How the school run can make Kenyan champions

By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, western Kenya

Media caption,
Susan Kapkarich says she gets tired in lessons because of her long journey

Moses and Linet Masai had a long way to travel each morning when they were school children in western Kenya.

According to their former sports teacher, Ben Tumwet, the brother and sister had a 10km (more than six miles) journey to Bishop Okiring secondary school in the village of Kamuneru.

"Moses and Linet were coming from a far place, they were coming very early in the morning and also going back in the afternoon," says Mr Tumwet.

"So they got their running training to and from school."

Their daily commute proved to be over an auspicious distance.

Linet went on to win the 10,000m at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, while her brother earned a bronze in the men's event.

Punishing schedule

Now, a new generation of pupils at their former school - in the foothills of Kenya's Mount Elgon - is faced with a similar early morning journey, and they have a similar lack of transport.

They have been inspired by the success of the Masai siblings - but their goals are not confined to the athletics track.

Take 17-year-old Sammy, who also lives 10km away from the school and has a punishing schedule.

"I wake up at 4am, prepare some breakfast and then head out. I try to arrive at school by 6am in the morning," he says.

"I pass through the forest, where there's danger from wild animals, then I travel over muddy roads.

"Sometimes, the rivers overflow and carry away the bridges. On those days, I don't go to school."

But he perseveres. "It's a hard journey, but I struggle because I want to get an education. When I leave school I want to be a lawyer here in Kenya."

So, are there good things about his journey?

"No, there is nothing."

Image caption,
Children run around a track where the two-time world marathon champion Abel Kirui trains

And according to the school's headmaster, Naboth Okadie, the romantic image of future champions earning their stripes on their daily run to school, does not quite tally with the harsh reality that his pupils face.

The school is located in a poor, rural part of Kenya, with only the most basic infrastructure - and where inter-communal tensions have, in the recent past, resulted in violence and death.

"Right now, we have two children who are going for the national competition in athletics," Mr Okadie says.

As with the majority of his students, the headmaster worries about their journey.

"They walk to school and then back home in the evening. It's a huge challenge with our bad roads and insecurity: Actually, we fear for them," he says.


Another of the Bishop Okiring pupils, Susan, lives 5km away from the school.

Like Sammy, that means a start at 04:00 local time (02:00 GMT) - and a frequently scary journey.

"Sometimes it is very dark, especially in the rainy season," she says.

"And, as I'm a girl, it is risky to walk alone... Sometimes I fall, because the route is very muddy - and I'm forced to go back and change.

"I don't enjoy the journey and find I am very tired in lessons.

"I want to be in the boarding section, but now my parents are not able to contribute the fees for boarding."

Another highly successful athlete from the region that has produced so many Kenyan champions, Abel Kirui, also ran to school.

Image caption,
Long-distance runner Abel Kirui is aiming for gold at the London Olympics

Looking back, he acknowledges that, while it was a formative experience, he would have avoided the journey, if it was an option.

"When we were young, we didn't like going to school - but our parents pushed us," he says.

"We used to run the two kilometres to school when we were late, then we'd run back for lunch and then go back after lunch running again."

These days, he runs considerably further.

The two-time world marathon champion is aiming for a gold medal at the London Olympics and, he told me, with a glint in his eye, at the following Games as well.

And if Abel Kirui's future is paved with gold, it will - in part - be thanks to the road he travelled in the past; a road which many young Kenyans are travelling still, whether or not they want to.

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