Kenya To Carlsbad: Politics As Usual

Training partners Peter Emasse of the Turkana tribe and Edwin Kipyego of the Kalenjin tribe. Photo: Chris Barnicle

Elite American distance runner Chris Barnicle, a two-time All-American while competing at the University of New Mexico, is currently training in Iten, Kenya in preparation for the 2013 racing season. This article is the fourth in a weekly series that will chronicle his adventures in Kenya while getting ready for the Carlsbad 5000 on April 7. 

Pop music has the same effect on me worldwide. At first the song has a catchy beat and after listening to it a few times the chorus and melody is playing through my head and if you’re lucky enough you may hear me singing the tune. Then the song begins to drive me beyond crazy and I grow to despise the song. The song “Young Man” by Mr. Israel has had this effect on me here in Iten. Sung in the Kalenjin tribal language, the tune is seemingly played nonstop. Many of my friends here have the song as their ring tone, while others have the song as their ringback tone, pushing me to insanity each time I call them. The message in the lyrics to Mr. Israel’s song is what is important, however, as he  addresses the young men of Kenya on the importance of overcoming tribal differences and unifying. With the election here days away — and a fear of history repeating itself with similar 2007 post-election violence — this message can’t be played enough times.

The election has a living pulse which seems to elevate higher the closer it gets to voting day. It is all encompassing, and for a Mzungo like myself living here is fascinating, yet nearly overwhelming. Regardless of age, sex, tribal affiliation, and education everyone seems completely consumed in politics. Semi-trucks and tractors drive up and down the road blasting music and screaming out political endorsements while hoards of people are stuffed in or hanging onto the sides and waving at the pedestrians along the sides of the road. Weekly, different presidential candidates have flown in helicopters to the small village of Iten. The facial reaction to the village people at the sight of the choppers resembles how I envision the Indigenous people stared at the Spanish fleets of Christopher Columbus. With the buzzing of the propellers above, the whole town comes to a halt and looks up. Children jump up and down waving while elderly folk watch with shocked bewilderment as the helicopter lowers into the fields of St. Patrick’s High School near the homes of 800-meter world record holder David Rudisha and his Irish coach, Brother Colm O’Connell.

Commenting on the Kenyan elections from a foreigner’s perspective can be difficult. After watching the nation’s first presidential debate, the following day I was asked by many for my opinion. I was honest and told them that I thought none of the candidates displayed any charisma, which in the States is greatly admired when Americans tune in to watch our debates. A few people found that comment very offensive while others seemed to be in agreement. The debate also had eight candidates and was conducted just about three weeks shy of election day. I do not support the bipartisanship that exists within America, but I can’t imagine the headaches undecided voters would have with six more candidates to chose from within a month of voting. The very first discussion of the debate was on tribalism, showing that the nation still struggles to overcome this problem.

Tribal tension has already flared in some parts of the nation while the rest of the country seems optimistic that the ugliness seen during the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008 is just history. For a country that appears to display strong nationalism it is shocking to me that these tribal clashes can still occur. When either a Maasai or Kalenjin runner is winning an Olympic race or World Marathon Major, the whole nation erupts in joyful unison. Barack Obama, with Luo ethnic ancestry, is proudly accepted by all of Kenya as a Kenyan. Unfortunately, the corruption evident in politics here brings about corruption and violence in the minds of too many.

The youth of Kenya are promising and courageous. My friend Ezekiel, who operates a cyber café in town, has been working with others in the region who come from different tribes to promote nonviolence and discourage hatred tied into ethnic differences. The elders seem pessimistic peace will ever run parallel with politics.

Tuesdays at Kimariny Stadium tribal ties vanish. Sharing the pace and swapping leads during an interval session brings us all together: Kalenjins, Maasais, Turkanas and myself, a native of the Masshole tribe of Massachusetts. On the track or the roads, we’re all brothers belonging to the tribe of runners pushing and encouraging each other with the common goal of reaching stardom through athletics.

In my final days here in Kenya I know I’ll hear Mr. Israel’s singing a few more dozen times. I only know a few words of Kalenjin he sings but he does have a couple lines in English. One English lyric sings, “Young men of Kenya. This is your time.”

Indeed, it is the time for young men here, but also for all men and women as well. The whole world is watching with hope and slight nervousness as your election approaches. May you impress us with displays of unification and peace. To me, to see Kenya overcome the unfair and violent problems of the last election to move forward peacefully would be far more impressive than seeing 1:40 800-meter runners and 2:03 marathoners. I’ll be arriving back in the U.S. just a couple days before the election. With my jetlagged body I’ll be bringing back great hopes for this beautiful country. Peace!

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