A year after election violence, Kenyan runners remain divided

The town of Eldoret has produced some of Kenya's finest distance runners. It was the center of Kenya's ethnic violence last year and many athletes have refused to return to their homes.
The town of Eldoret has produced some of Kenya's finest distance runners. It was the center of Kenya's ethnic violence last year and many athletes have refused to return to their homes. Shashank Bengali / MCT

ELDORET, Kenya — Enough time has passed that Nehemiah Kosgei can be candid about what he did a year ago, when this hilltop town famous for producing world-class distance runners gained a grim new notoriety as the center of a shocking explosion of ethnic violence in Kenya.

Sipping a soda on a hotel patio, the lean, 31-year-old marathoner calmly explained how he used a friend's sedan to ferry hundreds of poison-tipped arrows to Eldoret. In nearby villages, men from his Kalenjin tribe launched the traditional weapons at rival Kikuyus to avenge a disputed presidential election.

His cousin, 18-year-old Adams Kimutai, was equally frank. "I killed six Kikuyu" with those arrows, the aspiring runner said unflinchingly, as if listing his most recent time in his specialty, the 5,000-meter race.

Twelve months after the attacks killed more than 1,000 people nationwide and shattered Kenya's reputation as a bulwark of stability in East Africa, such grisly stories still seem to hang in the crisp air above Eldoret, in Kenya's rugged Rift Valley. No one who participated in the attacks has been sentenced for crimes, and few segments of Kenyan society remain as uncomfortably divided as the athletes in this area, who are part of a multi-ethnic fraternity and a long-standing source of national pride.

The region is predominantly Kalenjin, and scores of Kikuyu athletes who fled Eldoret have refused to return to the red-dirt roadsides where they once trained alongside runners of other tribes. Many lost friends and relatives in the attacks; others had their homes torched by mobs furious at the re-election of President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, amid widespread vote rigging.

Many Kikuyus now work out in the hills outside the capital, Nairobi, or in the highlands of central Kenya, their tribal heartland. Some have lost touch with their Eldoret-based coaches and are training alone, watching their times suffer.

"It's impossible for me to go back to Eldoret," said Jason Mbote, a Kikuyu marathoner who's moved to central Kenya. "I'm of a different tribe from those people. Being there, I feel uneasy."

Drawn like many runners to Eldoret's high altitude and mild climate, Mbote, 30, trained here for seven years, racking up top-10 finishes in marathons from Amsterdam to Seoul. He married a Kalenjin woman, built a house and bought a pickup, and every morning he'd pile more than a dozen runners into his truck and set off into the cool hillsides for training runs.

Mbote and his family were out of town on Dec. 30, 2007, when election officials declared Kibaki the winner. Friends immediately began calling him. "They are heading to your house," Mbote remembered them saying. "They say they are going to burn the house."

He sent a friend to retrieve tracksuits and a couple of pairs of running shoes that he'd obtained overseas, luxuries in Kenya. In the end, mobs spared his house. When Mbote returned in June, however, he confronted the charred remains of dozens of homes and heard an uncomfortable change in his friends' voices.

"I was standing with several people talking and then they would switch to their local (Kalenjin) language, so I couldn't understand," Mbote said. "It was the first time I experienced that."

He sold his home to a local man at a cut-rate price and moved with his wife and child to the town of Embu, which has a wetter climate and few long-distance runners. Mostly he runs alone. In November, poor conditioning forced him to drop out halfway through a marathon in Seoul, South Korea, a race he'd won two years earlier.

"I'm not training as well here," he said.

Kalenjins, many of whom consider Eldoret their land, say that they want Kikuyus to return. Kosgei, the other marathoner, didn't apologize for the violence, however. He said it stemmed from what many Kenyans describe as decades of favorable treatment for Kikuyus, Kenya's biggest tribe, who compose roughly a quarter of the population.

"From the time that Jomo Kenyatta" — Kenya's first president, a Kikuyu — "got into power, everything has been just given to those people," Kosgei said. "We were just pushed into a corner. That is what brought us to all this."

Last February, Kibaki formed a coalition government with his rival, Raila Odinga, who became prime minister, in a much-ballyhooed deal that ended the violence. However, neither man has shown much interest in promoting justice or tribal reconciliation, while backroom political deals have stymied efforts to convene a tribunal to try suspects in the attacks.

Both tribes claim champion runners, including Samuel Wanjiru, a Kikuyu who won the men's marathon at the Beijing Olympics last summer, and Pamela Jelimo, a Kalenjin gold medalist in the women's 800 meters.

Kenyans took home 14 medals from Beijing, the country's best Olympics haul. The performance reignited national pride and served as a reminder — if fleeting — that Kenyan athletes long have been a model of integration in a country with more than 40 tribes.

"They always had that Kenyan spirit, without thinking about ethnicity," said Daniel Kiptugen, a Nairobi-based expert on conflict resolution for Oxfam, a British charity. "Now the ethnic element is very high."

Runners and coaches of both tribes say that few athletes took part in the attacks. Last year, the International Crisis Group, an independent research agency, said that a former Olympian, Lucas Sang, was killed while he was leading a Kalenjin raiding party, a charge that several top athletes denied.

Elly Kariuki, a Kikuyu who trained near Eldoret, said he'd never had problems with runners of other tribes. After mobs ransacked and destroyed his family's home, however, he moved to the Nairobi area, leaving behind a coach who'd enrolled him in a scholarship program for promising runners.

Most mornings he trains on an empty stomach, and his post-workout breakfast is rarely more than a cup of weak tea. With no other income, he often washes dishes at a nearby camp for military athletes, getting a meal in return.

Despite the hardships, Kariuki, 23, said he wouldn't return to Eldoret.

"It's better if I train here," he said. "I don't want those memories."


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