Unable to pay school fees? A housewife found marathon way to solve problem

Meera Selva
Wednesday 03 November 2004 01:00

A Kenyan housewife who took up running to pay her children's school fees has become the latest star of the international athletics scene after she won the Nairobi Marathon.

A Kenyan housewife who took up running to pay her children's school fees has become the latest star of the international athletics scene after she won the Nairobi Marathon.

Chimokil Chilapong, who is 27, beat professionals to win in 2 hours, 39 minutes and 9 seconds, outpacing Joyce Chepchumba, winner of the London Marathon in 1997 and 1999, and grabbing the attention of international coaches.

She won £7,000 in prize money, which is enough to educate her four children and to buy more livestock for the family's small farm in West Pokot, where most people live on less than £1 a day.

After Chilapong's mother died 10 years ago, she dropped out of school and got married straight away: the only option usually available for poor teenage girls in rural Kenya. She began training to run last year after a neighbour told her that she could earn some money by taking part in races.

Chilapong began to run through the steep hills around West Pokot in the early morning while her husband, Benjamin, prepared breakfast and looked after their four children, aged between two and nine.

Will Lorot, a local athletics coach, spotted her talent and encouraged her to enter the Nairobi Marathon after she came seventh in a national race organised by Tegla Loroupe, another West Pokot athlete who has twice won the New York Marathon.

Chilapong's 30-year-old husband had to sell one of his four sheep and one of his eight chickens to pay for her to travel to Nairobi to take part in the race, which took place in the city centre on 24 October. As a reward, she has promised to give him the prize money and will let him "decide what to do for the family especially the education of our children".

The couple say that they will send their older sons to boarding school to get the best education possible and to give Chilapong a chance to focus on her burgeoning career.

The sportswear company Fila immediately offered her a $6,000 (£3,200) sponsorship deal, and later doubled the amount when it became clear she was in demand from several rival companies. It has also promised her appearance fees for the first time she runs in a European race.

Chilapong's win has delighted Kenyans, who see her as the perfect embodiment of a good wife: one who committed herself to her family, but also had the talent and ability to earn money when her children needed it.

Her region, West Pokot, has become notorious for ethnic violence among herdsmen, and local leaders hope that her example will encourage local youth to spend their energy running instead of fighting.

Lorot, a former army officer who had set up an athletics club to encourage young men in the region to run instead of fighting tribal battleswith rival ethnic groups, said: "Chilapong's success at the Nairobi race has opened a new chapter for us, and we will soon be going places. She is a great inspiration to other runners at our camp."

Since her win, her neighbours and relatives have descended on the Chilapong homestead, made up of two grass thatched huts and fields of potato tubers, to eat roast mutton and generally to join in the celebrations.

Kenya's high altitude and climate make it the perfect training ground for athletes, and international sporting bodies such as the International Olympic Committee have set up centres in the country's highlands. Many Kenyans see sport as a way to escape poverty, an ambition encouraged by the fact that Kenya produces 80 per cent of all marathon winners in the world.

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