Tegla Loroupe – On track to winning peace

Tegla Loroupe is one of the greatest long-distance runners of our time. A three-time World Half-Marathon champion, she represented Kenya at a record five World championships, won five major marathons across New York, London and Rotterdam, and back-to-back world half-marathon gold medals. For her achievements, she was awarded the Order of the Golden Warrior (OGW) in 2009. She is the founder of the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation that helps resolve inter-community conflicts through athletics.

Tegla Loroupe, the champion runner-turned-peace-crusader among rival ethnic groups in north-western Kenya, has won many national and international accolades through her Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation.

She is a woman of many firsts. Loroupe was the first African woman to win the New York Marathon and also boasts several world records – from the 21km half-marathon to the 42km full marathon race, a feat achieved by only a handful of Kenyan runners.

Her boldness on the track and even now, as she constantly pursues peace, is admirable because she comes from a conservative ethnic community in Kutomwony, in West Pokot County, where for a long time girls’ education mattered little.

Loroupe pursued education through sheer determination and an insatiable hunger for formal learning. Her father, however, did not see any value in educating his daughter, considering it a waste of the family’s meagre resources. But she devised a way to beat the odds.

Whenever she could, she would read her brother’s books while he was visiting her at her aunt’s home, where she had been thrust into the role of babysitting her cousins.

“I insisted on going to school one day; no uniform just my tattered clothes,” she recalls. Fortunately, she passed the exams thanks to her brother’s and cousin’s books. And just like that, what had been off-limits became routine. She also brought along her peers from the village, provoking their parents’ and the community’s wrath.

“I brought my neighbours’ children along. Those who had not been allowed to go to school,” she says, explaining that the trick was to leave home as if they were going to look for firewood. “Once your name was in the school register, the chiefs and teachers followed up when you missed school.”

After working her way through primary school and posting outstanding results, her father agreed to let her proceed to secondary school – on condition that she dropped the ‘unladylike’ sports activities, which she had mastered in primary school.

But with her mother’s support, Loroupe carried on running through high school. “My dad took me to high school on the promise that I would not do any sports. When I went to school, I was reluctant to join the track and field team,” she says, recalling her frustration. “But they had seen me running in primary school. So I was compelled to run. I ran the 5,000m and 10,000m races.”

Her triumphs on the track earned her entry into the Rift Valley Institute of Science and Technology. But her deepest desire was to join a convent.

“The drive to join the convent was formed by the difficult life at home,” she says. Her mother was the first of four wives and she had 24 brothers and sisters. “I know she endured a lot for us. Her life was not easy,” she says of her mother.

In 1990, just after joining college, Loroupe was named as part of the relay team for the Chiba Ekiden race in Japan. This was her first break in the national athletics team. But the next few years turned out to be quite turbulent for her and she literally fought her way into the team as the selectors were reluctant to draft this petite and frail-looking girl who barely weighed 40kg and stood at just five feet.

It was an experience that compelled her to reach out to a German contact to help her enter races abroad. He managed to get her into the World Championships in Stuttgart in 1993, although she didn’t stay with the Kenyan team as she had not been selected as part of it. Nevertheless, she impressed by emerging fourth in the 10,000m final.

“That same year I became the first Kenyan woman to run at the World Half-Marathon Championships, unfortunately not as part of Team Kenya but as an individual runner,” she remembers of the race where she won the bronze medal, bouncing back after a hard fall midway through the race.

“The media highlighted my frustrations as I considered switching nationalities. I was even summoned to State House by the president (Daniel arap Moi),” she says, adding that the Bible verse in Joshua 1:9, which says: ‘Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid and do not be discouraged,’ kept her going.

She made an impression in several road races in New York and could have been signed up for the New York Marathon in 1993 but, at 20, she was considered too young for the gruelling race. She returned to the American city a year a later and won the race by a huge margin, a first by an African woman in that event. She defended her title the following year.

