NAIROBI, Kenya, September 30- The last thing any journalist expects when interviewing the winner of a race is for the said person to use that opportunity to belt and market his own recorded music with infectious vigour.
Meet the stimulating athletes of Turkana, the far flung dry and hot region in Northern Kenya that has commanded international headlines after huge oil and underground water deposits were recently discovered there.
Due to lack of competitive action and limited opportunities to further their talent, those with limited success in a sport that has placed Kenya on the global map have turned to music to make ends meet.
History was made in the region last weekend when the first ever athletics competition, Tullow Oil Turkana Cross Country, was held in the sweltering heat of Lodwar with two winners, Jamin Ekai (men senior race) and Michael Losuron (men warrior race) catching the eye owing to their crooning talent.
Losuron in particular, was once a menacing cattle rustler who terrorised neighbouring communities by fleeing with their cows until he was touched by the peace message spread in the region by former women’s marathon record holder, Tegla Loroupe.
“In the past, I was a Moran (warrior) in the forest. I ran knowing that I could win this race since it was my job to run with cows belonging to the Pokot (community) across the plains.
“When I stopped cattle rustling, I have decided to make a living by using my feet to run. I feel good to earn money with my feet and I use that money to record gospel CDs since God blessed me and I got saved and I stopped theft,” the reformed criminal narrated.
“I won a cow at the Tegla Loroupe Peace Race in Lolugon and I sold it to produce my first CD, Volume 1 Yesu Yungali Hai (God is still alive). With the money I won here, I will go and produce a Video CD,” the delighted winner who left the competition in his slipstream to romp to an emphatic victory in over 8km race offered.
“Yesu bado yuko hai, hajakufaaaaaa, alipokufa, alifufuuuuka (Jesus is still alive, he is not dead, when he died, he resurrected),” he sung the refrain to the title track of his CD on loop with such energy that masked the exhaustion of racing under baking conditions.
For his ‘training’ Losuron took to running after cattle, sheep and goats that graze across the expansive dry plain to keep in shape.
“We I had Tullow were organising a race here, I started chasing after livestock to get ready. My dream is that with this win, I will be given the opportunity to train at high altitude areas so that I can get the opportunity to race abroad,” he told after taking home 492.6 USD (Ksh40,000) for his victory revealed.
When Jamin Ekai won the main men senior 10km (distance shortened by 2km due to the furnace conditions), in 30:14, he showed up to collect his trophy and 1,157USD (KSh100,000) cash prize carrying copies of his Video CDs for sale.
“I have competed in a number of races in various parts of the country and invested the small money I have made from them in producing my music to sell to the people of this area.
“Since we don’t have competitions to train for in this region, there is no choice but with events such as this coming here, maybe I can focus on running full time,” the beaming winner who finished 9th in the 10km Road Race at the 2012 Stanchart Nairobi International Marathon said.
Ekai left this reporter with no choice but to purchase one of his VCDs as he moved his wares to the VIPs present who also snapped his records to round what was a rewarding day for the winner.
His mentor and Commonwealth Marathon champion, John Ekilu Kelai, who was involved in the organisation of the event, said he hoped it was the beginning of unearthing prevalent running talent in the area that has been ignored for decades.
“Turkana has produced world champions such as Paul Ereng (1988 Olympics gold winner), Joseph Ebuya (2011 World Cross champion) and myself but we are not the only ones who can run.
“Tullow have seen the need to give back to the community by exposing and identifying talent from this region since they are the oil prospectors here. I’m looking forward to many Erengs, Ebuyas and Kelais in the future.
“The athletes here have been rotting since nobody has given them a platform. I’m regarding this event as an eye opener and we have embraced the community to sensitise them that through sport, they can make a living,” the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth marathon gold winner underscored.
His statement was echoed by Athletics Kenya (AK) president, Isaiah Kiplagat, who like all the guests invited, was stunned by the roaring turn out that braved temperatures that topped over 35 degrees Celsius to witness or take part in the spectacle.
“I did not expect such a turnout. I’m impressed by the number of athletes. This is one of the ways to tap talent, we have champions from here and it means there is a lot of talent hidden here and it is our duty to entice them to take up the sport.
“We have discussed with the sponsors of this event and we have agreed the local branch of AK to take stock of those who have done well so that we can prepare a camp for at least ten or 15 them either in Eldoret and Iten since it would be a waste if we let them get lost again,” Kiplagat assured.
“We will also see to it that some are entered in the national cross country series to give them a chance to compete for Kenya at the 2014 Africa Cross Country Championships and Commonwealth Games, that is our aim,” he added.
“Most people have been seeing sport as a game for others but as a County Government, we said these are pastoralists who chase after their cattle and they can make it.
“From next year, we shall provide something better. We want to encourage those who cannot make it in school can make in sport. For the warriors, this is an alternative way to utilise their energy and showing they can make a living away from chasing after what happens to others.
“We want to meet with a few partners to see whether we can put up a multi-purpose stadium next year to tell the world that Turkana is not all about oil and water,” the administrator underpinned.
“The community is our first point of contact when we go out into the field. When developing a community engagement programme such as this gala, it is critical that we get feedback from our hosts and integrate this information into our plans.
“We worked closely with our partners, the administration, local schools and community leaders to ensure it was a success,” Sid Black, Tullow Kenya Deputy General Manager explained.
For those present, the races offered hope that the region’s ignored sporting resource can receive as much attention as the oil and water reservoirs that have kicked off a rush for the County.
“The youth in this region will run to sustain their lives since most are hustlers. This race should continue forever. For instance, the money I won here will help me reconstruct my house since it is almost collapsing, we have no water and the compound looks ugly.
“For long, those who saw us running laughed at us saying we have nothing to do. We have been looked upon as crazy people but coming here today and being given money has proved to them that we did it for the greater good and it was not a mistake,” Elizabeth Ebenyo, a mother of four, who ran away with the senior women 8km honours in 31:17 stated.
“I started a family early since I got my first born at 15,” she added with melodious laughter. “So, I need a regular source of income to take care of my family and I’m willing to use my running talent for that,” she added with a smile, made wider when she pocketed 1,157USD (KSh100,000) after making light work of the assembled field.
The enthusiasm to embrace the sport was manifested by the groups who kept turning up at the starting line long after the official programme ended just to run.
Organisers had to hastily stage veteran runners, youth (under 16), plus size women, schools and the elderly just to satisfy the crowd until some minutes to midday when with the mercury approaching 41 degrees Celsius, all activity had to be brought to a halt to guard against heat stroke.
It spoke volumes that the Red Cross ambulance and first aid crew present took most of the punishment at the end of it all after attending to masses that required medical attention due to heat stroke and aching limps as the cacophony of entertainment and sport gave a forgotten region a spark.
Senior men category (10Km)
1. Jamin Ekai – 30:14
2. Paul Eyanae – 30:18
3. Joseph Lore – 30:45
Senior women category (8Km)
1. Elizabeth Ebenyo – 31:17
2. Joan Ekiru – 31:18
3. Rebecca Naluwa – 31:48
Junior men category (6Km)
1. John Loree – 11:58
2. Samuel Lomoi – 12:04
3. Samuel Tireu – 12:06
Junior women category (6Km)
1. Martha Akero – 16:15
2. Veronica Kamaise
3. Regina Aitwe – 17:36