The Star (Nairobi)

2 January 2013

Kenya: Mbirikani Bags First-Ever Maasai Olympics

Warrior athletes from Mbirikani Group Ranch emerged overall winners at the first-ever Maasai Olympics Games held Kimana Wildlife Sanctuary in Kajiado South on December 22, 2012.

The winners walked off with the grand prize of a stud Borana bull, just one of many awards at stake at the games held at the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Competing were 100 athletes from four manyattas (warrior villages) located in the community group ranches of Kuku, Mbirikani, Ogulului and Rombo. They competed in track and field events in this first-of-its-kind endeavour to replace the traditional warrior activity of lion-hunting with competitive sports.

The guest of honour at the games was 800m Olympic gold medallist 2012 and world record holder, David Rudisha. "I am happy to join with the athletes today," said Rudisha who hails from Trans Mara. "This is a great day for the athletes and because it is the first such event in Kenya."

Other notable guests in attendance were former athletics champions Billy Konchellah and Ruth Waithera Ng'ang'a, as well as Hon Katoo ole Metitu, the Internal Security Minister and MP for Kajiado South.

The athletes were picked from a group of over 4,000 young Maasai recently initiated as morani (warriors) in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem. The sports programme, based on traditional warrior skills, consisted of five events: a 200m sprint, 5km run, javelin, rungu throwing and high jumping. The games are intended as an annual sports and conservation event.

Honoured guests were warmly welcomed in true Maasai fashion by a company of traditionally-dressed warriors chanting and wielding their warrior canes. Shortly thereafter, Rudisha commenced the games by throwing the first javelin. During pastimes, morani tested each other's spear-throwing skills at long distances.

The rungu event was opened by Hon. ole Metitu. The target was a sack nailed to the rim of a car tyre and mounted on a stand. Competitors had to throw their rungus into the sack from a distance of 20m away in a test of accuracy.

"In the bush, if a moran sees a predator coming for his livestock he will chase it and throw the rungu at the animal while still running," explained Samar Ntalamia, an event official.

Konchellah flagged off the 5km run which, together with the 200m sprint, was held on a running track traced onto the grassland that is normally grazed by wildlife. Konchellah was proud to see new talent emerging. "I was 800m champion for many years and after me came Rudisha. Today we have seen the next new athletes."

The high jumping was adapted from the Maasai warrior dance routine of leaping straight up. "We wanted to retain the traditional high-jumping but adjust it to a sports competition," said Samuel Kaanki, sports coordinator of the games.

A thick string was stretched tightly between two wooden poles, raised over seven feet and weighted on both ends with rocks. The high-jumper had to touch the string with the top of his head as his teammates sang traditional songs of encouragement. With each successive round the string was lifted up an inch, and one by one the competitors were reduced to the final three.

The sports kit of the athletes was also unique. They wore contemporary sports vests, shorts, and running shoes with each team sporting a different colour. But what was conspicuous was the traditional jewellery worn over the sports kits - beaded necklaces, bracelets and anklets.

Moreover, many of the warriors had long, ochre-coloured hair embellished with more beadwork and a red shuka tied over one shoulder. The merging of traditional dress with modern sportswear communicated the importance of old and new ways in achieving the future success of the community and environment.

After several heats leading to the final rounds, winners began to emerge. Amos Kipaya of the Mbirikani team proved he had best rungu skills of all, further enhancing his team's chances of overall success.

Lengai Suyianka of Ogulului emerged tops in the javelin event with the longest throw at 51 metres. In high jumping, Kisian Lemoyian of Rombo was the winner with a leap of 8.8 ft. Ngoreu Langeu of Mbirikani dashed to first place in the 200m sprint and the 5km run was won by Jacob Parmuya from Rombo. The top three athletes in each event garnered medals and cash prizes.

Over the last three months the athletes have participated in six regional competitions that pit the rival manyattas in the run-up to the December event. And women were not left out in terms of participation. A team of young ladies took part in a 100m sprint and 1,500m run which were flagged off by Waithera, former Africa Championships bronze medallist.

