Kenya’s general appreciation of the role of sports in national and individual development notwithstanding, the exemplary performance of Kenyan women in athletics and in sports generally, including related social enterprises, has been inadequately recognized. Even when they achieve notable successes, the low representation of women in sports leadership over the years testifies to their exclusion. Their marginalization is mainly based on their gender and geographical regions, rendering their participation in sports nearly incidental, if not inconsequential. Female athletes continue to bear the brunt of gender stereotyping and cultural practices and traditional values that define gender roles still deter women from participating meaningfully in sports.
Alarmingly, despite recent global and government efforts to promote the freedom of women to participate in sports and to protect their sovereign choices and their lives, they are still subjected to discrimination and continue to be targets of gender-based violence.
Running has undoubtedly been an essential feature of Kenya’s history. However, even with the involvement and achievements of female Kenyan athletes in every Olympics since 1968, studies of Kenyan sports have focused on men; women’s participation in sports has only just started to generate interest in historical accounts within East Africa Athletics. The impediments and successes of East Africa’s sportswomen have only been sporadically noted and the concept of gender is rarely employed.
Susan Sirma, Sally Barsosio, Tegla Loroupe, Pamela Jelimo, Susan Chepkemei, Hellen Obiri and Sabina Chebichi have all brought home track and field medals from international competitions. Chebichi’s name came to the fore in 1973, when at a Brooke Bond-sponsored meet in Kericho she won her first race. Nicknamed the “Petticoat Princess” for running barefoot dressed only in a green petticoat, the 14-year-old from Mlimani Primary School near Kitale was given her first kit after winning that race. Chebichi’s wins that year were record-breaking as she recorded some of the fastest times in Africa for 800 metres and 1,500 meters. Chebichi also won the bronze medal in the 800 meters at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand, becoming the first female from Kenya to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games. However, she soon dropped out of athletics following a pregnancy.
Women have recorded many achievements in sports despite inadequate support, and deserve more from all stakeholders and from Kenyans in general. “There is a need for all to celebrate all Kenyan female athletes including Agnes Tirop to whom we are paying tribute today who has always shone on track events and won many medals at the Olympics and other competitions at the international and continental level,” Kenya’s Supreme Court Judge, Njoki Ndung’u said during the memorial of murdered cross-country champion Agnes Tirop.
Northern Kenya’s sporting fortunes
Since Kenya’s independence in 1963, northern Kenya — and especially the northeastern region, which comprises Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa counties — has “remained silent, almost forgotten” as far as sports and its development are concerned. There is hardly any sport that can be associated with the region because of the various impediments placed in the path of sports and athletics enthusiasts in the region, particularly girls.
In July 2020, Athletics Kenya acknowledged through its senior vice president Paul Mutwii the “more than enough struggles” that northeastern Kenya has faced, including in pursuing its dreams in athletics, and in sports in general. Girl athletes were almost impossible to find in the region ten years ago despite the right of women and girls to participate in sports having been affirmed in 1979. Like in other historically marginalized parts of the country, various upcoming athletes and their promoters in northern Kenya advise that youth empowerment must include recognizing that mistakes have been made. This would encourage all stakeholders to embrace current and future challenges and forge stakeholder synergies and possibilities for corrective measures. Such measures would include aligning Kenya’s efforts with the global ground-breaking initiatives of various agencies, including UN Women-run projects such as One Win Leads to Another, to empower women and girls in order to achieve regional and gender inclusivity in sports.
There is hardly any sport that can be associated with the region because of the various impediments placed in the path of sports and athletics enthusiasts in the area, particularly girls.
Tellingly, there is not a single training camp in northeastern Kenya. Athletics enthusiasts can only meet at the Northeastern National Polytechnic grounds in Garissa. Athletics Kenya (AK) North-Eastern region chairman, Abdullahi Salat, notes that raising athletics standards in the region is a major challenge and that poor sporting infrastructure has further distanced many budding athletes from the sport as they only depend on the Polytechnic grounds which do not even have a standard track. Climatic conditions in the region have also inhibited the growth of the sports, as it is very difficult for athletes to train during the day because of the heat. As such, it should be made possible for athletes from northern Kenya to train in other cooler regions.
For the residents of Kapsait in Lelan, West Pokot County, news of the birth on 9 May 1973 of another daughter to a local family just like any other in the area would have been no more than the addition of a new sibling to the 24 children of a polygamous Pokot household.
When that young girl later expressed her interest in sports, her polygamous father told her she was “useless”, only fit to herd goats and mind children. He could not suspect that his “useless” child would one day break world records, that together with fellow retired former world record-holders Haile Gebresellasie of Ethiopia, Paula Radcliffe of Britain, and Kenyan distance running legend Paul Tergat, his daughter would be inducted into the New York Road Running Hall of Fame (NYRR). There is no such a hall in West Pokot County or in Kenya.
That child was Tegla Chepkite Loroupe.
