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  • Enduring Legacies and Convergent IdentitiesThe Male-Dominated Origins of the Kenyan Running Explosion

The colonial era in Kenya was a pivotal and transitional period during which aspects of local peoples' existing gender roles and relations were challenged, renegotiated and, in the case of running, confirmed. British colonial intent to introduce running as sport to men aligned with Rift Valley societies that condoned male, though not female, running. Indigenous ideas and ways of living could operate in tandem with the historically masculine orientation of Western athletics, leaving a legacy of cultural synthesis that significantly constrained Kenyan women's sporting prospects. Histories of sport in Kenya, and elsewhere, should take into account both external and local gender norms, as they existed prior to colonial contact, to understand better the gendered mechanisms through which sport "diffused" to empire.


gender, Kenya, masculinities, colonialism, Africa


Kenyan men made their international debut at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1954 and first competed at the Olympics in 1956. Among the athletes [End Page 273] representing Kenya, still a British colony, were Nyandika Maiyoro, who competed at the 1954 and 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games and in two consecutive Olympic 5000 meters finals in 1956 and 1960; and Lazaro Chepkwony, the first Kenyan runner to contest a major European championship during the first visit of a Kenyan athletics team to Europe in 1954.1 As these sportsmen were building a reputation abroad in the 1950s, competitions for female athletes in Kenya were in their infancy. Women from the Rift Valley, the region that would make Kenya famous for its distance runners, first competed beyond the local level in 1958 at the inaugural Rift Valley Provincial Women's Championships. In that year, the track season for Kenyan men culminated in an eighteen-man team traveling to Wales to represent the colony at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games. Finishing third in the 440-yard hurdles and the six miles, respectively, Bartonjo Rotich and Arere Anentia became the first runners from Kenya to win a medal at a major overseas championship. A decade later, at the 1968 Mexico City Games, Kenyan men for the first time won Olympic gold, silver, and bronze medals in track-and-field. It would take another forty years for Pamela Jelimo, at the Beijing Olympic Games of 2008, to become the first woman to win a gold medal in track-and-field for Kenya.

Previous studies of Kenyan running history have considered the antecedents to the men's exemplary achievements while paying little attention to the absence of their female counterparts.2 In this context, colonial sport as a "male preserve" is often treated as a self-evident extension of the chauvinism of Western sport at the time and, therefore, in no need of additional explanation or investigation. This account seeks to provide a more nuanced understanding of this underexamined pattern of female marginalization. It does not deny the contribution of British colonial proselytizers of male-dominated sport to the suppression of athletic opportunities for Indigenous women. Rather, it argues that the historically masculine character of Kenyan running emerged through the fusion of British colonial and extant local gendered cultures of running, with long-lasting consequences. As a general tendency, the pastoralist communities in Kenya that would later become renowned for world-class distance running held gendered conceptions of running that were largely compatible with those proffered by the colonialists. Kenya's track-and-field history was never one in which British cultural engineers could freely inscribe their designs absent receptivity and input by local peoples themselves.

This article adds to a growing body of work on African sport history that sees in it a combination of both local ideas and colonial ideology and organization. It breaks new ground, however, by attending to gender relations in Kenya, as they existed prior to colonial contact. African sport histories should encompass the contribution of both colonizer and colonized, yet too often the history of the latter is truncated to coincide with colonial rule. Furthermore, histories of African sport have centered on men's experiences, with gender only infrequently discussed. This article redresses these omissions by considering notions of masculinity and femininity within the Kenyan communities that would become most famous for running achievements. In doing so, it more broadly seeks to reassess our understanding of the gendered mechanisms through which colonial sport "diffused" to empire.

Ideas about gender and sport are examined in this fashion by way of a focused historical study of the Kalenjin, the ethnic group predominating in Kenya's Rift Valley that has achieved extraordinary success in the sport of running. The phrase "movement cultures of [End Page 274] running" will be used, following Bale and Sang's formulation in their landmark text on Kenyan Running.3 The expression refers to the configurations of basic bodily movements that make up the repertoire of track-and-field (athletics). The article begins with a brief discussion of how masculinities, moral authority, and sport in Britain and its empire have been conceptualized. It then examines the gendered social organization that historically characterized Rift Valley societies. Gender norms within these communities during the early years of colonial contact are analyzed in conjunction with the variety of ways in which people at that time were observed running. The study concludes that Rift Valley peoples at the onset of colonial rule unambiguously positioned runners as men.

