Frontline World

KENYA - Run, Lornah, Run, March 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Run, Lornah, Run"

Kenyan Women Run the Distance

High-Altitude Women

Training for Change

Economy, Running, Women's Rights

Background on Running in Kenya, Gender Issues




Images of Kenyan landscapes, people and culture
Facts & Stats

• General Background
• Economy
• Running
• Gender and Women's Rights

General Background

Kenya sits along the East African coast, nestled between Ethiopia to the north and Tanzania to the south.

The country is about 240,000 square miles (600,000 sq km), roughly the size of Texas. Kenya is home to Africa's second-highest peak, Mount Kenya, which rises 17,058 feet (5,199 m).

The population is more than 31 million people, made up of 70 ethnic groups. No one group comprises more than 22 percent of the total.

About two-thirds of the population is from the Bantu language group, which is largely concentrated in the southern part of the country. Other language groups include the Nilotic and Cush.

The median age in Kenya is 18, half that of the United States, and 41 percent of the population is 14 or younger.

The official languages are English and Kiswahili (also called Swahili).

Kenya was a British colony and protectorate from the late 1890s until independence in 1963. From 1963 to 2002, the government was dominated by a single party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU). On December 27, 2002, Mwai Kibaki was elected as the country's third president since independence, ending 40 years of KANU rule.

Kenya's varied landscape features diverse wildlife, including rhinoceroses, crocodiles and zebras.

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Kenya is the world's third-largest exporter of tea, which, along with coffee and agricultural products, makes up 53 percent of the country's total commodities exports.

Tourism is the second-largest industry in Kenya, behind agriculture.

The Kenyan economy has been declining for the past two decades. As of 1995, 23 percent of the population were living on less than $1 a day, and 22.5 percent of children under age 5 were malnourished. The majority of Kenyans live below the poverty line, and the majority of those in poverty are women.

In 2001, there were fewer than three telephones for every 100 Kenyans, and about one computer for every 200.

The annual economic growth rate declined to just 2.2 percent from 1990 to 2001; the population grew at a rate of 2.5 percent.

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The fame of Kenyan runners began at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, with a now-legendary performance by Kip Keino. While running with the leaders in the 10,000m, Keino collapsed with severe stomach pains. He later learned the pains were caused by a gall bladder infection. Against his doctor's orders, Keino continued to compete, and he earned a silver medal in the 5,000m four days later. But he gave his best performance in the 1,500m, defeating world record holder Jim Ryun by 66 feet (20 m), still the largest margin in history.

Dozens of Kenyan runners have followed in Keino's swift footsteps. Kenyan men hold six of the top 10 fastest recorded times in the marathon, and eight of the top 10 in the half marathon.

Kenyan men hold world records in the marathon, half marathon, 3,000m track race, and 15K, 20K and 25K road races.

Kenyan women hold five of the top 10 fastest recorded times in the marathon and three of the top 10 (nine of the top 20) in the half marathon.

Kenyan women hold world records in the 20,000m, 25,000m and 30,000m track races.

Most of Kenya's success in running has come from members of a single tribe, the Kalenjin, who number 3 million. The Kalenjin live in high altitudes, between 5,000 and 10,000 feet (1,524 m to 3,048 m), giving them strong lungs and high endurance. And the temperature at that altitude is cool and ideal for running.

The Kalenjin won nearly 40 percent of the biggest international men's awards from 1987 to 1996.

In 1990, Kenya's top high school squad, from St. Patrick's Academy in Iten, outraced members of the Swedish national track team in several events organized by Swedish physiologist Bengt Saltin.

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Gender and Women's Rights

Women constitute 54 percent of Kenya's voting population, but occupy only 4 percent of its parliamentary seats and 18 percent of its judgeships.

Eighty percent of Kenyan agricultural workers are women, yet they own just 5 percent of the land.

In some regions of Kenya, adult women can be forced to marry without their consent. Through a practice called cleansing, a widow can be "inherited" by a close relative of her deceased husband or she can be forced to have sex with a social outcast to remove the spirits of her deceased husband.

An estimated 38 percent of Kenyan women between 15 and 49 years old had undergone female genital mutilation before the practice was legally banned in 2001.

Like many African countries, Kenya has been ravaged by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and women appear to be the most affected. A survey by the Kenyan government found that 8.7 percent of women tested HIV positive, compared with 4.5 percent of men. Critics, including UNAIDS, say these results may reflect a falsely low infection rate because of the low survey response rate.

In Kenya, marital rape is not recognized as a crime. According to U.N. estimates, 42 percent of Kenyan women are battered by their husbands or partners. Perpetrators are rarely punished, however, because laws do not recognize domestic violence as a specific crime.

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Sources: CIA World Factbook;; World Bank, "Country Brief: Kenya"; World Bank, "Millennium Development Goals;" United Nations; UNAIDS; International Association of Athletics Federations; "Kenya's Running Tribe," by John Manners; United Press International; Amnesty International, "Kenya: Rape -- The Invisible Crime;" Human Rights Watch, "Kenya/Uganda: Bush Should Act on Women and AIDS," October 2003; Human Rights Watch; BBC News, "Kenya Bans FGM Among Young," December 12, 2001; BBC News, "Study Cuts Kenya HIV Estimates," January 2004; Women's Edge Coalition.

Some photos provided courtesy Giuliano de Portu.