By then she had convinced the selectors about her talent and returned the favour by winning the World Half-Marathon for Kenya between 1997 and 1999, and also clinching a bronze medal for the country at the World Athletics Championships.

The best was yet to come for the woman who incontestably influenced distance running and inspired Kenyan and African distance runners to take on the marathon. She broke the world marathon record in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 1998, by almost a minute to 2:20:47 and lowered it further to 2:20:43 at the 1999 Berlin Marathon, another first by an African runner. She rounded it off with wins at the London Marathon (2000) and in Lausanne (2002).

But while Loroupe conquered the marathons, there were major conflicts going on right in her backyard that weighed her down. Cattle rustling and the killings that went with it had become the order of the day.

“I had lost family members. In 2000 they hit my home and took away all my cattle while I was racing in London,” she explains. The animals were recovered after the rustlers were informed that they belonged to Loroupe, but the violence and loss haunted her for many years and, in 2003, prompted her to start a foundation to tackle the problem.

While attending a women’s race in Morocco organised by one of the country’s pioneer female runners, Nawal El Moutawakeel, it struck Loroupe that running could be an effective tool in championing peace. Back home, she organised the first peace race – a 10km run in Kapenguria – and followed it with another in Uganda, where cattle rustling was also a menace.

“In the first race I had 500 runners, including some of the notorious cattle rustlers across the six ethnic communities from the region. Some even came with their guns to the starting point,” she recalls.

Through her efforts, some 1,000 lives have been positively influenced; rustlers have been granted amnesty while others have even became professional runners, attesting to Nelson Mandela’s famous quote: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”

“I wanted to set an example by disarming the rustlers and reforming them through sports. Some were pardoned and escaped being imprisoned when they surrendered their guns,” she says, revealing her joy when the warriors agreed to drop their weapons.

Today, her time is split between Nairobi and Germany as she attends meetings mainly involving her charity activities. Her days are also busy with seeking donors to fund her foundation that also now runs a school. One of her biggest supporters has been Prince Albert of Monaco, whom she calls on often.

“I have crazy days,” she says. “But I always begin them, even during my travels, with a one-hour run starting at 6am.”

Loroupe cannot over-emphasise how vital peace is. “When there is conflict, there is no education or development. The only way to change my home area was by preaching peace,” she says of her efforts that have earned her recognition the world over.

The foundation is a source of fulfillment in her otherwise quiet personal life. Of her single status, she says, “I take care of so many children in my house that I don’t feel empty. I am content.”

Her peace and rescue centre has 400 children so far. “I also support other female-driven initiatives because I know how hard it is for a woman to get things off the ground,” she admits.

Loroupe was appointed United Nations Ambassador of Sport in 2006 and journeyed on diplomatic missions with famous American actor George Clooney. In 2009, President Mwai Kibaki conferred her with an honorary doctorate from the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology and soon after, she was awarded the Order of the Golden Warrior (OGW).

She received the International Olympic Committee Women and Sport Award for her philanthropic sporting endeavours in 2011 – yet another first by a Kenyan woman.

Loroupe has also been feted by the international sports press for her efforts to bring peace to the conflict-torn area of western Kenya and has been recognised as a community heroine at the annual Kenyan sports awards event for transforming the lives of hundreds of former warriors. The now-retired runner is also an ambassador for the International Association of Athletics Federation and UNICEF.

She is a member of the prestigious Laureus World Sports Academy, a unique assembly of the world’s greatest living sportsmen and women who have dedicated their lives to changing the world using the power of sports. She is the second Kenyan to be elected to the academy after Kipchoge Keino.

“I want to be remembered as someone who struggled to stand against the odds,” she concludes.

Words of Wisdom

  • “Nelson Mandela: ‘Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.’”
  • “Peace is vital. When there is conflict, there is no education or development.”
  • “I take care of so many children in my house that I don’t feel empty. I am content.”
  • “Joshua 1:9 – ‘Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid and do not be discouraged.’”
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