The colonial era in Africa was a pivotal and transitional period during which aspects of local peoples' existing gender roles and relations were challenged, renegotiated, and in the case of running, confirmed. Colonial intent to masculinize the sport of running in Kenya aligned with existing cultures that condoned male, though not female, running. This convergence that played out within relatively insulated Rift Valley societies retained its salience after colonial rule ended. When it came to running, Indigenous ideas and ways of living could operate in tandem with the historically masculine orientation of Western athletics, leaving a legacy of cultural synthesis that significantly constrained Kenyan women's sporting prospects.


The nineteenth and early twentieth century "games revolution" in Britain offered a strong fit for imperialists in their search for moral authority in the colonies.4 Missionaries and colonial administrators posted to Africa took with them an ingrained acceptance of the moral importance of organized games, implementing in empire ideas promulgated at home that "through sport, boys acquire virtues which no books can give them."5 Sport success was welcomed, but its function was also to build character by imparting qualities like discipline, fairness, and honor to young boys. Considered an "ideal instrument of colonial purpose," sport and the games ethic helped perpetuate in empire a moral ideology closely associated with Christianity and in line with the British imperial enterprise.6 To encourage local peoples to run, jump, and throw according to Western movement cultures was to justify the righteousness of colonial rule.

The codified forms of sport that developed in nineteenth-century Britain and spread to the rest of the world largely excluded women. This was part of a worldview that held participation in and success at athletics as measures of the worth of a man "as a man."7 Women were unwelcome as athletes in the increasingly organized world of British sport and at major international competitions like the Olympic Games.8 The gendered imperatives of Victorian society, Muscular Christianity, and the imperial endeavor celebrated masculinity in sport and limited the possibilities and expectations of women as athletes.9

European religious leaders, military men, colonial officials, and educators who advanced their pastimes across the African continent perpetuated this version of masculinity in sport.10 The Western model of athletics thus came to Kenya, and elsewhere in Africa, infused with codes of gender conventions and ethics. Early British colonial administrators in Kenya would have had little experience with women's involvement in physical games.11 Many of the men responsible for establishing, administering, and organizing sport in that colony [End Page 275] for the duration of the colonial period had studied at elite public schools and universities, where the masculine nature of organized games was assumed.12 They sought to shape the culture of athletics according to these familiar codes of behavior that excluded women and that were expressed at the highest levels of international sport.

Africanist historians have augmented this narrative by exploring how peoples on the continent responded to the arrival of colonial sport and focused on what that might say about the limits, if any, of European influence on African culture. Pioneering work in this vein on African football (soccer) by Phyllis Martin on colonial Brazzaville and Laura Fair on colonial Zanzibar show that the sport became both a central social experience and a politicized site of contest and struggle for men as players and supporters of football clubs in urban neighborhoods.13 Peter Alegi's body of work on South Africa has similarly demonstrated how football in that country emerged as the product of imported imperial practices and local responses to them.14 Alegi further details the expectations, experiences, conditions, and intentions of black male African football players across the continent over the course of the twentieth century.15 All three authors make clear the fact that local communities enjoyed football for their own reasons and on their own terms, while acknowledging that, as Alegi puts it, "pre-colonial athletic traditions [in Africa] had much in common with Western sport."16

This claim has found support in recent studies of Kenyan running. In his analysis of the Church of Scotland Mission's attempt to spread British games among the Kikuyu of Kenya during the first decades of the twentieth century, Tom Cunningham critiqued earlier claims that "Europeans brought their sports" to Kenya, which began the "Europeanization of African movement culture."17 Pointing to the vibrant games and recreation culture that existed among Kikuyu children prior to the arrival of the missionaries, Cunningham argues that local peoples participated in Western sport for a variety of reasons, not simply because it "flowed" from Britain. He posits instead that colonial sports in Kenya were accepted and adapted according to the interests, conditions, and initiatives of local actors. Others have similarly evaluated colonial sport in other African contexts by focusing centrally on local peoples' lives and revisiting assumptions about European influence in the process. Emmanuel Akyeampong's study of the emergence of boxing in Ghana, for instance, showed how sport could be reshaped by ordinary people to reflect their own ideals.18 What emerges is that boxing in Accra and Harare, like wrestling and football across the continent, was not simply imported and inscribed on people's lives.19 Western sport in Africa developed in the context of existing ideas about appropriate human movement.

