Kwaheri ya kuonana
Kwaheri ya kuonana – goodbye until we meet again. Africa holds a special place in my heart. Whether it was Nelson Mandela’s story in the Long Walk to Freedom or the elegance of the African runners I have watched over the years it has been a place that captivates; a land of great vastness and incredible wildlife and diversity. Kwaheri ya kuonana were among the last Swahili words I heard from my friends in Maili-tatu, Kenya on my last trip to that country in 2002. Maili-tatu was a small village with no running water or electricity, far away from everything except Rambo which was a slightly larger community about three miles away. My first trip to Africa included South Africa (Comrades Marathon) and Kenya and I quickly fell in love with Kenya. Land of the Masai Mara, home to an incredible array of wildlife that includes lions, cheetahs, elephants, wildebeest and much more; Kenya is Africa in all its splendor. It is home to very gracious people made up of more than 30 ethnic groups speaking at least that many languages. Until recently they seem quite capable of living together in peace as illustrated by the picture on my wall of the school children of Esosion singing their songs of welcome and thanks.
Kenyan athletes dominate the sport of distance running – especially road racing – with a style and grace that makes them easy to cheer. It was such a cool thing just being on an elevator with the elite runners who competed at the Peachtree Road Race each year in Atlanta. The connections between running and Kenya were cemented firmly in my mind. Perhaps the country’s greatest ambassador is Paul Tergat, a distance running legend who has held the world record in the marathon (2:04:55) and the 10K (26:49.28.85), won five IAAF World Cross Country Titles and numerous Olympic medals. Among all his honors, Tergat counts being named the World Food Programme’s “Ambassador against hunger” as one of his greatest achievements. And so somehow the connection between kindness and Kenya seemed forever tied together in my mind.
Africa is a place of great contrast – from Mount Kilimanjaro rising to 19,000 feet of grander to the flat plains of the Serengeti filled with the world’s most incredible wildlife. And so often its people seem to reach for great heights only to erupt into gruesome violence. But somehow, I always thought Kenya was immune from the worst of the violence that erupts on its continent. Kenya has largely escaped the cruelest tyrants and ethnic wars. Yes, there is crime and there were areas in Nairobi I was told to stay away from (ok, so I ran through some of them anyway), but these were the exceptions not the rule. And while the country was clearly not immune from political corruption, it seemed the discourse about it was largely civil. At least it was until Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga squared off in presidential elections a few weeks ago. Kibaki is a Kikuyu and Odinga is from the Luo tribe. The struggle for power between these two groups erupted in violence that had taken between 450 and 1000 lives when election result voting became chaotic, including Lucas Sang, a member of the 1988 Kenyan Olympic team who was hacked to death in Elderot. Sang was, according to Moses Tanui, another Kenyan legend and three time winner of the Boston Marathon, “never [an] ethnic minded person and I can’t understand why he had to die this way. Lucas has always been a good man to all, especially young athletes who needed his help and advice.”
Often the news of violence in Africa seems far away from us here. But this place found a special place in my heart sometime ago and it makes the senselessness of it all even harder to understand than usual. When I do meet my Kenyan friends again, it will include much sadness.