Persona Non Grata: Kenyan Athletes After Helsinki

Qatari citizen Saif Saaeed Shaheen (formerly known as Stephen Cherono) reacts to smashing the world record and winning the 3000m steeplechase at the 2005 World Championships. I do not care if he is a citizen of the moon or Qatar, there is nothing better than seeing a Kenyan on top of the world.

President Kibaki recently urged Kenyan athletes to resist the temptation to change their citizenship for money. This is a statement that can only have come from a man with a obstinate Panglossian ‘all-is-well-with-the-world’ streak. The sad fact is that talent or heroism are under-appreciated and downright dangerous qualities to have in Kenya. Kibaki is a leading member of a ruling elite that has consigned talent and integrity to the rubbish heap even while he admonishes those who would rather go where they are more appreciated and respected. And the Kenyan public, bunch of innocents that we are, ever blaming the government for our every national shortcoming even as we look to its for every solution, only notice these athletes every four years at the Olympics. They give us a brief glow of warm pride and are soon forgotten along with their achievements and the challenges that they face. When is the last time that you heard that a civic group of any kind had gathered to honour one of our athletes? How many products are endorsed by them, what schools and streets named after them? The real question I am asking is this: what is heroism in Kenya and how, if at all, is it linked to our national life?

Diary of a Mad Kenyan Woman has recently blogged about David Munyakei the whistle blower who alerted the country to the Goldenberg Scandal and how he has since been forgotten by the public. WM says it so much better than I could:

Who are we that we glorify and protect the avaricious, the gluttonous, and the ostentatiously, graspingly corrupt, the liars and the tyrants (why isn’t Moi in jail?). Who are we that we do this in order precisely to make the shabby, cringe-making, shame-amplifying nature of our complete disregard of those who guard and rescue and restore our sense of self more marked by contrast, more significant by difference? Just so we can underline the dichotomy, in case someone had missed it? To sum: you need to f**k Kenya up, not pluck it out of the lion’s jaws. This is the correct trajectory to follow to fame and fortune; failure to which, you will not even be a footnote in history.

As a career and lifestyle choice, I highly recommend that you strike OFF your list the idea of doing something good for Kenya, since we Kenyans assure and guarantee you that no good deed done for us will ever go unpunished.

This then is the world of the Kenyan hero: either forgotten or destroyed.

Many Kenyans are clamouring to vote with their feet, they want to leave that little paradise we call home. And the runners, like the doctors, the nurses and the thousands of Green Card Lottery applicants, want to step out too. It is at this precise moment when the exit door is beckoning that their international accomplishments have fallen.

When the rhetoric of Project Keenya was strong enough that its disconnect with the lived reality of many Kenyans was not readily apparent, our runners made off with gold medals galore. But since the late 1990s there has been a wholesale collapse of the idea what we are in a collective vehicle called Kenya whose destination shall benefit us individually.

This project I have argued in the past was merely an extension in blackface of the colonial desire to civilise and develop the ‘savage’. Its collapse was inevitable and there is a Kenyan being born from its ashes who is more competitive, self reliant and skeptical of the government and its nonsensical postures and actions. It is only when faced with Kenyan athletes cutting and running that there is a sudden surge of concern and a recognition of their worth. As is usual the government’s position can be trusted to be stupid. Sports Minister Ochillo Ayacko speaking about migrating athletes said, “we will declare these athletes as persona non grata and cannot permit them to enjoy facilities available in the country while they compete against us at World championships.” Eh, these facilities of course being the government constructed hills and trails of the Rift Valley. If you are a European tourist you are welcome to come and run up and down whatever you wish, but dare you be an ex-citizen who wants to do the same…

Watching the Ethiopian athletes power ahead in Helsinki and at the 2004 Olympics, I felt that they were running from a psychological and emotional space that their Kenyan counterparts have not occupied for a long while. And there will be no getting back to that place soon since we must first elevate talent and achievement to the highest dais of our national life. For this to happen, the moral state of our communities will have to be revitalised beyond the church step and into the home and all those other ordinary folks’ spaces. But this is a discussion for another day I suppose. For now, I am sad that those Kenyans who competed in Helsinki did not do better but glad that the negative commentary about the performance might be making us ask tough questions about what our country does to its best and brightest.


(Shaheen or Cherono is just a small tip of the iceberg. Beyond the athlete is Dedan Kimathi still in a Kamiti Prison grave, Pio Pinto, David Munyakei broke and close to breaking and numerous others. Kenya produces heroes as a kettle will release steam to relieve the pressure of boiling water. Our heroism, like heroism anywhere else, is the product of adversity; therefore our heroes by the very actions that elevate them often incur injury. It is in how we deal with these injuries that the esteem we hold them in is revealed. Also revealed is what we think of ourselves since the hero at hand has only become so presumably for our collective benefit: they have borne a load greater than themselves and by doing so have relieved us of an unpleasantness that was ours. To ignore the hero, to leave them by the wayside is to deny the existence of a collective self to which the hero sacrificed himself. If Kenyans ignore or do not care for a Kenyan hero, then there is no such thing as Kenya outside of a geographer’s map.)

About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

3 Responses to Persona Non Grata: Kenyan Athletes After Helsinki

  1. Chepkemboi says:

    Well written MMK

  2. MMK says:

    Chemkemboi – Thanks for visiting and commenting, I cannot remember you having done so in the past. I am a huge athletics fan and always look in wonder when Kenyan athletes grab gold. They are the only Kenyans who can really relate to the sense of being the best in the world and I am surprised that the rest of the country does not try and draw more inspiration from them. If I run a business, I would be sure to invite Cherono often to speak to my employees on what motivates him and how he prepares to take on the world.

  3. Acolyte says:

    True corporate Kenya is yet to make use of athlete power like they do here in the states.also i think it is time we taight our young Kenyans to appreciate our Kenya n heroes as the older generation are not doing so instead of them worshipping 50 cent and other american x-ters

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