Fast Forward: The rise of Kenya’s women runners

Day One: A story in five parts

Fellows Fall 2001

By Lori Shontz

June 05, 2009

ITEN, Kenya — One day back in elementary school, Esther Kiplagat sat bare-footed in a classroom and read a question on a test about a man named Kip Keino, who had gone away to run in the Olympics and come back home with a gold medal. She recognized the name, and she knew he was a member of her tribe, the Kalenjin.

Esther could think of no greater honor than to be the answer to a question on a national examination. She made up her mind that she, too, would be a runner.

It wasn't easy. Boys made fun of her as she ran through her village. As she grew older, neighbors insisted she put aside such childish, improper pursuits. But Esther refused to believe that being female made her less of an athlete -- or gave her less of a right to use her talent.

"I didn't categorize myself as a woman," she said. "At that time I didn't know of sex, I just put it that we were equal. It gave me motivation. I wanted to make my name just like that. If someone could read my heart, woman was not there. Nobody could see."

Esther kept running.

And she was not alone.

Kenya's pioneering women runners, those who began to make their mark in the 1970s and 1980s, were not part of an organized women's liberation movement. They simply wanted to compete, and to do so they needed to overcome biases against women inherent in their own society and those imported by British colonialists.

This combination of cultures produced strict limits on the career choices of Kenyan women, but at least no one put them on Victorian pedestals. No one in Kenya worried, as some British doctors once did, that if a woman exerted herself too much her uterus would fall out and her child-bearing days -- and therefore her usefulness -- would end.

Kalenjin women strain. Kalenjin women sweat. They cook, clean and care for children. They gather water and firewood. And they farm -- women grow 80 percent of the food in sub-Saharan Africa.

Former marathon world-record holder Tegla Loroupe grew up in a village called Kaptenguria, located at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet. When it was her turn to fetch water, she went to the river -- an 18-mile round-trip -- on foot. At harvest time, she would haul between 25 and 40 kilos of corn on her back to a storage barn, 30 miles from the field.

Later in her life, sports fans wondered where this 4-foot-11, 80-pound woman got her strength.

Don't outdo the men

Most of the best male runners in the world are members of the Nandi subgroup of the Kalenjin tribe. According to researcher Regina Smith Oboler, "That men are superior to women is a basic Nandi assumption."

In Nandi tradition, men are associated with the right side -- the stronger side. Women are associated with the left. It was thought that if a woman passed a man on his right side, she could ruin his prowess with weapons. If a woman did so, a man could beat her.

The tribe believed "feminine-child pollution" could diminish a man's courage, strength and foresight, so for a month after a woman gave birth, her husband could not enter their hut. For another four months, he could enter only through the back door.

Oboler, who spent 18 months living with the Nandi in the mid-1970s, spoke with women who recounted a cleansing ritual their mothers and grandmothers were forced to undergo if they cooked for a man after giving birth. A woman needed to spend two hours bathing, and if she touched herself or her clothing before she finished preparing the meal, she was required to bathe again. If she didn't, the man was permitted to beat her.

In her book, "Women, Power and Economic Change: The Nandi of Kenya," Oboler said some stories along these lines, passed through generations, probably have been exaggerated. But she did find that unless a man totally neglects his responsibilities, "it is disrespectful for a wife to outdo her husband at anything."

Such traditions and attitudes aren't limited to the Nandi or the Kalenjin.

In Kenya's largest tribe, the Kikuyu, a person who killed a man used to be required to compensate his family with 100 sheep or goats; the price for killing a woman was 30 animals. The Kikuyu initiation ritual used to require boys to rape a woman from another tribe.

Such customs have been eliminated, but the attitudes remain.

In the mid-1980s, Tegla Loroupe's father forbade her to run on her primary-school team. She made a deal with him -- if her math grades were higher than her brother's, she could compete. Her father agreed, never dreaming a girl could score higher than a boy.

"Girls were not supposed to like math," Tegla said.

Tegla carried her math book wherever she went, and she posted far higher grades than her brother ... to her father's chagrin.

"My father told my brother, 'How is a girl always beating you?' " Tegla said. "He didn't understand that I was just better."

No time to train

In Kalenjin tradition, women are considered "of the house," while men are "of the outside."

While the women and girls are fetching water and firewood, preparing meals, taking care of the children and growing food, the men and boys tend the livestock and help with the farming.

This division of labor does not render women powerless. Wealth is traditionally measured by number of cattle, which are tended by men, but families could not survive without the food and water provided by women.