Read as a whole, these studies move us to an understanding of the ways in which sport in colonial Africa was mutually constituted by colonizer and colonized. At the same time, more work is required to understand the different trajectories of men's and women's sports and why African women only began to participate in organized sports decades after men. Doing so requires moving beyond simple dichotomies of local resistance and colonial oppression and instead considering how local cultural practices interacted with colonial endeavors. When it came to sport, this paper argues that the latter was ultimately incorporated into and filtered through local beliefs and pre-existing gender divisions. In the case of Kenyan running, this bears on issues of gender in pastoralist societies in particular, given its sterling record of long-distance running success can be attributed largely to athletes from [End Page 276] Rift Valley pastoralist communities. Questions of gender among East African pastoralists have received attention within anthropological literature and from historians of gender; however, these analyses do not focus on running, nor do they engage with literature on the history of African sport.20 In what follows, I focus on how the variety of endeavors that historically involved running typically were consigned to a firmly defined male sphere within Rift Valley communities.


The Rift Valley, where the Kalenjin constitute the principal population, has been called a "cradle of world class runners," "the epicenter of the endurance world," and "the world's foremost manufacturer of elite middle- and long-distance running talent."21 Comprising a mere 12 percent of Kenya's population, Kalenjin men have won more accolades from international athletics than have athletes from the rest of the country combined. In the fifty years between 1964 and 2014, Kenyan men won sixty-four Olympic and eighty-eight World Championship medals in track and field, 84 percent of which were earned by Kalenjin athletes.22 During that fifty-year period, 34 percent of all elite marathon performances were attributed to Kalenjin men, who represent some 0.1 percent of the world's population.23

Within and outside of Kenya, the Kalenjin constitute a recognized ethnic group. However, the appellation "Kalenjin" is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating from the 1940s when events during the late colonial period in Kenya catalyzed a growing, politicized awareness of the close cultural, linguistic, and historical ties among certain Rift Valley communities.24 Categorization remains predicated on the complex and divided character of ethnic identities. The Kalenjin are today regarded as a confederation of peoples—the Nandi, Kipsigis, Keiyo, Marakwet, Pokot, Tugen, Sabaot, and Terik25—that share a cross-section of cultural elements, speak dialects of a common language, and are concentrated in and around the Rift Valley highlands.26 In this article, the names of the subgroups (like Nandi, Kipsigis, and so forth) will be noted in order to draw connections between the groups and to avoid anachronistic readings of an ethnic community that had yet to identify itself as "Kalenjin."

The challenge for the historian interested in studying the early history of Kenyan running is to overcome the paucity of written materials and to glean understanding from documents originally intended for other purposes. This study thus relies on a combination of early twentieth-century texts by ethnographers and colonial administrators stationed in the Rift Valley, from which one can assume some continuity with earlier times. These texts must be read with care, however, as they tend to present communities, households, social roles, and community organization as if they were rigid and static, in a manner that Jane Guyer calls the "jural model."27 By this, she means an ahistorical and sterilized portrayal of peoples' lives with little mention of the ambiguity, contingencies, and conflict that must have complicated the "rules." Furthermore, intent on understanding the political and economic organization, religion, and kinship structures of the communities they encountered, these writers generally offer little discussion of the games, contests, and play they might have seen.

Despite their limitations, ethnographic studies are helpful in shedding light on gender roles and movement cultures, even when the main thrust of the reporting concerns labor, political arrangements, or military practices. In using these sources, the aim is not to provide a definitive "pre-colonial" history of Rift Valley societies. It is rather to take [End Page 277] advantage of an opportunity to peer into processes that were taking place during the early twentieth century that have salience for the history of a sport in which Kenyans have enjoyed exceptional success. Reading these sources "against the grain" and asking who ran and why give notice that the "pre-colonial" history of this population group is significant in its own right, providing essential links for understanding the status and history of both men and women within Kenyan athletics.

