, 'Can I have six?' "

She spent the paycheck from her first major victory, the 1997 Los Angeles Marathon, the way most Kenyans do, on a new house for her parents. Next to the two one-room huts on the shamba, Lornah built a four-room house with brick she scavenged from the nearby ruins of "the mzungu house," so called because it was once occupied by white people.

An engraved silver platter, her first-place award from the marathon, hangs on the white-washed living room wall.

'Nothing can stop her'

As Lornah's relationship with Pieter turned into a romantic one, he became her agent. She moved to the Netherlands, and Pieter began accompanying Lornah on visits to Kenya, eventually winning the approval of her family and paying her father the traditional brideswealth -- five cows, five sheep.

Lornah began to talk about how much female running talent was being wasted back home. The stories of Lornah and her friends got Pieter thinking, and he helped Lornah turn her impulse -- to help the girls back home -- into plans for a full-blown athletic training facility.

Pieter also nurtured the qualities within Lornah that enabled her to attempt something so audacious.

"She had to get used to men and women being equal," Pieter said. "It was always in her mind, but they tried to push it down. I treat her the same, and she's changed a lot. It gave her a lot of confidence.

"She was always different -- that's the reason I really liked her. But if something is in her mind now, my God, nothing can stop her."

In 1998, Lornah bought an acre of land just outside the town of Iten, where she had trained for a while at St. Patrick's, a Catholic boys school that sponsors running camps. She couldn't yet afford to build anything, so every time she returned to Kenya, she went to her land and sat on it. "I looked at it and thought about what it would look like," she said. "It really was a dream."

By the end of 1999, Lornah had won enough prize money to hire builders. She put more than money into the camp, however. She sketched the original plans, coordinated fabric for bedspreads, curtains and chair cushions, and even insisted on a few feminine touches, such as full-length mirrors in all of the rooms.

The villagers heard rumors that Lornah was building something, but they weren't sure what it was. A hotel, most figured.

"It went up so fast, all of a sudden there was a camp in their midst," said Brother Colm O'Connell, an Irish Catholic priest who helped build St. Patrick's into a running powerhouse. "For most buildings like that, it takes years. But Lornah and Pieter knew what they wanted to do. They had a plan, and they did it."

Even before the camp officially opened, runners were living and training there -- and Pieter was helping them enter races in Europe.

Lornah continued to compete, and as she became more successful, she earned more prize money and more publicity for the camp. She began to do newspaper and television interviews, and her camp was firmly established well before its official opening in November 2000.

By its one-year anniversary this past November, the camp had become a phenomenon. So many Kenyan running stars attended the 10K race to celebrate the occasion that the introductions and speeches lasted two and a half hours.

The most special guests, of course, were the country's growing number of women stars, including half-marathon world-record holder Susan Chepkemei and marathon world-record holder Catherine Ndereba. They all listened as Patrick Sang, the 1992 Olympic steeplechase silver medalist, evoked the famous John F. Kennedy quote: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Sang said, "Lornah has asked herself, 'What has sport done for me?' And she has said, 'I want to do something for the sport.' For that, Lornah, we thank you very much."

Lornah enjoyed the tribute -- and the attention -- but got right back to work.

When a reporter/photographer from The Daily Nation of Kenya showed up at the camp one day, she spent hours talking with him, explaining her vision and detailing the problems that girls must face. When he wanted to take a picture of her and Pieter standing in front of the camp, she balked.

She insisted that the photo include the runners, too.

"This place is not ours," Lornah said. "It is for the girls."