SINDAR/KAPAKATA/NAIROBI, Kenya—By his own admission, Bethuel Kibor, a veterinary officer by training, was at one point involved in cattle rustling in his village in the Rift Valley area of northern Kenya, with the tribal cattle raids at times turning deadly.
The 52-year-old father of six with two wives reaches into his pocket, removes a small white tin, pops it open, and picks out a pinch of powdered tobacco, sniffing it as he sits down. With red eyes and his mustache turned brown, seemingly from tobacco, Kibor narrates how he and other young men from his Marakwet tribe wreaked havoc when they retaliated against or raided the Pokot community.
“The sight of anyone in this valley was met with a bullet as we lay in hiding up the hill,” Kibor said, pointing at a 50-acre maize plantation in the valley that, in years prior, had been their battlefield. He is among 31 other men drawn from Pokot and Marakwet sub-tribes who are embracing farming as an alternative source of livelihood rather than cattle rustling. As the oldest member of the group, Kibor serves as the secretary.
The initiative is largely thanks to Tegla Loroupe, a 45-year-old former marathon world record holder and three-time half marathon world champion.
The former star Kenyan athlete started the foundation in 2003—10 years before she retired from active athletics—which has been able to reform some of the worst cattle rustlers in Kenya, encouraging them to come together through farming and other activities to lead a peaceful life.
The initiative has been welcomed by the Kenya Police Service, which for a long time has taken on the dangerous, sometimes deadly, task of conducting operations against the young tribesmen whenever there are incidents of cattle rustling and killing, including of police officers.
Through her foundation, Loroupe negotiates with tribe members to surrender their illegal firearms in exchange for a pardon from the government and opportunities for other means of making a living. So far, Loroupe and her foundation have collected more than 100 firearms.
In Kibor’s area, the maize farming initiative as an alternative to cattle rustling started in April.
At a Sept. 22 event marking the beginning of the harvest of maize planted by the two communities that had been warring over cattle for decades, Joseph Boinnet, inspector general of police, said he was particularly impressed by the peace witnessed in the area since the young men had started farming.
“You have my full support, and I promise that the police will also work with the residents and Tegla Loroupe Foundation to bring peace along the valley. Operations have not been successful but bringing together the communities here to work together for food has definitely worked,” Boinnet said.
Kibor stresses that the area has never been so violence-free in recent memory.
“We have agreed with our Pokot brothers that we will all work together and eventually have food from the valley, something that did not happen before,” Kibor said.
“One of the main reasons why we fought was for resources and now that we have an alternative source of livelihood, we have no need to fight. You can imagine we now work with machetes and hoes that we use to clear the bushes and dig, but do not fight. Tegla Loroupe has always encouraged us to trust each other and work towards a common goal.”
The group now eyes to expand the piece of land by another 50 acres, putting it under irrigation and planting watermelons. The plan has been supported by the police inspector general, alongside the county governments of West Pokot and Elgeyo Marakwet, which promised tractors to cultivate the land.
‘Sports for Peace’
Loroupe’s work to direct youth to lead productive lives isn’t limited to the countryside. Back in Nairobi, she is working to help marginalized youth in the capital city’s slums through sports, with the slogan “sports for peace.”
In Kawangware, one of the slums in the city, she has opened a boxing club where youth who were once involved in crime and drug abuse have a chance to train and pursue a career in boxing.
“We realized that most of those who compete in the Olympics come from the slum areas. At a small age, they are always fighting and therefore they have a talent. For me, as a sports person, I realized that I need to extend my knowledge of sports to the group so they can have time to engage in good things and not go back to crime. We are using boxing to fight crime,” Loroupe said.
The club’s coach, David Oyolo, says the club provides a good opportunity for the youth in the slums to get out of crime and drugs and involve themselves in meaningful activities that will help them achieve a successful life.
“Tegla herself brought me an opportunity to use my talent in boxing in imparting the skill on young men in the slums who admired me when I was in the limelight, challenging the African title in South Africa and Tanzania,” Oyolo said.
Vivian Auma is one of the early risers who come to the club every morning and evening to train. A few weeks ago, Auma fought in the Robert Wangila tournament in Nairobi and won her team a gold medal. At 17, she now dreams of getting into the national team and fighting her way to the world championships.
Before joining the club, Auma worked as a waiter in one of the small food kiosks in the city slum, a job that she says did not pay her enough.
“I quit the job after joining the club and now after my trainings, I go back and wash clothes for the neighbors so I can put food on my table,” said Auma, who dropped out of school after earning her primary school certificate exam, not being able to attend high school due to lack of funds.
Replicating the Model
Loroupe has championed a number of other charitable causes as well, including supporting refugee athletes in pursuing their sports at a camp in Ngong, Kajiado County, in southwest Kenya, and building a school in her hometown of Kapenguria, West Pokot County, in western Kenya, which is home to the children of reformed cattle rustlers that she sponsors so they can be a solution to the cattle-rustling problem, to name just a few of her initiatives.
Recognizing her many achievements, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed Loroupe to the Kenya Sports Academy as a board member on Sept. 21.
Loroupe has big ambitions for her humanitarian work, wanting to help marginalized youth in other parts of her country.
“The big challenge is that we do not have enough equipment and yet we have goodwill from the young people to come and train,” she said.
“We are asking for well-wishers to come and support us because what we are doing now, we want to replicate in different counties especially where there are slums.”