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The marathon peace runner

· ​In nine thousand characters ·

“Peace is the breath of the world. Wherever there is no peace people die in both body and soul”. Tegla Loroupe says this gently but one can feel the wrestler’s strength within her. This strength has enabled her to overcome many barriers: of culture and gender, of poverty and marginalization, to become a legend.

In Kenya Tegla Loroupe is something of a heroine. Indeed, she was one of the greatest marathon runners of all time, the first African woman to win the New York Marathon in 1994 and subsequently all the most important cross-country races in the world, collecting a series of records, from that in the marathon to those of the 20,000, 25,000 and 30,000 metres flat races, which she still holds. And still today, when she has retired from athletics, she has not stopped wrestling – for even more ambitious goals now, peace, human rights and freedom. Also through sports.

Tegla Loroupe starts out to win the gold medal in the 10,000 metre race at the Goodwill Games in 1998

At the age of 43, she has retained the slight, robust physique of a girl, with her gentle air and timid smile. She speaks calmly at the headquarters of the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, which is located in a compound on the outskirts of Nairobi and whose name echoes that of the mission itself: Shalom House, the House of Peace. Founded by Kizito Sesana, a Comboni Father, it is one expression of the galaxy of centres run by Koinonia, a community of young Kenyans who work above all for street children. In the ample spaces of Shalom House, the members of this community have opened themselves to other experiences of solidarity, either managed directly or hosted, such as indeed the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation. For more than 10 years this foundation has promoted initiatives for peaceful coexistence and for the social and economic development of the poorest and most marginalized people, especially those of communities in northern Kenya such as the Pokotto which Tegla herself belongs, or the neighbouring Turkana community with which relations do not always run smoothly. The foundation also negotiated the voluntary disarmament of the militias of these two groups and is investing large sums to enable 1,000 pupils to go to school, removing them from the risk of being enrolled by force as child-soldiers or given in marriage as child-brides.

Tegla herself was destined to become a very young wife and mother. “Luckily”, she recalls, “I had a strong character and I did not listen to my father!”. Her father, a polygamist with four wives and 24 children, did not see the sense of making his daughter study, let alone run. This was something unthinkable in that very traditional context. “In order to study”, Tegla recounted, “I had to run about 10 kilometres a day, back and forth. However this and the sports that I began to practise at school enabled me to discover my talent for athletics. I began to compete, and I realized that I liked competing. And winning too! This is why I was nicknamed Chametia, ‘the one who is never bored’, in short, a hyperactive person!”.

This energy but also her tenacity and determination – in facing her father and the prejudices of that society, very discriminatory towards women – remained within her. So too did the sense of justice and the wish to obtain equal opportunities, which guided her not only in her extraordinary sports career but also in her life and, increasingly, in her multiple peace and solidarity projects.

Among the many initiatives which she organizes, one in particular has become amust: the Peace Race. It began in Kapenguria, the main town of West Pokot, involved in tribal conflicts between shepherds and farmers. It then took her to Turkwee too, in the same region, and then to Tana River and to Moroto in Uganda. In all these contexts sport became an instrument and a pretext to oppose all forms of conflict and to bring together farmers and shepherds, promoting meetings and actions for voluntary disarmament. Tegla’s efforts contributed to the peace agreements between the Turkana and the Pokot, between thePokot and the Marakwet and between the Samburu and the Turkana, putting an end to some of the conflicts which have involved these communities.

In March 2016 Tegla was decorated for her work with the Father John Kaiser Human Rights Award, in memory of an American priest assassinated in Nairobi in August 2000 for denouncing the role of important authorities in fomenting tribal clashes in the Rift Valley.