In these texts, references abound to how people moved, walked, and ran. Travelers, ethnographers, administrators, and missionaries praised the stamina of men who covered long distances with seemingly little effort. John Boyes claimed in 1912 that "the [Indigenous] runner thinks no more of carrying a message sixty miles a day than we should a three mile stroll."28 "The young men of Masop, in the High Country, spend many days of their lives on long foot journeys, across the grasslands and the hills, to see their family cattle," observed Baringo District Officer Hennings about the Tugen, a subgroup of the Kalenjin community.29 Anthropologist Ian Orchardson described how Kipsigis, the southernmost and most populous of the Kalenjin peoples, might travel for days or weeks at a time to graze their cattle.30 In his words, "the men's endurance on the march and ability to go for long periods without food and without complaint [were] remarkable."31 Regina Oboler echoed this in her ethnography of the Nandi, noting "men pride themselves on feats of endurance, such as being able to travel on foot for very long periods of time without rest of food."32 A similar pattern emerges from Bale and Sang's detailing of "pre-sportised running" in Rift Valley communities.33 From message delivery to days of walking, the ethnographic record presents men engaging in endurance-based activities; women, it appears, did not. For work, for play, and as rites of passage, the people documented running were men.

This gendered pattern of movement was part of the social and economic organization of Rift Valley societies at the time. Within households and the wider community, labor was firmly divided by gender. According to accounts of the Kipsigis, women cooked, distributed food, brewed beer, milked cattle, cared for young children, and tended to smaller livestock, with the help of children.34 Men cleared land for cultivation, built fences, and sowed grain.35 Anthropologist Ian Orchardson explains the fields "belong[ed] to the man," but once grain was stored, it "belong[ed] to the wife."36 Other communities in the area upheld similar gendered patterns of labor. Hollis, for instance, writes that Nandi men were responsible for cutting trees, working iron, and starting fires.37 Plowing would be done by a father and son, brothers, or men of similar ages, rarely if ever by women.38 Boys and young men herded cattle, which entailed taking them twice a day to drink at rivers and streams.39 Nandi women cared for children, prepared and cooked food, and collected water.40 Their work further encompassed cleaning cattle enclosures, cutting grass, leatherwork, and crafting pottery. Accounts of the Keiyo, another subgroup of the Kalenjin, present a similar stratification of labor by gender.41 Keiyo men took care of cutting down trees for new fields, as well as tilling the soil, building homes, hunting, and cattle raiding.42 Women looked after children, fed families, and provided hospitable spaces where men, children, and guests could gather.43

Clearly defined patterns of labor that placed men in charge of land and livestock and made women responsible for young children and the day-to-day work of agricultural and food production are common in early ethnographic accounts of Rift Valley peoples.44 [End Page 278] General statements cannot capture the complexity of these roles or convey the tapestry of responsibilities that comprised men's and women's life cycles, but it is evident nonetheless that gender was a basic principle around which production was organized in Rift Valley societies of the early colonial period. Regina Oboler in her ethnographic work focused on the Nandi links this division of work with an ideology that held the cultural constructs "male" and "female" to be fundamentally different from one another, with male and female roles highly distinguished and set apart from one another by an array of symbols.45 Nandi men, for instance, were supposed to be less susceptible to cold than woman and better able to endure sitting and sleeping outside without shivering.46 Men were associated with the right, stronger side; women were associated with the left, weaker side.47 Men were assumed to possess greater strength and physical prowess; women were thought to possess greater capacity for nurturance and understanding. The cooking hearth was "the quintessential symbol of womanhood," symbolizing the warmth of the domestic role of the wife and avoided by the husband, who was associated with cold and the outside.48 According to Oboler, taken together, this represented a "classic case" of a symbolic system in which the dichotomy between male and female was manifest to a degree not observed in all societies.49 The assertions that a true Nandi man should not shiver; that men were possessed of greater physical strength and endurance than were women; that men were associated with the right side and women the left: these she claims were all part of a single system of ideas. Most salient for this analysis is the fact that, with men and women occupying distinct categories in community social and economic organization, gender roles proscribed the kinds of labor one might undertake, including those involving feats of endurance.

