Equality, the longest race for female athletes from East Africa

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Veteran Agnes Kiprop has no Olympic medals or records. She is not a middling athlete nor is she a world record holder. The trophies she has won during her career as a long-distance runner adorn one of the best houses in Iten, in the west of Kenya.

In these parts, only those who are doing well for themselves can afford a house like this. But after securing sporting and economic success, the goal of achieving gender equality is still a long way off.

Agnes Kiprop is tall, with long, fast legs. She does not talk much, but when she does, she does so with confidence and almost brutal frankness.

“The money was mine, but he wanted to decide what to do with it,” she explains, referring to her ex-partner, who she does not refer to by name. “He didn’t want to buy a vegetable plot in Iten. He wanted to spend the money on a four-wheel drive and other luxuries, so I told him no, that I would stay on my own with my children and later on we would see.”

Divorce is not a common thing in rural Kenya, but the financial stability the long-distance runner has secured through athletics has enabled her to bring up her children on her own.

She goes on to argue: “If I’m the one paying for the house, the bills and the children’s schooling… and, in the meantime, someone is drunk…” she breaks off. “You’re faced with a lot of stress when you’re training, and during the day. So I decided to stay on my own with my children.”

Famed Italian coach Renato Canova, who is in charge of some of the world’s most successful runners, tells Equal Times: “In recent years, female athletes have developed a great deal in terms of technique and this has allowed them to earn money and to become, in many cases, the family’s main breadwinner.

Having spent two decades travelling to the area with his work, he is a prime witness of the changes in the traditional family structure. “In some families, the husband was a standard runner and when the wife did better than him he continued to think he had his role (as head of the family),” explains Canova.

In other words: the man decided how to spend the money regardless of who earned it. And some women accepted it, initially. “But then they started to build confidence in themselves and wanted to take part in the decision making. We know of cases where, when the husband insisted (on this traditional role), the woman gathered up his things and put them outside the house,” says the coach.


Changing attitudes among men

There are other husbands who have realised that traditional gender roles make no sense and that family cooperation is crucial. It is something the husband of Caroline Chepkwony, Kiprop’s training partner, has gradually come to realise.

“We have just had our second child, a girl, and he works very hard for us,” Chepkwony tells Equal Times. The runner is still on leave and breastfeeding and wants to focus on mothering right now, but she knows she will have to put her running shoes back on within a few months - because she wants to, and also because she has to.

“My husband is keen for me to go back to running,” she says. The reason is simple: the money she earns from the races is much higher than any decent wage in rural Kenya. The tens of thousands of dollars or euros she makes from a marathon of medium importance are the equivalent of several years’ work in a country where the average wage is around €250 a month (about US$280), and the lowest wages, depending on the job, are around €100.

James Ebenyo, who acts as a pacemaker in Agnes and Caroline’s training groups has also witnessed the changes resulting from this ’revolution’ in the community, which he says has also led him to adjust his role within his own family.

With such an obvious economic incentive, it is not surprising that women are trying to follow in the footsteps of male long-distance runners, the first to taste success in this discipline. The desire to escape poverty is highly motivating and the (unforeseen) results are becoming ever more apparent as time goes by.

“When you travel abroad to compete, your mindset changes,” says the half-marathon world record holder, Florence Kiplagat, coached by Renato Canova.

Kiplagat has won races all over the world and has seen the role of women in the different societies she has visited. She has seen women running completely covered and independent women who run their own lives. She has seen men sharing the household chores and men with no work and no intention of being productive. The latter variety abounds in Iten, the Mecca of Kenyan athletics.

“When you go home, you tell your family and friends these stories and you bring about a change in them too,” adds the long-distance runner. She herself has chosen not to carry unnecessary burdens and has divorced on two occasions. Thanks to her income, she is able to bring up her two children alone, without depending on others.


Iten, the front runner of change

The success of the female runners from the area, on top of that of the men, has earned Iten a reputation as the cradle of athletics in Kenya (one of the world superpowers on the track). Its location, 2,400 metres above sea level, together with other factors linked to the local diet and the socioeconomic environment (the need to run for hours to get to school – due to the lack of education centres, although less so now than before – and the desire for a better life, etc.), have led to the rise of great runners, from Abel Kirui and David Rudisha to the Kibet brothers.

This success has acted as a magnet for sports tourism: runners from all over the world travel to Iten to train, and the consequences are visible. Over the last eight years, new hotels have been built and bars, gyms and training camps have been opened. New local businesses have also been launched, and the women from the area, accustomed to the domestic environment, are now frequenting or running them.

One of them is hairdresser Nancy Chepkoge, who Florence Kiplagat turns to when she needs a new look. Her beauty parlour is a precarious wooden shack just a few hundred metres away from the athlete’s house. The stylist has a child, who she is bringing up on her own with the income from her small business.

Fortunately, the female athletes from the area often call on her services and she is able to make a decent living. And so it is that the earnings from athletics are redistributed among the local population. Iten is an oasis, an exception on the map of Kenya.

But prior to the success of Kiprop, Kiplagat, Chepkwony and many others, there was one woman who had to pave the way for them. It was the Ethiopian Derartu Tulu, an inspiration for the women runners from the neighbouring country, where emancipation thanks to athletics, like in Iten, is starting to emerge. Derartu was the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal. It was in the final of the 10,000 meters at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and it placed her in the privileged position of being able to encourage other women to forge ahead and aim for success in any area of their lives.

“After Derartu won at the Barcelona Olympics, women started to believe it was possible to make a name for themselves, to win something, in any discipline, including athletics.” The author of these words is perhaps the most acclaimed runner of all time, Haile Gebrselassie.

For Haile, the role a woman plays in society is fundamental, and examples such as his compatriot have motivated thousands of women to better themselves. He can see the impact himself in his successful businesses. “Fifty-five per cent of my 1,200 employees are women. That’s why my business is so successful. I’m telling you,” he says.

Derartu Tulu, now a well-known businesswoman, is conscious of the qualitative leap athletics has meant for many women and girls. She is conscious of the opportunities it has given them and the rights they are starting to secure. But she is not deluded: “There are still sad stories about women and I think there is room for improvement in the future.”


This article has been translated from Spanish.