The Power of One: Exclusive Interview With Toby Tanser

Toby Tanser has been assisting the impoverished in East Africa since 1995. Photo courtesy of Toby Tanser.

Shoe 4 Africa founder continues to make a difference for impoverished East Africans.

Interview by: Duncan Larkin

Drive along one of Eldoret, Kenya’s rutted dirt roads on any given day and you just might see a lanky, pale white man with long hair pulled back into a tight ponytail running toward you.

That would be Toby Tanser.

Unlike the other rail-thin mazungos who occasionally come to Kenya to try and train with a group of the world’s best runners, Tanser is not there in search of secrets to help end the medal drought in countries outside of East Africa.

Not any more, anyway. He’s there to help a continent.

It all started back in 1995, when Tanser was one of those elite-runner mazungos training in Kenya. He had arrived in country with the sole purpose of training with the world’s best. He got off the plane with bags filled with his training shoes. Deeply affected by the poverty he saw during his stay, he left with nothing, deciding to give everything away — even the shoes on his feet. After that memorable trip, Tanser founded Shoe 4 Africa, a charity that gives donated running shoes to impoverished Kenyans.

Fifteen years later, Shoe 4 Africa has grown by leaps and bounds. The charity still takes used shoes, but also accepts monetary donations. With the money, Shoe 4 Africa sponsors races for HIV/AIDS awareness and has recently broken ground for a new school. Tanser isn’t resting on his laurels, however. Shoe 4 Africa’s latest project is enormous: building the largest children’s hospital in the entire continent of Africa — a $15 million project in Eldoret. recently caught up with Tanser from his home in New York City, just as he was getting ready to head back to Kenya. How is Shoe 4 Africa’s hospital project coming along?

Toby Tanser: It’s coming along really well. At the moment, what I am doing is building a school. The school should actually be completed by September. A lot of people ask me what does Shoe 4 Africa have to do with building hospitals? And my reply is, “What does Oxfam got to do with helping people?” It’s not in the name. I understand people get confidence when they see that I have a completed project, and so I’ve been building this school with Martin Lel in his home village. Once that is complete in September, (then) by December we will break ground with the hospital.

So even though you are seeking $10 donations for Shoe 4 Africa, can people still send shoes?

Yes. If you go to the web site, all the details are there. We are still very much doing the running programs. That’s the funny thing: 100% of our donations actually go to the hospital. On top of that, we are still doing all our other programs that compete for the money — and so we look for other places to find that money. It’s not that we actually stopped doing our other projects; we continue to do everything else, like the race for promoting AIDS awareness. The next race that is coming up is our Run For Education. We will have 700 school kids running in that. We give them all shoes, pencils, and exercise books. So we continue to do our core programs as well.

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