Kenyan runner leads the race to beat cattle-rustling

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The Independent Online

In the frontier country of northern Kenya, warrior tribes armed with bows and arrows - and AK-47s - make nightly raids to steal each other's cattle.

Life in the Marakwet and Turkana regions is brutish and short - droughts often lead to fierce competition for access to water and grazing land. Formal employment opportunities do not exist and most children do not finish primary school.

Most young men become warriors and help their tribe to steal cattle. But with the raids becoming deadlier - in July, 22 children were killed in clashes on the Ethiopian border - the Kenyan government says it is keen to bring peace to the region.

Kenya's exemplary marathon runners, who train in the thin air of the northern highlands, are the pioneers of a solution. Many of the most successful have set up training camps in the most inhospitable districts, and seek out talented athletes among the pastoralists.

Tegla Loroupe, a two-time winner of the New York marathon, is one of the most active campaigners. Born in the violent, west Pokot district, Ms Loroupe grew up among the cattle raiders that make the district a no-go area for officials and policemen. She spent years training barefoot on rocky trails before becoming a professional runner. In 1994, she became the first African woman to win the New York marathon. Now, she has set up a foundation that provides athletics training for teenagers who would otherwise turn to rustling.

"People are displaced, many die, children don't go to school. This has to change," she said. "I grew up in a pastoral environment where life was really hard because of the local conflicts between the tribes and people stealing cattle. I was lucky. I had talent and was able to make a success out of running. I felt I wanted to give things back to the community I grew up in."

Her foundation organises "peace races" in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, in order to bring together warring communities. The races, which began in 2003, help to raise money for the more talented athletes. Already, they have become something of a national institution, attended by international scouts who whisk the winners away to professional training camps.

One of her first success stories is Mark Loktare, 21, a Pokot cattle raider who used to cross the border into Uganda to steal cows from the rival Karamajong tribe.

One day, he spotted some people in tracksuits, and wondered why they were running up and down a hill as if they were being chased.

The answer was more strange - that these athletes were training for a chance to win money, simply by running faster than others. He said: "At first, I was surprised and amused because how could somebody just run and get money, buy sleek vehicles and many cows? For us, you either sell your livestock to get money or, when you have none or few, you resort to cattle rustling to get cows to sell. So when they told me athletes run to get money, I thought they were joking."

Nonetheless, he began to join in the practice sessions, and one day caught the eye of Ms Loroupe, who offered him the chance to trade in his gun for a pair of running shoes. "Leading a life of hide-and-seek, always avoiding bullets is not good. I gave up my gun to authorities when Tegla Loroupe offered me a pair of spikes and I am happy now," he said. Mr Loktare won the first race he ran in Kenya in 2003, and has taken part in the London marathon.

This year,, poverty in northern Kenya has become more acute: The rains have failed and hundreds of livestock have died. At least 20 people have starved to death, and many more deaths are thought to have gone unreported.

At least 2.5 million people are expected to need urgent help by February. In this desperate climate, the chance to make money, simply by running as fast and for as long as possible, is more attractive than ever.

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