Early ethnographers advanced various reasons to explain why, in the words of Njoki Nathani Wane in her work on Food-Processing Practices among Kenyan Rural Women, "the dichotomy between men and women in an [I]ndigenous setting was not an issue for debate or argument."50 According to Hollis, writing about the Nandi in the early 1900s, showing respect was vital, and it demanded social control in terms of rules, customs, and behavior.51 Huntingford, who lived among the Nandi in the 1920s, noted that men only undertook "feminine" tasks when absolutely necessary and if women were not available to do so. This was, he thought, because to do so risked embarrassment before the community. Huntingford explained: "To do women's work is considered shameful; it lowers a man's social standing."52 Others cast breaking social conventions in much stronger terms, as breaking the law. Orchardson arrived in the Rift Valley in 1910 and spent nineteen years living among the Kipsigis. Fluent in the Kipsigis vernacular, he noted that the word for "nature" in this language is the same as the word for custom and law. He describes "the law (custom) [as] being practically unbreakable." To deviate from it would be an "unnatural thing (sogorege)," akin to "a cow eating meat," and would result in the severest of punishments.53 Such punishments could include a "sound flogging," which Hollis also mentioned in his account. To be cursed was another sanction of serious wrongdoing. Older women threatened girls with dire penalties if they betrayed the secrets of their initiation rituals, for instance.54

The practices and meanings of being male and female could also matter more than biological differences between the sexes, as illustrated by the practice of "female husbands."55 Sometimes referred to as "woman-to-woman" marriages, these unions involved a woman, generally older and without children, giving bridewealth for, and marrying, another woman, [End Page 279] with any children born belonging to the female husband's lineage.56 A male genitor would be selected to impregnate her wife; otherwise, the female husband took on the social roles defined as masculine.57 Scholarship about woman-to-woman marriage suggests that women across the continent used it to gain the social status associated with having children and to increase their economic standing within their community.58 Wairimũ Ngarũiya Njambi and William E. O'Brien, based on interviews with Gĩkũyũ women of central Kenya, then challenged researchers to consider other reasons why women marry women, including love, commitment, children, sexual freedom, vulnerability, and empowerment.59 They argue for flexibility, heterogeneity, and ambiguity as guiding principles to explain such unions, rather than casting them in terms of "the ways in which they meet society's needs."60

Scholars have also debated the extent to which the female husband is or becomes a man. Oboler gives detailed consideration to the question "Is the Female Husband a Man?" in the Nandi context.61 A woman who marries a wife in that community was expected to abandon all women's work and cease attending female initiation, while behaving in all social contexts "exactly as would any ordinary man."62 Oboler found that the position of a female husband "as a man" was, in practice, far from unambiguously carried out in all spheres, yet her informants were unanimous in their insistence that "a woman who takes a wife becomes a man."63 Oboler concludes that this perception resolved contradictions with strictly defined boundaries between male and female roles, particularly when it came to inheritance and property.

The tradition of female husbands demonstrates that categories of gender mattered a great deal within Rift Valley societies. By inverting her gender and behaving as a man within this socially sanctioned arrangement, a woman could access male domains without disrupting firmly demarcated female and male spheres. Though only a minority of women followed this path, the existence of "husbands" of both sexes is important for showing the extent to which male and female gender roles were highly distinguished within Rift Valley societies. Together, these complex, gendered mechanisms ensured the survival of households and communities. Different roles complemented one another to keep the family and larger society going, and community expectations ensured that each person fulfilled obligations and responsibilities according to their existence as male or female.


The discussion above argues for a society with a marked division of labor by gender prior to any significant penetration of colonialism. Men's labor roles appear complementary to, and distinctly distinguished from, women's. Gender norms were respected to the extent that a woman would need to become a "female husband" if she wished to behave as if she were a man. Running took place only within male spheres. A. T. Matson sums this up best when he observed,

In Nandi society, the division of labour between men and women left the able-bodied men free to devote most of their time to military activities and training exercises. Military aptitude, endurance and discipline were developed by games and herding duties in early boyhood and by long journeys to salt licks, kaptich grazing areas and on raiding expeditions before initiation into warriorhood. The warriors were expected to maintain their physical fitness, including abstinence from beer and tobacco.64 [End Page 280]

It was acceptable, even expected, for men to allocate much of their time to maintaining their physical fitness by traveling long distances for reasons not immediately tied to the families' production and consumption, while women's labor, though extremely physically intensive, was largely confined to the homestead. Men often traveled long distances for cattle raids, trade, or herding animals, and boyhood games predicated on "endurance" and "discipline" prepared young men to become warriors, an exclusively male occupation. To that end, running was consigned to male spheres and thus counterproductive to a woman's responsibilities and social status. Runners were male because the activities that involved running were designated masculine.

