A Kenyan Runner Seeks Peace for
Her Corner of the World
EVER since she was a little girl, Tegla Loroupe has had a nickname, Chametia. It means “the one who never gets annoyed.”
It was this sunny attitude, along with sheer grit and probably some God-given speed, too, that propelled Ms. Loroupe to become one of the most talented runners in the world, the winner of back-to-back New York City Marathons in the mid-1990s, a world-record breaker and hero to many in her native Kenya.
But now the diminutive star is swapping her Mizuno running shoes for three-inch glittery pumps that push her just past the five-foot mark, and she is turning from running marathons to running a foundation.
Her focus is bringing peace to her native area, an expanse in northwest Kenya that is hilly and dry, perfect for marathon training — and for rustling cattle.
Each year, hundreds of people are killed there, as young men with long legs and automatic weapons steal one another’s herds. Ms. Loroupe has lost friends, relatives and even her sister, in a way, to the neglect and turbulence of her homeland, where tribal warriors have been feuding for centuries. The battles rage on for days, shutting down schools, displacing families and keeping the area trapped in a development shadow, though Kenyan papers rarely deem the problems worthy of a headline. Ms. Loroupe has returned from comfy confines in Europe to try to fix them.
“I figured the warriors knew me, so maybe they’d listen,” she said, sipping tea in a nice Nairobi hotel. “They’re normal people, you know.”
Three years ago, Ms. Loroupe set up the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, which runs a number of conflict resolution programs. She is now trying to build the Tegla Loroupe Peace Academy, a place where warriors can trade in their guns and spears for top-notch athletic training. She also wants to help the girls of her tribe, the Pokot, who are often discouraged from going to school and told they are worthless, as she was.
Her dream is to help the entire Horn of Africa, one of the most reliably catastrophic regions of the world.
“I’d go to Somalia, Sudan, anywhere they want me,” she said.
Ms. Loroupe has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars of her prize money into this work, but she says she needs more. Recently, she made the rounds in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, looking for donations.
“Ah, these vice presidents,” she giggled. “Always late.”
From fame to philanthropy, from the roaring stadium to the quiet office. It is a classic journey for an athlete whose glory days are slipping away, even though at 33 Ms. Loroupe still seems youthful, without a gray hair or even a wrinkle.
Again, maybe that goes back to Chametia, the one who never gets annoyed.
She was tested early, hauling stacks of firewood and jugs of water as a young girl in the village of Kapsait, about 200 miles northwest of Nairobi. She was under the thumb of a father whose pores excreted chauvinism, a man who had four wives and thought each of them was put on this earth to scrub and wash.
It was a coup for the family just to persuade him to let Ms. Loroupe receive an education. Sometimes, he would pile so many morning chores on her narrow shoulders that she would be late for school.
So she ran. And ran. And ran.
“Those teachers would beat you if you were late,” she said.
It was about five miles to the schoolhouse door, and that dirt road became Ms. Loroupe’s first track.
PRETTY soon, it was clear she had talent, winning school races and leaving the boys literally in the dust. But her father banned her from competing, saying it was not very ladylike. Albina, her older sister, secretly supported her, saying that if she ever wanted men to respect her, Ms. Loroupe had to lace up her shoes.
“At this point, I was so fed up with men,” Ms. Loroupe said, “I thought of becoming a nun.”
But she needed her father’s permission to do that, too. At first, he did not know what a nun was. But once Ms. Loroupe explained that it meant no marriage, which would mean no bride price for him (i.e., no more cows), he refused.
She stuck it out, returned to running and was soon training with Kenya’s national team.
In 1994, she ran her first marathon, the New York City Marathon. She won, the first black African woman to do so. In 1995, she did it again, just days after Albina suddenly died from mysterious hemorrhaging.
“The nearest hospital was hours away,” Ms. Loroupe said. “If we had a clinic there, my sister might have lived.”
Ms. Loroupe is helping to build such a clinic now.
In 1998, she set a women’s world record in the marathon in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, burning through the 26.2-mile course in 2 hours 20 minutes 47 seconds. In 1999, she shaved four seconds off that record in Berlin (it has since been broken).
She was on top of the world, favored to win gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. But the night before the race, she was struck violently ill by food poisoning — she thinks it was the spaghetti with red sauce from the Olympic Village cafeteria — and she finished an unlucky 13th.
“What are you going to do?” she said, telling this story, like all the others, good and bad, with a toothy smile.
HER life is now split between very different worlds, the Kenyan bush and a quaint town in Germany, Detmold, where she trains with an elite group of coaches. When she first got there, she said everything was white — the sky, the snow, the people.
A dedicated peacemaker, she has made peace with her father.
“Of course we’re friends now,” she said. “When you’re successful, everyone wants to be your friend.”
Ms. Loroupe still competes, fueling herself on a bowl of cornflakes every morning, running twice a day, six days a week, and keeping her weight down to a fatless 86 pounds. But her goals are shifting to her foundation, which has been receiving a lot of praise.
“Tegla is doing brilliant work, absolutely brilliant work,” said Beatrice Karanja, the regional media officer for the aid agency Oxfam. “She’s given these warriors options. She hasn’t just gone in there and told them to stop. She’s given them hope for things they can do.”
On Saturday, she is planning to hold a peace run, attended by a mix of Pokot warriors and dignitaries, including the American ambassador to Kenya, Michael E. Ranneberger.
“When I speak of Kenya moving in the right direction,” Mr. Ranneberger said, “there is no better example than Tegla.”
Friction is foreign to her. When she runs, her feet barely touch the ground. Stress is somebody else’s problem.
She seems to have it all: fame, money, a great attitude, a great talent, even a cause. But one thing is missing.
“A man,” she said. “I can’t seem to find one.”
She is single and concedes that maybe it is because of her itinerant life, running, training, flying off to races and now click-clacking down the corridors of power in power suits and heels.
“And another problem,” she said, “is that I don’t like sports guys.”
A Kenyan Runner Seeks Peace
for Her Corner of the World
Article on Tegla Loroupe
Courtesy The New York Times©