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Camp Kenya

The world’s best distance runners are from East Africa—but Santa Fe is where they train

January 7, 2009, 12:00 am

Riding a mountain bike behind Ndambuki and Musuva as they run just north of Pojoaque one day in late November when the ground is still free of snow, I watch Musuva spot a rabbit in the brush and briefly give chase. “In Kenya, I once chased rabbit for 30 minutes. Thirty minutes before I caught it!” he tells me. “Here, people do not hunt like this, with hands and rocks.” Santa Feans do, however, hunt for used stuff.

When Musuva returns home to Kenya, he brings some of the trophies, clothes and running shoes he has accumulated through races and sponsorships, as well as used movies he has purchased at yard sales.

“Everyone I know shows up at my house the first week I’m back. I give them shoes until they are gone.” He also brings intangible things, like word of snow and green chile and a place called Sam’s Club.

Musuva and Ndambuki are both from the Kikamba tribe, a subset of the Bantu ethnic group in eastern Kenya. And both are well known in the region, if not quite as celebrated as the rare Kenyan millionaire, Wa-Maria. Like many Akamba, both grew up around farming, and both intend to return to an agrarian life in Kenya when they stop running. Musuva proudly maintains an 8-by-12-foot collard green plot in his Santa Fe backyard, so he won’t lose touch with the earth. Ndambuki, for his part, also hopes to own a series of apartment complexes. The topic of retirement stirs his entrepreneurial ambitions, while it leaves Musuva more wistful. “My head,” Musuva says, “has never left Kenya.”

Kenyan with treeWoo attended Ndambuki’s wedding in Kenya in 2000 and was met at the airport by Musuva. The runner quickly got him out of a jam: “These guards were pointing their guns at me and searching my bags, which had lots of running shoes in them. Then Andrew shows up, and he’s like, ‘Relax, he’s an athlete,’ and they immediately let me go. Athletes there have great authority.” And athletics—running and soccer, in particular—are seen as a viable means of making a relative fortune. Upon arriving at Ndambuki’s three-room concrete home built at the edge of town, Jonathan pointed to an 8-by-12 mud hut, with a dirt floor and a thatch roof, close by. “That is where I used to live, before I ran.”

On the same trip, Woo visited Musuva’s four-room home. Nearby is the family store, which Musuva will return to tend, along with a plot of earth. In huge lettering, its façade says, “Twin Cities.” Like a Boston Marathon champion from a neighboring town, Musuva is known by the name of his greatest running feat: a three-peat at Minneapolis’ Twin Cities Marathon, the only one ever accomplished. In this corner of Kenya, a surprising number of local storefronts have American city names, to go with an American President of their own.

Musuva has a Barack Obama poster— Shepard Fairey’s iconic Hope image—in his small Santa Fe bedroom. “I really liked the debates. Really liked,” Ndambuki says. Musuva admits they “made a lot of noise” when Obama won. Both know the impact Obama’s victory had on the people of Kenya. “They stayed up all night to see the results,” Musuva told me while sipping tea from a NASCAR mug. “And then they celebrated for three days! My friends in Kenya ask me why I don’t go to Chicago to celebrate. They don’t understand how far is Chicago from Santa Fe.” The distance from Kenya to the United States, however, is quite clear to all who have made, or attempted to make, the journey.

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