Cattle are central to Kalenjin culture. Given as gifts or loans, returned as penalty for murder, and held as a store of wealth, cattle were of great importance to Rift Valley societies at the onset of the colonial era and remain so today. Cattle were highly valued by all members of a household yet decisions about and control over cattle fell to men. Cattle engendered prestige and were necessary for a man's full participation in the social and political life of his community. As Oboler explains, "[W]ealth was reckoned primarily in terms of cattle; a man who had no cow at all was looked upon as having very low social status."65 This is made clear with regard to marriage, which a man could not enter into without first possessing cattle. Huntingford observes, "The first ambition of a Nandi boy is to acquire cattle, and the youth who has even one which he can call his own has greater social prestige than he who has none. . . . [They] form the main occupation of the men. . . . [A] Nandi who has none is regarded as a man of no account."66

Raiding the cattle held by neighboring communities offered a way to acquire more wealth or to marry, but this demanded physical fitness. To prepare for a raid, elders selected groups of warriors (murran) based on dependability, past raiding successes, strategic thinking, and speed. Once the cattle were captured, the fastest men would drive them home. Groups of scouts (segeik) traveled stealthily on reconnaissance missions into neighboring groups' territories. During the first half of the twentieth century, colonial officers came to regard the practice of stealing cattle from neighboring groups in the Rift Valley as "endemic" and considered the Kalenjin peoples to be the most "frequent offenders."67 One Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner noted, "Stock theft is the traditional sport of the young men of many tribes."68 To this, historian David Anderson adds, "If cattle theft by Africans in colonial Kenya was thought of as a 'young man's sport' by European settlers and administrators, then the young men of the Kalenjin in Kenya's Western Highlands were undoubtedly the sport's most enthusiastic participants."69

These men were used to traveling long distances at a fast pace. Raids could sometimes cover hundreds of kilometers. After a successful raid, the original owners of the cattle would often come in pursuit. As a result, warriors would drive the cattle as fast as possible over long distances to escape their pursuers. In short, running fast mattered for successful cattle raiding. But as these accounts imply, running fast to steal cattle was an exclusively male endeavor. Rift Valley men exclusively also undertook the endurance-based activities of stock theft, message delivery, cattle herding, and days of marching. At the onset of colonialism, running was already a deeply gendered aspect of Rift Valley societies, with women peripheral to the spheres of work that incorporated running and other endurance-based work.

The final theme to be discussed in this regard is martial activity. Described by one early ethnographer as a "warlike predatory people accustomed to depend upon war for [End Page 281] their prosperity, even, in fact, for their enjoyment and amusement," the Kalenjin attached great importance to military achievements.70 The martial element of Rift Valley societies was first apparent to the British during the former's protracted resistance to colonial conquest.71 When the British sought to exert control over the East African Protectorate, as they called the land until it became Kenya Colony, the Nandi in particular fought back. From 1896 to 1905, Nandi forces opposed the British and their Maasai allies. Guided by ritual leader Koitalel arap Samoei, Nandi warriors intercepted caravans on the way to Uganda, laid ambushes, and employed attack-and-retreat tactics on survey parties.72 Yet the British military proved superior. The conflict ended when a truce was called and Koitalel agreed to meet British army captain Richard Meinertzhagan. There, Koitalel was assassinated.73 Their opposition quelled, the British changed tack. Men from Rift Valley societies, now with a reputation for courage in combat, were heavily recruited into the colonial military service, known as the King's African Rifles (KAR), during and after World War I.74 Bringing "warriors" into the KAR was thought to redirect their martial proclivity as well as their predilection for cattle raiding in ways less troublesome to the colonial state.75

