J. Brady McCollough
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Monday, May 5, 2008

A conflict in Kenya made it hard for distance runner Chesang to get back to KU

 

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH

The Kansas City Star

 

LAWRENCE | Victor Chesang and his mother needed food. It didn't matter that it wasn't safe for them to walk the streets of Nairobi, Kenya, or that they had spent day after day locked up in a small apartment, afraid for their lives. Victor, a long-distance runner at the University of Kansas, had to be brave.

 

Victor's mother lived in Kikuyu territory. For a member of the Kalenjin tribe like Victor, that meant imminent danger in the aftermath of Kenya's presidential election Dec. 27. The Kikuyu were the ruling tribe, aligned with re-elected President Mwai Kibaki. But Kibaki's victory came under great scrutiny from the country's 41 other tribes that wanted change. Soon, Kenya would be headed toward civil war.

 

Victor's Kalenjin tribe was one of many that had pushed the Kikuyu out of their villages, towns and cities after the election, which was believed to have been rigged.

 

On that January morning, as he went to buy groceries, Victor Chesang had never felt so out of place in his native land. Growing up, he had not really taken much pride in being Kalenjin. Victor believed in Kenya, and he considered himself a Kenyan above all else. That allegiance to country over tribe may have saved his life. As he walked into the Kikuyu market a quarter of a mile from his apartment, he was joined by four Kikuyu friends.

 

Victor traversed the market. Looking for vegetables and bread, he saw posters. If you are from the Kalenjin tribe, you should move out. Victor knew what that meant. If he was discovered, he could be shot with a bow and arrow, cut up by a machete. It was important that he didn't talk at all. The Kikuyu would have noticed his accent.

 

"It was scary," Victor says, "because you didn't know what was going to happen. Anything could happen in a minute. We had seen on television what is happening outside to the tribes. They'll start killing people."

 

Victor's Kikuyu friends helped him make the purchase without being detected. Victor left the market relieved, a sack of tomatoes in hand, and arrived at home without a problem. Still, as the long days inside his mother's apartment became sleepless nights, Victor began to wonder: Would he ever get back to Kansas?

 

***

 

Victor Chesang boarded the plane for Kenya with big plans. When he came back to Lawrence after the Christmas holiday, he would continue his training and become the runner he believed himself to be, the one that Kansas distance coach Doug Clark expected him to be.

 

In his first 2 1/2 years on campus, Victor struggled to make an impact in both cross country and track. It was surprising. Victor's uncles, Benson and Matthew Chesang, had been stars at Kansas and Kansas State, respectively. During 2003-06, Benson won two Big 12 cross country titles and finished seventh at the NCAA championships. Plus, some of the greatest long-distance runners have been not only Kenyan, but also Kalenjin.

 

What most people didn't know, though, was that Victor had never run for sport until he arrived at KU in the fall of 2005. Sure, Victor ran. But everybody runs in Kenya.

 

"There is no mode of transportation," Victor says. "Just your legs. When you're a kid, you get used to that."

 

As a boy, he ran the 2 kilometers to school every day from his home in Eldama Ravine, a village of 10,000 in Kenya's Rift Valley. Sometimes, he'd run back and forth just to get his lunch. Of course, other boys would run much farther than that.

 

"You can't help but run," Victor says.

 

Even though Victor preferred team sports such as soccer, handball, volleyball and basketball to running, Benson Chesang told Clark about his nephew back in Kenya. After watching Benson dominate the college ranks, Clark decided to take a flier on Victor without ever seeing him run. And Victor knew that he couldn't pass up a full scholarship to KU.

 

"I had an idea of running," Victor says, "but it kind of sounded weird because my friends and everybody else knew that I couldn't run. But I believed in myself. If my uncles can do it, I can do it."

 

While Victor has enjoyed his classes as an economics major, life on the track has been much tougher.

 

"In retrospect," Clark says, "I don't think Victor has developed to the extent that Benson thought he was going to when he referred him to us. At the same time, the guy has come in and done the best he can. He's gotten significantly better. He just started from a different place than Benson."

 

But Victor felt as if his breakthrough was right around the corner when he returned to Kenya to renew his visa. He was scheduled to fly back to Kansas on Jan. 2 to continue building on a cross country season in which he moved in and out of the Jayhawks' top seven. Finally, he was close to contributing.

 

Then the results of the election were announced. While Victor was away learning how to run like a Kenyan, tribal and political rivalries had been boiling under the surface at home. When Kibaki was announced the winner over opposition leader Raila Odinga, riots began in Nairobi. The problem was, in the big city with so many different tribes represented, it was hard to know who was friend and who was foe.

 

After the violence began, Victor checked the Web site for the American embassy in Nairobi, where he would renew his visa. The message from the embassy was simple: It told him to stay at home. It wasn't safe anymore.

 

***

 

Jan. 2 came and went. Victor Chesang e-mailed his coaches and academic advisers at KU, letting them know the bad news. If the violence didn't stop, he might miss the entire track season and, more important, the whole spring semester of classes.

 

Victor didn't recognize his country anymore. Kenya had always been so peaceful, a place where you could walk up to any stranger and carry on a conversation. By Africa's standards, Kenya was a thriving nation with one of its strongest economies.

 

Suddenly, though, Victor couldn't even go outside for fear of being randomly stopped by a Kikuyu tribe member and asked for his ID. His grandmother and grandfather who raised him were 300 miles away in Eldama Ravine, and there was no way for Victor and his mother to escape the city. The TV reports showed that the road from Nairobi to Eldama Ravine was barricaded.

 

"That was the most dangerous thing to do," Victor says. "People were watching. They'd stop the car, ask everyone to show their ID. If you're not from that tribe, they kill you."

 

Trapped with only his thoughts, Victor was overcome with constant worry.

 

"I didn't know what was going to happen for the future," Victor says, "because right now, I started another life (in Kansas). There were times at night where I couldn't sleep. I'd just stay awake until 6 in the morning. It was intense, man."

 

By late January, the violence was starting to subside in the city. Nairobi's economy, based largely on tourism, had been ravaged by the rampant fear and fighting. Eventually, after thousands of deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of others from their homes, people began to return to their lives. Once Victor felt comfortable with leaving the apartment, he went to the embassy and renewed his visa. It was Jan. 28.

 

He returned to Lawrence on Feb. 4, after almost three weeks of classes had been completed. He would be fine academically; his advisors and teachers would ease him back in. On the track, however, Victor would not be able to recover from taking basically a month off. Short of running around in circles in his mother's apartment, Victor had no way to stay in shape.

 

For a runner, a month without training takes months to make up. Victor's indoor and outdoor track and field seasons have been all but lost.

 

"I had set goals for this season," Victor says, "but once everything happened, it just died. I've tried. Hopefully next season will be much better."

 

Back in Kenya, the government has formed a coalition, trying to bring order and peace back to the country. Kibaki is the president, and Odinga is the prime minister.

 

Victor always imagined that, after he graduated from KU, he would return to Kenya.

 

"Right now, I'm not sure," he says. "Because if that happened (now), it can still happen again."

 

Kenya's hurting economy could certainly use a budding economist like Victor Chesang. The country could also do well by listening to his message.

 

"I've learned a lot," Victor says. "It's good to talk to people and understand them. It's always good to be open-minded and accept some stuff. If you look at what has happened back home, most of it is ignorance. You want to ignore the fact that you are Kenyan. You want to rely on the tribe only.

 

"The tribes, I don't like it. I believe that everybody should be a Kenyan."

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