With the same attitude as this courageous missionary, today Loroupe continues to monitor the most difficult and at risk zones in her country, but also scenes of conflict throughout the Horn of Africa, from Darfur to Southern Sudan. She was also a “Goodwill Ambassador” of UNICEF and an “Ambassador for Peace” of Oxfam. And that is not all. Last year she was awarded a prize as Person of the Year 2016 by the United Nations in Kenya. Tegla has been recognized for “Her ability to use athletics for promoting peace in zones of conflict and for her leadership in guaranteeing the participation of refugees in the Olympic Games of 2016 for the first time in history”.

Her most recent great success was indeed precisely this: to take five of the 10 athletes who made up the “national refugee team” to Rio de Janeiro. This too was a challenge which was born from far off and drew its life blood from her determination not to turn her face away from situations which others do not wish to see.

Kenya is one of the countries in the world which has the largest number of refugees in its territory. In the camps of Kakuma in the north (with about 2,000,000 refugees) and Dadaab in the east (with about 340,000 people) and a great many other refugees scattered throughout the country, Kenya must face a situation which is far from easy and must oppose the risk of terrorism which has already appeared in various atrocious massacres. The Government claims that some of the terrorists come from the refugee camps, especially from the camp in Dadaab, where there may be infiltration by Somali fundamentalists belonging to Shabaab.

However, in these camps there are above all people without anything and without a future. And it is precisely here that Tegla came with her foundation, to seek out young sports talents and to give them a chance. For this reason, in June 2014, on the occasion of World Refugee Day, Tegla organized a peace race in the Kakuma camp, where she noticed several promising young people. She thus decided to found a centre for athletics training in the hills of Ngong, on the outskirts of Nairobi. However, not only did she take a group of young athletes there but she also convinced representatives of the International Olympics Committee (ioc) to visit the place in order to take stock of the project directly. Thus the ioc decided to support it. “These young athletes”, Tegla affirmed with conviction, “are my brothers and sisters. They have talent, but the dramatic situations in their countries do not permit them to develop their potential. For this very reason I have brought them with me”.

There are 24 of them, between the ages of 17 and 23, both boys and girls. Many of them come from South Sudan, but they also come from Somalia and from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They were all living in the refugee camps of Kakuma or Dadaab. Six Kenyan athletes were trained with them, just as their trainers were Kenyans, assisted by a German coach, as well as by Tegla herself, who every now and then takes part in their training. Their first most important goal was the Rio Olympics. And, needless to say, they achieved their goal. Not only did a “national refugee team” take part in the Games for the first time, but five of the 10 athletes selected belonged to Tegla’s “racing stables”. They are all from South Sudan, three boys and two girls, and have behind them extremely difficult personal and family histories: “I arrived at the refugee camp in Kakuma when I was five years old”, Pur, aged 21, told us. He still can’t believe that he has fulfilled his dream of taking part in an Olympics. And “I escaped together with my brother. Another boy, however, was forced to flee recently because of the civil war which broke out in South Sudan in 2013. Today he is in a camp in Ethiopia. I have always lived in Kakuma. I went to school there but the structures and organization for serious sport did not exist. Yet I liked running...”.

James’ eyes still shine when he hears talk of Rio. He is 25 years old. “But it is not only a question of the Olympics”, he says with the wisdom of those who have already lived through very harsh trials: “Here with Tegla we have the possibility of developing our talent, as well as of learning a great deal, both of athletics and of life”.

“It is their future as people and not only as athletes which really concerns us”, Tegla confirms. “For this reason we also offer them the opportunity to study and we guarantee them pocket money, a small financial contribution, which is not much but enables them to help their families who have remained in the refugee camps. And then we give them the possibility to train in the most ‘professional’ way possible, and the time that they need to develop as real athletes and to learn to live together respecting their differences”.

“It is this”, Tegla insists, “that is one of the most beautiful things about sports, the fact that they help you to see others beyond labels: not as Somalians or South Sudanese or refugees, but as people like you, who are striving to achieve results and who, like you, decide to work even harder when they don’t win or rejoice in a victory”.

Anna Pozzi




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 14, 2019