"Warrior" masculinities in this way continued from the onset of colonial rule. Joining the British military provided a means to preserve continuity with older ideals of attaining masculinity and maturity. Veterans also left the service with considerable financial reserves: saved wages, discharge bonus, clothing allowances, and service gratuities.76 Evidence of the popularity of enlistment abounds in the colonial archival record about Kalenjin communities: "The Nandi, Kamasia [Tugen], etc. . . . they of all tribes have deserved well of their country by service in the Armed Forces at all times."77 A 1959 annual report acknowledged gratitude for "the neighbouring [Kalenjin] tribes, of whose service in the Armed Forces no mention is needed."78 Colonial officials in Nandi described how "recruitment into the various armed forces could not have been more popular," with visits organized to "collect men from each chief area by the busload."79 One official "considered the Kalenjin to be the most loyal of all the peoples of Kenya."80

Many young Kalenjin men found employment with the colonial military as runners. The ability to run well could lead to a relatively lucrative army job, with rising social benefits as the colonial authorities strengthened the elite status of the askari (African soldiers).81 In the 1920s the KAR began hosting its own athletics championships. After races, winners were sometimes approached and offered places in the colony's security forces in the army and the prisons.82 Once employed, coaching was available, as was sufficient time and opportunity to train. Wilson Kiprugut Chumo, Kenya's first Olympic medalist at the 1964 Tokyo Games, when asked to recall how he found his way into athletics, replied, "Captain Kiptonui from North Rift identified me as a potential athlete and in 1959, he recruited me into the Kenya Armed Forces, known then as the King's African Rifles."83 Kenya's most famous athlete of his era, Kipchoge Keino, was also recruited into the Kenyan police force because he had running promise.84 Raised as a pastoralist, herding cattle as a Nandi boy, Keino would go on to capture world records in the 3000 and 5000 meters and to medal at both the 1968 and 1972 Olympics. By Kenya's independence in 1963, military men from the Rift Valley, as well as Nyanza Province, were recognized as the colony's fastest runners.85

Sport, and track in particular, was proving a social sphere in which colonial European and colonized African men could cooperate. The army was one of the principal institutions initially promoting athletics in Kenya. But it did so among African men, as women [End Page 282] were not yet accepted as soldiers. In this way, sport reflected, and contributed to, wider transformations of gender relations being catalyzed by colonialism.86 The implementation of British indirect rule, for instance, extended the existing political authority of men over women and other men.87 The incorporation of men into a cash economy as soldiers, laborers, and government workers also displaced women from economic control.88 Sport, too, was gendered and gave certain Kenyan men new opportunities and incentives to which women were not privy. The sport of running would become a vehicle through which male athletes could travel overseas, earn a living, and receive technical training and coaching, but these opportunities were closed to women. In this way, British gender norms further entrenched local gender norms, even as they disintegrated other aspects of communal relations and collective authority. The combined effect was to make sport a forum in which the interests of colonial European and colonized African men converged. British ideals of runners as male, first and foremost, reinforced a norm already firmly established within pastoralist societies. Local pastoralist gender relations, in conjunction with colonial notions of gender and sport, should be considered when explaining why Kenyan women failed to match their male counterparts' early success in athletics.


Kenyan peoples' behaviors that involved male-dominated feats of endurance were compatible with those brought by British colonialists. Making this point is not only to highlight the historic exclusion of women from participation in sport on the basis of their gender but also to emphasize that precolonial social organization directly influenced the male-biased origins of the Kenyan running explosion.

Men and women in the Rift Valley had long fulfilled distinct functions in the social and economic spheres of their pastoralist communities. On the eve of colonial occupation, a clearly defined "women's sphere" had little overlap with the male behaviors that often involved running. Gender roles embedded in both African and European social fabric meant that, as Western forms of running took root in Kenya, women did not participate as athletes. But this did not just happen because the British imposed their own model of gender relationships on Kenyan communities. Colonized Kenyans found ways to contest British influence when it threatened established gender norms and cherished social institutions, such as during the female circumcision crisis of 1928–31. But in the world of athletics (Kenyan or British), track and field was understood to be a male preserve. The male-dominated origins of running in these societies fundamentally shaped the challenges that would later come to confront Rift Valley women who wished to take part in athletics. Colonial ideologies reinforced Kenyan tradition and running in Kenya emerged as a masculine enterprise. [End Page 283]

Michelle Sikes
Pennsylvania State University
All correspondence to


1. John Bale, "Kenyan Running before the 1968 Mexico Olympics," in East African Running: Toward a Cross-Disciplinary Perspective, ed. Yannis Pitsiladis, John Bale, Craig Sharp, and Timothy Noakes (Abingdon, GB: Routledge, 2007), 11–23; and John Bale, "Nyandika Maiyoro and Kipchoge Keino: Transgression, Colonial Rhetoric and the Postcolonial Athlete," in Sport Stars: The Cultural Politics of Sporting Celebrity, ed. David Andrews and Steven Jackson (Routledge, 2001), 152–60.

