The Independent (Kampala)

Uganda: Hero Against Odds

Photo: BackpagePix
Uganda's Stephen Kiprotich celebrates winning the Olympic men's marathon in London.

Why Kiprotich's win could inspire many

When Moses Cherodi, 15, joined the Kapchorwa Runners' Club a year ago, he did it mainly because his friends who could run were members. A few times when Stephen Kiprotich was training, Cherodi says, he would run with him. And when Kiprotich won the cross country gold medal in the recently ended London Olympics, Cherodi was watching with friends at a bar in Kapchorwa.

Kiprotich's win was to Cherodi a story of inspiration; one he can replicate through perspiration. It has given him a right to dream big. But what Chorodi doesn't know is that even if he turns out to be a successful runner, Olympic Games, which happen once every four years, may never be held in London during his career. But he won't let what he doesn't know bother him. "I hope I will win the next gold in London," Cherodi says, as he gestures to the heavens as if pleading for divine providence.

As he runs up and down the hills of Kapchorwa on the early morning of Aug. 14, Cherodi is a new man, driven by different ambitions - to conquer the world. Kiprotich was not the first runner from Kapchorwa to make it big - there have been others like Moses Kipsiro, who did a 5000/10,000 meter double at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, is the Uganda record holder for the 3000 meter and 5000 meter on the track and 10km, as well as a bronze medallist in the 2007 World Athletics Championships. But Cherodi knows and has followed Kiprotich's story better.

Cherodi has tried to chase Kiprotich up and down the mountains and he says it is nearly impossible. But he believes he can do it with training and harder work. Cherodi hopes that now that Kiprotich has done the country proud - by winning Uganda's first long distance Olympics gold medal and its second overall, with the first having come a long 40 years ago when John Akii Bua won the 400 meter race in Munich - work will start on the athletics training ground the government promised at Teryet.

At the foots of Teryet hill, Michael Kurong, the chairman of the management committee of Teyret Primary School, washes his motorcycle. When our boda boda guide tells him of journalists from Kampala who would like to see the proposed site for the training ground, he jumps up immediately.

Leading us uphill, Kurong talks proudly of Kiprotich's exploits and speaks of how they are related. "I am even his (Kiprotich) uncle," Kurong says, boasting that the terrain in their area enables them to keep physically fit and that they can produce many more runners. At Teryet Primary School, Kurong says, their aspiration is to "produce world champions".

Atop the hills, thousands of metres above sea level, the weather is mild and the air feels smoother. There is a nearly flat expanse of land on which Kurong says the field is to be built. But all that has been done so far is to survey the land. Beating back luxuriant grass, Kurong shows us the mark stones planted by the surveyors. If the field is built, Cherodi and his colleagues would be spared what Kiprotich and some other athletes have had to go through - having to train across in Kenya. When Kiprotich beat Kenyans to gold in London, tinges of coldness sprung up among Kenyans, with some calling for the banning of foreigners from going to Kenyan training camps.

Cherodi points us to where Teryet Primary School, all made of wooden structures, will be relocated according to the field development plan. But Kurong will be lucky to see the field in his life time. A similar field President Yoweri Museveni promised in Bukwo, which was part of Kapchorwa but has since become a district itself, has yet to be built.

New ambitions

In the villages of Kapchorwa, one does not need much to "succeed". David Chemonges, who did his entire primary school studies with Kiprotich at Kaminy Primary School, gives us a peek into what is considered success in their village.

"Now that Kiprotich is an Olympics gold medal winner," we ask Chemonges, "what do you think lies ahead for him?"

Chemonges, a shop keeper, says he expects his friend to get money and buy a Fuso lorry or "even two" to transport Irish potato and maize from Kapchorwa for sale in Kampala. "It is lucrative business," Chemonges tells us.

What Chemonges does not know yet is that a big newspaper in the capital had set up a fundraiser for Kiprotich that had already yielded hundreds of millions, in addition to the prize and what politicians would give him.

Apart from Irish potato and maize, Kapchorwa residents harness the semi-temperate climate to grow barley and wheat, which they transport on donkey back to town. The more prosperous ones use oxen to clear the land and "land is expensive", Chemonges tells us.

This is why Kiprotich and his family seemed destined for eternal poverty when they were evicted from the Tegeres Forest Reserve by the National Forestry Authority.

Kiprotich and his elder brother, Patrick Cherotwo, acquired a piece of land measuring less than two acres on which their families live and cultivate.

Cherotwo happily lets us into their compound, which is fenced off by bamboo trunks. "Welcome to the home of the national hero," Cherotwo, who also says he is the chairman of Cheptilyal village, cheerfully waves us in, "feel free to move anywhere and take pictures. The country should see where their hero lives."