The 1,500m women's race was won by Susan Moyiasoi of Kimana Secondary School who lifted her arms in victory as she crossed the finishing line. "I have been practising every morning and evening," disclosed the student of Kimana Secondary School. "And I came today determined to win." 17 year-old Judy Silantei was declared the winner of the women's 100m sprint.

Waithera was particularly pleased to have attended the games. "You know, sport is my profession and my hobby so I will always support it," she said. "But I also want to support the Maasai girls and the next generation of women athletes in Kenya."

The Maasai Olympics are the brainchild of the local leaders who have a shared vision to secure the future of their way of life, their land and wildlife through conservation. The games were co-hosted by three organisations working in the region: Maasailand Preservation Trust (MPT), Amboseli Trust for Elephants and the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust. Other supporters include African Wildlife Foundation and Big Life Foundation.

Games official Samar Ntalamia is a programme manager with MPT. "We realised that all our achievements in conservation, especially lion preservation could be erased with this new generation of warriors." So they approached the cultural leaders called the menye layiok (fathers of the warriors) with their dilemma and the result was a novel idea: replace lion hunting with sports trophy hunting.

Historically, a warrior who carries the lion-name is hugely celebrated by his peers, gains distinction for leadership and bravery, and is much admired by girls. Consequently, many warriors still yearn for the lion trophy.

Tom Hill, one of the games' organisers and board member of MPT, said: "The Maasai Olympics is the first time I am aware of that the Maasai leadership of an entire region has proposed to take lion killing out of their warrior culture after 500 years, making it an actual taboo and providing athletics instead as an alternative warrior activity."

The Menye Layiok project includes an educational programme, now two years running and targeted at the warriors. It discusses dual themes: lion killing is no longer culturally acceptable and failure to follow the benefits of conservation and education will herald an unsustainable future for the warriors and the entire community.

"The Maasai Olympics is not just a sporting activity and event. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity given by the Maasai elders to save this ecosystem," said Dereck Joubert, CEO of Great Plains Conservation whose Ol Donyo Lodge in Mbirikani Group Ranch was one of the event sponsors. Indeed the array of prizes seemed to underscore the twofold value of sports and education in conservation.

The award for the 5km run was a fully-sponsored trip to the New York Marathon 2013, courtesy of MWCT and AECOM-USA. Winner Parmuya received the cheque from Samson Parashina, Chairman of MWCT.

Furthermore, Parmuya will be well prepared for the event next year, thanks to an undertaking by Rudisha. "I want to help the 5,000m athlete to come and train in Eldoret before going to New York," said the Olympic gold medallist.

The penultimate prize, the Seamus Camp Scholarship, went to Daniel Kapaya a recent high-school graduate from Ogulului. The scholarship, valued at Sh2.6million and covering four years of university education, was donated by founding benefactor Joy Smith.

Kipaya, who competed in the sports trials but failed to make into the team selections, aspires to study veterinary sciences. "I have seen how the cattle in our area suffer from diseases and other problems, so I want to become a vet and support our people," said a very happy Kapaya.

Joy Smith disclosed her reason for supporting the games. "I've been visiting Kenya on safari for many years and wanted to contribute towards conservation. But I'm also a cattle farmer and an important part of conservation in this area is the livestock quality."

The Chester Zoo Wildlife Conservation Prize, valued at Sh260,000 was awarded to Rombo as the best group ranch in conservation. Rombo team will select one of their members to utilise the Chester Prize for a university scholarship. Richard Bonham, long-time conservationist and founder of MPT explained the choice. "Rombo earns nothing from tourism and only some revenue sharing from Kenya Wildlife Service. Yet there have been no lions killed on Rombo and theirs are the best game scouts."

There was further good news for the aspiring athletes when Ruth Waithera promised to take two young women from the region for professional training at her Nyahururu athletics camp during school holidays.

Rudisha urged the region's youth to preserve wildlife and get involved in sports: "You will benefit through development, schools and employment. There is potential here and in the future there will be many 'Rudishas'."

Hon. ole Metito summarised the success of the first Maasai Olympics when he said, "The warriors have won over Sh2 million without killing any lions."

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