Honolulu, Hawaii — We tend to see the finished product and think it was always this way. But of course, it rarely is. In 2004 Kenya’s Jimmy Muindi saw a young Patrick Makau run a school race in their home area of Machakos, Kenya, and identified a budding talent in raw form. Remembering how he was mentored by three-time Boston Marathon champion Cosmas Ndeti early in his own career, Muindi invited Makau to come train with him in Ngong outside Nairobi after Patrick graduated from high school.
For two years Muindi supported his fellow Kamba tribesman before Makau got his first break, a chance to run a half-marathon in Tarsus, Turkey in 2006. Makau did not waste the opportunity. He not only won that race (62:42), but met his future wife Cathreen, who finished second in the women’s field.
Nine years later Jimmy Muindi is an elder racing statesman, savoring a career highlighted by six Honolulu Marathon titles and the event’s course record (2:11:12, 2004). Muindi’s eye for talent was on the mark, as well. His protege Makau has risen to the very top ranks of the sport, earning a world #1 ranking in 2010 when he won both the Rotterdam and Berlin Marathons, beating Geoffrey Mutai on both occasions by scant seconds. Then Mutai followed that up by setting the marathon world record in 2011, again in Berlin. He and wife Cathreen also have three young children, four year-old daughter Christine, and twin 14 month-old boys who are back home.
This is the Kenyan way, not just individuals looking out for themselves, but all together, especially among tribes, of which there are more than 40 in the country, with perhaps five making up the vast majority of top runners. Which tribe you belong to remains the most important factor in Kenya’s social life. It is interesting to listen to conversations in the lead pack of a major marathon where several Kenyans from different tribes are competing.
Most Kenyans speak at least three languages: their particular tribal language, Swahili, the ‘lingua franca’ throughout much of East Africa, and English. Swahili and English are the official languages of Kenya. In the early stages of a race you might hear Swahili being spoken among all the Kenyan runners. But the deeper into the competition the race goes, the more likely will the talk switch to particular tribal languages, understood by only the select few.
The Kalenjin Tribe, representing 10% of the overall population is by far the most prolific of the runners, making up as much as 75% of the top performers. Historic figures like Kipchoge Keino, the father of Kenyan running is Kalenjin, as is Henry Rono, Ibrahim Hussein, Moses Tanui. The late Sammy Wanjiru, 2008 Olympic Marathon champion, and Catherine Ndereba, the four-time Boston Marathon champion and two-time Olympic Marathon silver medalist are members of the Kikuyu tribe, which is the largest in Kenya, representing 22% of the total population. Other tribes which produce running champions include the Kisii, the Kamba and the Maasai.
Jimmy Muindi and Patrick Makau are members of the Kamba tribe, as was three-time Boston Marathon champion Cosmas Ndeti and the late road race ace Benson Masya. Voting in the recent national elections, for example, was largely based on tribal affiliation and less on ideology. Born of Kenya’s mostly rural, family farm based economy which requires each man, woman and child to do his or her job to support the common cause, tribalism has also been a barrier as Kenya continues to forge a sense of nationalism in this its 50th year of independence from Great Britain. More than 1,000 people died in violence following the 2007 national elections. The fighting was particularly fierce in Nairobi and in the Central Highlands between the Kalenjin and Kikuyu tribes. The fear of similar violence was among the major worries going into this past week’s elections.
On Sunday Jimmy Muindi will compete against Makau and another Kamba man, Nicholas Manza at The Hapalua, Hawaii’s Half Marathon. For 13.1 miles their goals will diverge, each man for himself. But that is also the Kenyan way in racing, and as history has shown, there are very few who have ever done it any better.