Their homestead comprises a small mud and wattle iron-roofed house and a hut. Behind the dwellings is an open shelter in which they keep a couple of local breed goats and most of the cultivation takes place in front of their houses.

Behind the homestead, Cherotwo and well-wishers have erected places of convenience in anticipation of the "many visitors" who will throng the home to pay homage to the gold medallist. "We will host our neighbours and friends here," Cherotwo says, "but the big party will be at the school (Kaminy Primary School, less than a kilometre away)."

Of their land, about half an acre is cropped with maize, which Cherotwo says they planted around January and expect to harvest by end of year. Unlike many other parts of Uganda which harvest maize twice a year, those in Kapchorwa have only one season, which Cherotwo attributes to the high altitude and the related weather. Cherotwo says they depend mainly on the maize for food and income and if the crop fails they suffer.

Kiprotich's wife and two children, and his parents - who live less than a kilometre apart - were away in Kampala to receive him when we visited. Cherotwo did not know whether Kiprotich's wife had ever been to the city before, but he was sure she had not gone there the whole time she had been married to his brother. Eight years had passed without Cherotwo going to the city himself because, he says, "I have no business there".

Kiprotich appears to be the only one to have broken the family tradition of clinging to their ancestral land. He appears to have realised that he had business in Kampala, London, and other cities around the world - as a runner.

Early years

One rainy day, Cherotwo recollects even when he is not clear of the exact date and year, Kiprotich was born while he was away in a nearby village. He was named Kiprotich, his elder brother says, basing on the time of his birth. In Hupsabiny culture, Cherotwo says, they used to let the cows go grazing on their own and they would return shortly before midday, a time he says is referred to as Kiprotich. Kiprotich was therefore named after the time of his birth.

Starting 1993, Kiprotich went to this Primary School, where he had to repeat primary seven, according to his old boy Chemonges. When they attended this school, Chemonges says Kiprotich was punctual, humble, never fought and was good at mathematics. But most of all, Chemonges adds, his friend was good at running. In long races, Chemonges remembers, "he would finish, rest and take water before his colleagues arrived."

Kiprotich later joined Kapchorwa Secondary School for two years, before winning a scholarship at Sebei College School because of his athletics. At Sebei College, he studied up to senior five and dropped out to concentrate on athletics. Cherotwo thinks it was because of his interest and abilities in athletics that his brother was absorbed into the Uganda Prisons Service. But, Cherotwo and Chemonges say, Kiprotich spends most of the time at their home unless he is preparing for a major athletics competition. That is bound to change.

Since his return to Kampala, Kiprotich has been feted with all and sundry revelling in his success. Information and National Guidance Minister Karooro Okurut promptly issued a programme for Kiprotich's home coming. On touching down at Entebbe Airport, he was whisked away to a big hotel to "freshen up" before proceeding to State House to meet the President, with whom he would have breakfast. Many back in Kapchorwa are great admirers of President Museveni, who they gave 78% in the last election.

But one man, Absalom Jakech Ojwang, the national coach at Uganda Athletics Federation, is unhappy. He feels that everybody, especially the government officials, is rushing to celebrate and be part of Kiprotich's victory, forgetting what he went through.

"Ugandans should not be blinded by only this gold medal, people should reflect on what he has passed through," he said, " it should not be individual athletes struggling on their own, government should be in position to facilitate them."

Ojwang, a trained coach and sports scientist who has taught at Makerere, Kyambogo and Gulu Universities, does not spare the sports officials either. He blames them for some perennial problems afflicting Uganda, like lack of sports kits, which he feels can be fixed easily.

"In 1991 at the All Africa Games, we received the news two weeks after the games that the Ugandan sports kits had just arrived, you can imagine," he says.

Demayi Francis and Dinah Amoding agree. Both are coaches in the Uganda Prisons Force and worked with Kiprotich before he left for training in Kapchorwa and later Kenya.

They say Kiprotich always showed that nothing would stop him.

"I told him before he left that he was going to get big things because I could see it in him, he was very consistent and very hard working," he said, " while everyone was very surprised here, I wasn't." Demayi, the Prisons sports officer, is also a trained coach and Kiprotich's immediate supervisor in the force. The Prison's spokesperson, Frank Mbaine, also describes Kiprotich as "determined and hardworking". Kiprotich's bosses in the Uganda Prisons where he has worked since 2008 are talking of a possible promotion.

Meanwhile, as the fiesta continues, Cherodi and Kiprotich's other friends back in Kapchorwa, and indeed many other sports people in Uganda, have reason to work harder. They will also be hoping that this time the government will be forthcoming with help. But even if it does not, Kiprotich's success will give many hope that they too can beat the odds.

Additional reporting by Haggai Matsiko.

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