It can’t have escaped your notice that the London Marathon took place yesterday; nor did it probably surprise you that the first three male runners home were all Kenyan: Eliud Kipchoge beat twice-winner Wilson Kipsang (2:o4:47) to the top spot by five seconds (2:04:42), and Dennis Kimetto followed soon after (2:05:50). Surprisingly, an Ethiopian female (as opposed to a Kenyan) won this year – Tigist Tufa in 2:23:22, comfortably beating Kenya’s two-time London winner Mary Keitany. Several reasons have been cited for both Kenyan and Ethiopian successes in running, but the real reason for their motivation is plain: to escape a life of grinding poverty.
Enthusiastic young runners at Iten, Kenya
Both Kenya and Ethiopia have plentiful running training camps for youngsters, set at 8-10,000 feet above sea level. Some say that the children who are fortunate to go to school in these countries often run there and back barefoot, which might help their natural gait. Certainly, training at very high altitude makes running much easier when competing at low altitude. A runner’s lungs have got used to performing well on air thin in oxygen. But many articles written around the time of the Olympic Games in London 2012 suggest that youngsters in both countries run simply because it could mean a better life for them. If they become champions (and it is one huge “IF”, as competition is fierce) they can help their family, friends and tribe financially. If, as most are, they are born into very poor families, excelling at running can mean big prize monies – the winners of this year’s London Marathon will get US $55,000 each (about £36,000). One article suggested that the average per capita income of a Kenyan is around US $2,000 (about £1300). Think how many mouths that would feed and for how long….
46% of Kenyans live below the poverty line. In Ethiopia, around 30% live in extreme poverty. With expectations and pressures from both family and community high, youngsters run to try and fulfil their dreams by excelling at training and getting good enough grades (if they are not too exhausted to fall behind with studies) to get an escape route out for eg a scholarship at an American University, and continued training as speedy athletes with an income. Both countries’ economies are dominated by less-than-reliable annual yields from agriculture – tea, coffee, wheat, corn, cereals and sugar cane – so becoming a successful international runner means earning enough to support families back home. This year’s female Ethiopian winner, Tigist Tufa, said something similar today: (London Marathon website)
“I want to help my immediate family financially, in different ways. There are also some children I know I would like to help financially. Then I’d like to buy a car as I don’t have one yet.”
In an article written by Claudia Hammond (BBC Magazine, Iten, 28/4/2012) entitled: Kenya’s Rift Valley, where everyone runs she wrote:
“In fact one athlete told me that the motivation to run your way out of poverty is so strong, that if Kenya were to become a rich country he believed it would stop producing such fast runners.”
Unfortunately, in both Kenya and Ethiopia, many talented runners will never earn a single penny from their running and if schooling has fallen behind – assuming they were attending in the first place – they are back to square one.
A variety of Kenyan soapstone products
Thankfully, there are other ways of helping Kenyans and Ethiopians – and many more peoples from developing countries – to work their way out of poverty, by buying Fairtrade products from one of our BAFTS’ shops, located under “Member locations” on the map feature on this website, or listed on the “Resources” page. Kenya is fortunate enough to be home to beautiful Kisii soapstone, named after the Kisii tribe of Tabaka Hills in Western Kenya. It is often exported due to its excellent craftsmanship, smooth texture and evocative African designs of wildlife and natural landscapes.
Ethiopia is sometimes referred to as the “Birthplace of Coffee”, producing such quality blends as Sidamo and Yirgacheffe (remember the subject matter of the 2006 film “Black Gold” http://blackgoldmovie.com/ where Tadesse Meskela fought to save his 74,000 struggling coffee farmers from bankruptcy, in an effort to gain a better price for some of the highest quality coffee beans on the international market? Well, his coffee farmers were Ethiopian). Sidamo is a major coffee growing region in southern Ethiopia, and Yirgacheffe is a small sub-region centered around a village of the same name. Ethiopian Yirgacheffes are spicy and fragrant and often rate as some of the best in the world. You could do a lot worse than buy these Fairtrade Ground Coffees.
So, next time you see Kenyan or Ethiopian runners winning high-profile International races, don’t be surprised, but remember the majority who don’t get successful and think about a Fairtrade purchase to give them a better deal too.