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Athletes trade weapons for running shoes at Torongo camp

 Athletes from Torongo athletics training camp, in a training session, in Sinonin village, Eldama Ravine. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

It's barely 4am and irregular beams of lights shining along the trails of Kapcholoi road silhouette figures of racing athletes, interrupting the tranquility of the sleepy Sinonin village that overlooks Koibatek forest, in Baringo County.

The crack of dawn exercise is a daily dose to the tens of athletes who could have otherwise been running for their lives in the volatile region.

However, at the Torongo Athletics training camp, they are chasing dreams under the cloud of darkness.

The over 70 athletes hail from the conflict-prone North Rift region, majorly from the warring Tugen, Pokot, Marakwet, Turkana, and Samburu communities that have risen beyond the shackles of their pasts.  Here, they run with each other, and not after one another, rewriting scripts and changing ugly narratives.

“The option is only one here; unity. We run so that fortunes follow us. We need to change the perceptions that we can never thrive under one roof as communities that have been known to be attacking each other," said Benson Moshon, one of the athletes.

Gunshots have been swapped for cheers, banditry outweighed by teamwork and a brutal chase for one another, now converted to a profound chase for success.

After covering the usual 10-kilometre morning run, the athletes converge outside their camp for a warm-down session, an activity punctuated by stretching, joking, pound hugs, and shaking hands, before retreating to their camps.

We caught up with them three hours later at the nearby Metipso Primary School playground during their speed work training session under the watchful eye of their coach Barnabas Kitilit, this time, the group has been whittled down by half.

“All the athletes you saw earlier are not here, many of them are secondary school students studying at Sinonin Secondary School. They will catch up with the team in the evening training," said Kitilit, a retired high school principal.

Julius Kipkwony, the little-known athlete, who recently busted into the limelight in the Kip Keino Classic after clocking 28 minutes 28 seconds whitewashing Wesley Kimutai (28:32.09) and Abraham Longosiwa (28:35.01) to win 10,000m race, is among the athletes leading the pack.

The 24-year-old has for years been running a different race, fleeing from armed bandits who have wreaked havoc at his local village in Arabal, Baringo south.

Kipkwony fled, running away from his own community that would have otherwise wanted such a young man so fit and energetic, to take up arms and jump right onto the front-line to defend his Tugen tribesmen from a perennial enemy.

“All our cows, sheep, and goats were taken away. They have displaced us from our ancestral land and we are now living like internally displaced people in Marigat, several kilometres from home. The entire location is now deserted," said Kipkwony.

With no livestock to sell and no farm to till, Kipkwony had to cut short his education ambitions after finishing high school in 2017. He opted to venture into athletics.

 Torongo Athletics Training camp Athletes after their training session at Metipso Primary school in Eldama Ravine,Baringo county on May 10,2022.[Kipsang Joseph,Standard]

“I studied under difficult conditions at Arabal Primary School. Going to school was insecure, being at school was not safe, neither was staying at home. We slept out in the cold on many nights because of insecurity, luckily and by God’s grace, I finished my primary and secondary education," he said

Kipkwony said communities in the marginalised parts of Baringo and the entire North Rift region need to be enlightened through education.

“If I get the chance to talk to these few criminals who have terrorised our region, I could plead with them to change their ways of living. There is no gain in killing people and stealing livestock," he said.

Ismael Kurui, 17, the Agnes Tirop Memorial World cross country Tour 6km under-18 boys champion, is another rising star, who hails from Mochongoi, another conflict torn area in Baringo South.

In a span of two months, the area has lost 11 people, among them an inspector of police to armed herders, a situation that prompted the government to recruit 80 National Police Reservists to act as their first line of defense.

“If I was in the village, perhaps I could be among those who were recently recruited as NPRs to defend the community from bandits, but being an NPR is not that easy, it is like giving up your life for others, one can die anytime," said Kurui, a Form Two student at Sinonin Secondary School, who won the Discovery Cross Country Championships 8km junior men, early this year.

To him, bread and soda were the reason he chose to take up athletics as he competed in inter-school primary competitions.

“Soda and a loaf of bread was a rare thing for us. Athletes representing the school during inter-school competitions were being served with that and that's why I used to participate in those events,” he said.

Evans Longor, 18, from Mukutani along the border of Tiaty and Baringo South, just like a majority of Pokot children, was introduced to herding as the only means of survival at a tender age.

His father did not want him to go to school. At at the age of 10, Longor would accompany his elder brothers and other morans in search of pasture and water for their livestock.

On many occasions, they would clash with their Tugen neighbours in Mochongoi ward.

“For us, we protect our livestock by all means even if it means paying the ultimate price," he said.

 Coach Barnabas Kitilit of Torongo Athletics Training camp during during an interview at Metipso Primary school in Eldama Ravine,Baringo county on May 10,2022.[Kipsang Joseph,Standard] 

In 2017, 11 people among them four children and seven women, were killed by bandits, who were retaliating for the killing of two women from their community.

An incident happened that changed Longor’s life. A contingent of police officers was deployed in the village to flush out criminals, a situation that made him flee the village.

“Any male member of the Pokot community was being tortured. I knew if I continue staying in the village, I might be killed. Out of my father’s wish, I fled the village to seek refuge at my grandmother's place, in Tangulbei, where I joined school," said Longor.

He joined Tangulbei Primary School, but due to his age, the teachers allowed him to enroll at standard Four.

 Evans Longor one of the athletes at  Torongo Athletics Training camp during a training session at Metipso Primary school in Eldama Ravine,Baringo county on May 10,2022.[Kipsang Joseph,Standard]

Now specialising in 200m and 400m races, Longor is in Form One and has to balance his time between his studies and sports.

“Athletics has really exposed me to the world, here at the camp, I have interacted with many people from different ethnic backgrounds, and I realised the people we were fighting for resources and displacing from their land, included my colleagues here. It is so unfortunate," he said.

Benson Moshon a graduate of Journalism and Mass Communication from Kibabi University, is yet another athlete from the Pokot community.

Moshon knows too well the success interacting with the other communities at the training camp has had in his life.

“There is no enmity in sports; it is the only thing that unites people irrespective of ethnicity, race, or religious background. Here, we are like a family," he added.

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