When that young girl later expressed her interest in sports, her polygamous father told her she was “useless”, only fit to herd goats and mind children.
Neither her father nor the people of her village had any idea that she would turn out to be a world A-Lister in long-distance track and road races. And so it came to pass that during the course of her life, that child (who first ran barefoot to school and later, symbolically, in several races early in her career, including one 10,000 meter-race a day after the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, explaining to the international media that she had done so “out of a sense of duty to all the people taking her as a bearer of hope in her home country”) became a truly phenomenal woman in many respects.
Tegla’s decision to pursue her dream in athletics was met with solid resistance from her father and the male members of her family. “Those days, they don’t reckon much with women because they see sports as men’s affairs, especially in my community. No one was willing to support me except for my mother and late sister who stood by me through it all. I have always been determined and I believe I have something special in me,” she noted.
Like women the world over, Kenyan women and particularly those in northern Kenya, have had to endure social-cultural struggles for decades, especially against patriarchy. Patriarchy has always undermined the involvement of women in athletics, the sort of patriarchy that discourages them from participating in sports and instead directs them to reproductive roles. It is the type that insists on the gender socialization of roles, a practice that continues to exclude many women from meaningful involvement in sports, especially those that yield monetary and other material rewards.
Women in athletics ought to be viewed as indicative of development, freedom, and choice. Amartya Sen’s theory of freedom as “both the primary end and as the principal means”, and as understood in the context of social choices theory, is instructive. In Iten, a small town in Kenya’s Rift Valley, women’s success in running has seen them return home with Olympic medals and prize money totalling more than US$1 million. Their visibility has inspired other women not just to run, but also to set up businesses. These women have seen that their well-being can be improved by making entrepreneurial choices that are outside the roles traditionally assigned to them.
When asked whether she would like her daughter to become a runner, Kathleen Chepkurui’s answer was representative of many responses in Iten. She highlighted what Pamela Jelimo, the first Olympic gold medal winner in Kenya, has accomplished (Jelimo earned over US$1 million on the athletics circuit during her widely publicised four-month streak of victories in Golden League competitions across three continents) saying, “When I saw Pamela Jelimo, I said ‘I will support my children’. They can all be runners – my daughters. So, I would like my daughters to be runners.”
Female athletes have used their income to develop Iten. As Caroline Jeptoo notes, “Female athletes help Iten to grow more…. Building schools, churches. Piping water to those places. And especially helping the needy people in society to pay fees, food … and some many things”.
Kenyan women, and especially those in the northern part of the country, are far less likely to pursue running as a career than men. Several barriers in both formal and informal spheres militate against women’s participation in sports. First, parents in the region are more likely to take boys rather than girls to school, which limits girls’ chances of accessing choice-giving forums. This in turn limits their access to coaching and mentorship services. Second, an uncooperative partner or husband can be a hindrance and, third, poverty and limited resources often restrict women.
“When you love a man with no interest in the sport, you end up declining. The man will tell you to choose between him and sports. Of course, I will choose him,” confesses a female athlete.
Lydia Stephens-Okech, an Alliance Girls High School alumni who was one of three female athletes to represent Kenya when women were first included in the country’s Olympic team at the 1968 Games in Mexico, corroborates the evidence of the tribulations of female athletes. “Some of the problems we faced still impede our female athletes’ advancement today and better ways must be found to help them.” Stephens-Okech notes that lack of education, sexist male officials and traditional views on marriage remain major stumbling blocks for Kenyan girls aspiring to become athletes.
Goodwill and leadership
Standing barely five feet tall, demure, humble, and unassuming, Tegla Loroupe emerged to become the first African woman to win the New York City Marathon after being initially rejected by Athletics Kenya (AK) because of her small frame.
An encounter with Tegla Loroupe reveals an ordinary Pokot woman, her “super-achiever” status not immediately apparent, yet she is royalty in the world of athletics. Tegla is a member of Champions for Peace, a group of 54 famous elite athletes committed to serving peace in the world through sport with the support of Peace and Sport, a Monaco-based international organization. Tegla was named United Nations Ambassador of Sport in 2006 and is also an Ambassador for the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) and UNICEF.
“When you love a man with no interest in the sport, you end up declining. The man will tell you to choose between him and sports.”
Tegla was Kenyan Sports Personality of the Year in 2007 and in the same year became Oxfam Ambassador of Sport and Peace in Darfur together with Elias Figueroa, Katrina Webb, George Clooney, Joey Cheek and Don Cheadle. Tegla maintains good friendships with Prince Albert of Monaco and Thomas Bach, the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
If leadership is a position of influence that enables a person to motivate, inspire, and to set the direction for the purpose of achieving certain goals, then Tegla Loroupe, Catherine Ndereba, and Hellen Obiri, amongst other outstanding Kenyan female athletes, fit the bill.