"You have to understand the culture of Kenya," said Rose Chepyator Thomson, one of the the first Kenyan women to run in competition after marriage, a 12-time All-American at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1980s and now a professor at the University of Georgia who studies the physiology and sociology of Kenyan runners. "We believe that in the African context, what the man does outside and what the woman does in the home are equally valuable."

Women's work began to be devalued after the British colonized Kenya in the early 1900s. Until then, land was a communal resource. Crops grown by women were women's to distribute, and they used the food to feed their families. In the rare event of a surplus, a woman could sell it, and some bought their own small livestock with their earnings.

The British partitioned the land and issued titles. The titles went to male heads of households, so women were no longer growing crops on community land. They were farming on their husband's land.

The British also began to levy taxes. This was no big deal for the British in Kenya, who had been paying taxes all their lives, but the Africans had never before lived in a cash society. Cattle was no longer the only major measure of wealth. Families needed money.

"Now the men went to work on the white farms," Thomson said. "Only men, not women. And the men, they were not allowed to bring their families. Just the men stayed there, like the South Africans in the mines.

"The men never came back. Where did they go? They went to cities and worked there, and women fulfilled the roles of the woman and the man at home. The man sent the money from the city because that's where the jobs were. It transformed into a money economy."

That transformation deprived Kalenjin women of their traditional power base. The men owned the land, so if women produced a surplus crop, the men claimed it. Women still performed all of their traditional duties, but those duties gradually were accorded second-class status because they didn't bring in money, which was needed to pay the taxes.

By the 1960s, when male Kalenjin runners rose to world prominence, Kalenjin women were coping with the worst parts of two patriarchal traditions -- African and Western. To keep their families and villages going when the men were working on white farms or in the cities, they were performing all of the chores without help.

No one becomes an elite athlete without practice. So in addition to overcoming the cultural obstacles to participating in athletic competition, Kalenjin women simply couldn't find time to train, a situation that prevails today.

Recent analyses of Kenyan society show that while men control family finances, they spend only 37.8 percent of their time on work-related activities, compared to 60 percent for women.

"The men there, they have more leisure time, so to speak, sometimes because of the Western model," Thomson said. "The woman has been left to do the shamba work (the farm work) and the house work. Before the man was doing the shamba work -- they were sharing. The men are resting too much."

Woman Warrior

Despite the obstacles, Kalenjin women by the 1990s began to win big on the international circuit.

When Tegla Loroupe began competing internationally in the early 1990s, she signed a contract with one of the only agents she could find who would represent a Kenyan girl. A teenager, she went to live in Germany in a house with five Kenyan men.

She made one thing clear from the beginning: "I will not open my legs for them."

Her manager had no problem with that. But he told her that she needed to cook and clean for the male runners, and Tegla never thought to protest. She ran the same workouts as the men did, and when they came home and rested, she washed their laundry and prepared their meals.

Two weeks after Tegla had arrived, the manager stopped by and found her scrubbing the men's shoes. He was horrified and told her he had been joking. That hadn't occurred to her ... or to the men, who thought it only natural that she should wait on them.

In 1994, Tegla gained worldwide fame when she became the first Kenyan woman to win the New York City Marathon, a victory that earned her thousands of dollars and a Mercedes. When she went home, Kenyan officials greeted her at Nairobi airport and presented her with land, nine cows and 16 sheep.

Such a reception was unprecedented for a woman.

When Tegla got back to her hometown of Kaptenguria, she got an even bigger surprise. The people who had tried to discourage her when she ran through the village as a girl gave her an ostrich feather and a bandolier of shells -- honors normally bestowed on the great male warriors of her Kalenjin subgroup, the Pokot. They held a reception at the village stadium and even gave the women of the village the first opportunity to speak in Tegla's honor.

"I always thought my time would come," she said, "and my time came."

"I always thought my time would come," she said, "and my time came."

Esther Kiplagat has succeeded, too, although she's not as well known internationally as Tegla Loroupe.

Now in her mid-30s, she has competed at the elite level for more than a decade. Last fall, seven years after Tegla's ground-breaking victory, Esther finished fifth at the New York City Marathon. Kenyan women took four of the top five places.

Esther and her husband, Solomon Tanui, have two sons, Emmanuel Kiptoo, 7, and Kenneth Kimutai, 4, who have changed the way she thinks about her sport. "I have a heavy burden in me -- I run for my children," she said. "Now it's a responsibility."

She runs not only to earn money that will one day pay for her sons' education, but she runs to show them that all things are possible -- for women as well as men.

Twenty years after the boys of her village mocked her for running, her boys are proud of her accomplishments. And if they see a black woman running on television, they assume it is their mother.

Esther smiled. "The younger one, he says, 'I want to run like you, Mom.' "