Running – Jackie Lebo

Little do we know about the Kenyan runners that every year, every four years achieve another racing feat. Outside of Kenya, we keep seeing these black men and women who simply cannot fail to win at races, especially long distance races.

When I first picked up the book I thought it was fiction. Most of the works I read are fiction. However it was not until I decided to Google the names in the book that I found, they exist in real life and this is a story that brings to light their stories and backstories.

Jackie Lebo’s “Running” begins humbly enough

“THIS IS A STORY about running. It started out as a story about my family, but as it always happens, the unintended tales a narrative unravels are often the most compelling.”

The narrative started still in the summer of 2004 where Jackie Lebo was on a history mining mission in Kenya.  The unintended tale seems to flow from the Athens Summer Olympics in 2004, backwards into Kenya’s pre-independence land history and forward to the story of a one, Elias Kiptum Maindi and his search for athletic success.

Even if the story is about running, it is not one that puts you on tension. Whether that is a good thing remains for the reader to decide. That said, there are two issues being well held in tension, Kenya’s successful “running” history outside home and it’s divisive land problems at home.

“I was living in the States at the time and distance gave us an acute hunger for stories from home – we devoured Kenyan newspapers. The back of The Daily Nation, had three steeplechasers in all their winning glory, uncontroversial and celebrated by all Kenyans. The front carried far more gripping news: the hundred year lease on the Maasai agreements of 1904 AND 1911 were up, and the Maasai were agitating for the return of their lands.”

The controversial issues are not limited to land. There are more and they are tagged to the effects of the colonial system. Education also divides the people. Those who go to school leave “home” work undone. However, when education pervades the society, unemployment issues crop up and then social issues like drinking also crop up. To our main focus Elias, it is these that drive him to running.

The writer’s narration on how land issues affected their family and why they live where they live at the moment, close to the running capital of Kenya Iten leads us to the new tale about runners, about Elias and his journey.

I can see how the unintended tales happen. There are always points like the writer’s home, Moiben being close to Iten that sets off a new tale.

Iten is referred to as the running capital of Kenya. The writer takes some time to paint it with his words. Beautifully. You might smell the air, sit in its small restaurants and order mandazi. It could be any other small town in Kenya except in those other towns, you will not find

“…the runners, hundreds of them, seen early in the morning in groups as large as forty on the side roads, wearing the latest athletic gear, multicoloured spandex and breathable shirts of every global sports brand available – Adidas, Nike, Fila, Mizuno, Puma, and Asics.”

It is a different kind of town. It is very local yet very international with fortunes tied to far off places – London, Chicago, Seoul, Fukuoka and Rio… .The writer finds this connection intriguing, noting one week she might be cheering on a runner on a TV screen and the next seated behind him on a matatu.

It’s here that Elias’s story starts. I cannot help but always look back to the opening line and see how Elias comes into the tale. We started from a television to a newspaper, to a search for history, to a town and finally to a runner. From this point the writer follows Elias on his journey; the effect of the controversial matters like land, education, unemployment on his chosen career; the runner’s own enduring pursuit of the career. His chancing on established runners, his relationship with his father and how it takes him to the cusp of greatness.

The short story, I feel, is Jackie Lebo’s tribute to Kenya’s runners, a sympathy with Kenyans and the problems that arose from colonial settlers, the enduring land and evolving culture of Kenya, and a hope birthing experiment for another Kenyan who might want to follow the path of runners.

As I said, the book itself is not a sprint, neither is it a marathon, it’s somewhere in between but calmly tells the unknown tale of Kenya’s runners.