While research reveals the important roles women play as agents of change, Kenya exhibits a markedly low representation of women in sports leadership. It is as if Kenya supports the views of some of the founding fathers of the modern Olympics games, who denied women participation in sports. Baron de Coubertin, for instance, envisioned the modern Olympic Games as a celebration of masculinity, saying, “Women’s proper place was in the stands as appreciative observers and not participants”.
This low representation suggests a society with pre-set gender roles that perpetuate male hegemony in sports leadership. Such low representation can be attributed to several factors that may be historical, social, organizational, and political. They include the perception of women as frail and inferior, male masculinity and dominance, cultural beliefs and gender stereotypes, feminine modesty, lack of institutional support, gender role expectations, work-family balance, lack of a social network and role models, lack of education and experience and organizational structures that inadvertently promote men over women. Generally, in Kenya, the entrenched and unchanging organizational cultures that favour male leadership are the major impediments to women’s progress into spheres leadership.
It is as if Kenya supports the views of some of the founding fathers of the modern Olympics games, who denied women participation in sports.
If any efforts have been made in Kenya to institute inclusivity in sports, the progress of women into leadership roles has been slow at best. It was, however, refreshing to see Catherine Ndereba lead the Gender, Welfare and Equality Committee in Sports. President Uhuru Kenyatta had directed that the committee dedicate itself to analysing “women inclusion in teams and federations’ management, existing challenges and opportunities for corrective improvement.” Among other things, the committee recommended stringent action against perpetrators of Gender-Based Violence (GVB).
It is hoped that the recently launched Trailblazer Programme of the State Department for Gender will meet its objective of facilitating women pioneers and icons to play a role in mentoring the youth. Rose Said Rutin, a family counselor and Director of Praise Celebrations, a Christian worship movement in Nairobi says, “All stakeholders, including state departments must work together to cast aside the constraints that have hemmed female athletes in … we must deal with a society in which honest merit is held back, a talent passed over and patriarchy arrogantly allowed to usurp the prerogatives of all. Let the cynic ask by what right we condemn it all. We condemn it at the altar of conscience, equity, and democracy”. Rutin adds, “Our women athletes have been carrying the sedan chair for others. They should sit on the sedan chairs themselves.” For Rutin, athletes like Tegla Loroupe, Catherine Ndereba, Brigid Koskei, and Hellen Obiri have what it takes to ensure that women athletes are treated with dignity and are allowed the freedom to play their meaningful roles in society.
Sports for peace and development
While it might be the case that Tegla followed her dharma as a long-distance runner, she aligned herself with the needs of her context and society. Sports were not entirely her end but a means to serve humanity, a way station, not a destination. “For me, sport is not just about competing and winning or achieving fame and glory. Rather, I see sport as a worthy platform that can help unite the world, bring peace where there is war and help foster the spirit of brotherliness.” Tegla explains her involvement with Sport for Development and Peace (SDP), saying that it is an intentional use of sport, physical activity and play to attain specific development and peace objectives.
But way before the 5 May 2010 Inaugural Plenary Session of the United Nations that approved the Sport for Development and Peace International Working Group (SDP IWG), Tegla Loroupe had started using sports to effect social change in communities, having established the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation (TLPF) in 2003, whose aim was to put an end to the conflict between Kenya’s pastoralist communities. The foundation’s mission is based on three pillars: peacebuilding, education and supporting refugee athletes. From 2003 to date, the Foundation has sponsored a series of annual Peace Marathons dubbed “Peace through Sports”. With the support of Prince Albert of Monaco, Tegla has also established the Kapenguria Peace Academy that takes in children from conflict areas in East Africa.
While it might be the case that Tegla followed her dharma as a long-distance runner, she aligned herself with the needs of her context and society.
Tegla was named the 2016 United Nations Person of the Year and in the same year was featured in the Olympians for Life exhibition for her work in promoting peace. Tegla was also the Chef de Mission of the Refugee Team, leading the first Refugee Olympic Team to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio to “remind the world of the sufferings and perseverance of millions of refugees around the world.”
Using sports as a tool to bring about social transformation in relation to conflicts, education, health, and the plight of refugees has elevated Tegla’s standing in Kenya, in the region, and globally, and brought her accolades. A unique woman who originates from a society in which men may themselves be the instigators and prosecutors of conflict and war, her effectiveness and that of fellow elite athletes is increasingly becoming a subject area for social movement theorists. It has been noted that their mobilization of resources, the pursuit of political opportunities, and devising a collective action frame have been possible not just because of the extant positioning of the athletes in the impacted communities, the active involvement in and personal investment of the athletes in the outcome of the peace-promoting activities, but also because of the unique Olympic ethos driving their action.
Tegla and others like her are described as “social movement entrepreneurs”. They do not just appear as mere “evangelists” who only demonstrate their solidarity with a cause by their “presence” at an event but act as businesspeople who must see results; as others “preach with their occasional presence”, they do more.