Race for Africa

An Irishman’s Diary: How Wesley Korir hopes to benefit Kenya in the long run

‘Like many Kenyans, Korir (above, third from right, participating in the Boston Marathon)   had much to run from, including an impoverished childhood, during which he sometimes needed the help of Fr Willie Walshe and others to pay his school fees.’  Photograph: Reuters/Dominick

‘Like many Kenyans, Korir (above, third from right, participating in the Boston Marathon) had much to run from, including an impoverished childhood, during which he sometimes needed the help of Fr Willie Walshe and others to pay his school fees.’ Photograph: Reuters/Dominick

Wed, Apr 17, 2013, 06:00

Even before the horrific denouement, I was taking a bigger than usual interest in this year’s Boston Marathon. It was sown last Christmas in – of all places – Mount Jerome Cemetery, where I spent an hour in the company of a missionary priest and teacher, Fr Willie Walshe, home on holidays from Kenya.

We were paying respects to Ludwig Hopf, a Jewish scientist and friend of Einstein who had to flee Germany in the 1930s for a job in Dublin’s Trinity College, only to die suddenly, within months of arrival.

More than half a century later, in Africa, Fr Walshe had buried another member of that war-scattered family, Ludwig’s son Arnold. After which he set about tracing the Hopf grave in Dublin, now sadly neglected, and restoring its former dignity.

Which is what brought us to Mount Jerome that day. But while looking after the dead, the Wicklow-born priest also fell to talking about the living, and in particular about a past-pupil of his at St Joseph’s School in Kitale, one Wesley Korir.

Like many Kenyan schoolchildren, Korir had since grown up to be a very good marathon runner. And like many Kenyans, he had much to run from, including an impoverished childhood, during which he sometimes needed the help of Fr Walshe and others to pay his school fees.

Later, when lack of money also looked like barring Korir from university, the priest enlisted help from Paul Ereng, another Kitale native and former Olympic champion, to get the young man a US sports scholarship. The combined result was that, by his 20s, Korir had a biology degree from the University of Louisville, and was also on his way to becoming a top athlete.

One of the reasons Kenyans win so many big-city marathons, as we noted here recently, is motivation. The prize-money can be life-changing for them in a way it isn’t for many of their rivals. Korir’s first big win, for example – Los Angeles 2009 – yielded $160,000 and a car.

But rather than just take the money and run, the high-minded and deeply religious Korir had already decided that he would use his success to change the lives of others too.

As a child, he saw his seven-year-old brother die from a snake-bite, made fatal by the delay in getting him to hospital. Now, with his winnings, Korir set up a charitable foundation, one of the first fruits of which was to complete the building of a clinic in his home village.

Despite the increasing distractions of philanthropy, last year, he landed his biggest race victory yet when winning Boston. But his ambitions didn’t stop there. Because this year – as I learned at Christmas – Korir would be running in more ways than one.

He had spoken of his ambition to become Kenyan president one day. In the meantime, he was standing as an independent in the March general elections. Wherein, true to form last month, he was first past the post. Then it was time for the other half of the attempted spring double.

Sadly, on Monday in Boston, he wasn’t quite as successful. But his 5th place was still a magnificent effort – albeit overshadowed by what happened after the race. As a long-distance text from his former benefactor told me, a top-five result in Boston was “brilliant for a man who has been on the campaign trail for months”.

Korir is not the only good-news story out of Kenya this week, as it happens. Another is currently visiting Ireland, in the form of a woman called Sally Sawaya. Sawaya is general manager of Meru Herbs, a co-operative comprising 500 Kenyan farmers that has risen to become – like Korir – a model of how you can turn encouragement into self-help.

Back in the 1980s, the subsistence farmers of Meru benefited from an aid-funded irrigation project that helped them grow fruit for export. Unfortunately, like many fruit growers, they noticed they didn’t get paid much for their crops. So they decided to construct a plant and turn the raw materials into jam and packaged tea.

Now they’re in the gourmet food market, exporting produce to Japan, Italy, Belgium, and the US. They hope to export to Ireland too. Which is why, among other things, Sawaya is being interviewed by Marian Finucane at a “business breakfast” in Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel this morning.

If you’re not there already, it’s probably too late. And don’t worry – it was sold out anyway. But if you want to inquire about importing some African gourmet food, you can do so via Ms Sawaya’s hosts, the Irish fair-trade charity Value Added in Africa c/o its website valueaddedinafrica.org.


fmcnally@irishtimes.com