2. John Bale and Joe Sang, Kenyan Running: Movement Culture, Geography and Global Change (London: Routledge, 1996); Bale, "Kenyan Running before the 1968 Mexico Olympics"; John Manners, "Kenya's Running Tribe," The Sports Historian 17.2 (1997): 14–27.

3. Bale and Sang, Kenyan Running, 18, 47.

4. James A. Mangan, The Games Ethic and Imperialism: Aspects of the Diffusion of an Ideal (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 1986); James A. Mangan, "Ethics and Ethnocentricity: Imperial Education in British Tropical Africa," in Sport in Africa, ed. William Baker and John Anthony Mangan (New York: Africana Publishing Company, 1987), 138–71; James A. Mangan, "Britain's Chief Spiritual Export: Imperial Sport as Moral Metaphor, Political Symbol and Cultural Bond," The International Journal of the History of Sport 27 (2010): 328–36.

5. In Richard Holt, Sport and The British: A Modern History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 93.

5. Mangan, The Games Ethic.

7. Patrick McDevitt, May the Best Man Win: Sport, Masculinity, and Nationalism in Great Britain and the Empire, 1880–1935 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 2.

8. John J. MacAloon, This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981); Allen Guttmann, The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002).

9. John J. MacAloon, Muscular Christianity in Colonial and Post-Colonial Worlds (London: Rout-ledge, 2007); James A. Mangan, Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian Public School: The Emergence and Consolidation of an Educational Ideology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (London: George Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987).

10. Anthony Clayton, "Sport and African Soldiers: The Military Diffusion of Western Sport throughout Sub-Saharan Africa," in Sport in Africa: Essays in Social History, ed. William J. Baker and James A. Mangan (New York: Africana Publishing Company, 1987), 114–37; Mangan, The Games Ethic; Mangan, "Ethics and Ethnocentricity"; Anthony Kirk-Greene, "Imperial Administration and the Athletic Imperative: The Case of the District Officer in Africa," in Sport in Africa: Essays in Social History, ed. William J. Baker and James A. Mangan (New York: Africana Publishing Company, 1987), 81–113; Markku Hokkanen, "'Christ and the Imperial Games Fields' in South-Central Africa—Sport and the Scottish Missionaries in Malawi, 1880–1914: Utilitarian Compromise," The International Journal of the History of Sport 22.4 (2005): 745–69; Allen Guttman, Games and Empires: Modern Sports and Cultural Imperialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

11. For work on the middle- and upper-class Victorian gender ideologies that informed British administrators of the time, see Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); and L. Davidoff, Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class (New York: Routledge, 1995).

12. Mangan, The Games Ethic; Mangan, Athleticism.

13. Phyllis Martin, Leisure and Society in Colonial Brazzaville (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Laura Fair, Pastimes and Politics: Culture, Community, and Identity in Post-Abolition Urban Zanzibar, 1890–1945 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001).

14. Peter Alegi, Laduma! Soccer, Politics and Society in South Africa (Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2004); Peter Alegi and Chris Bolsmann, eds., South Africa and the Global Game: Football, Apartheid, and Beyond (London: Routledge, 2010); Peter Alegi, "Katanga vs Johannesburg: A History of the First Sub-Saharan African Football Championship, 1949–1950," Kleio 31 (1999): 55–74; Peter Alegi, "Playing to the Gallery? Sport, Cultural Performance, and Social Identity in South Africa, 1920s–1945," The International Journal of African Historical Studies 35.1 (2002): 17–38.

15. Peter Alegi, African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World's Game (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010).

16. Alegi, African Soccerscapes, 2.

17. Tom Cunningham, "'These Our Games': Sport and the Church of Scotland Mission to Kenya, c. 1907–1937," History in Africa 34 (2016): 259–88.

18. Emmanuel Akyeampong, "Bukom and the Social History of Boxing in Accra: Warfare and Citizenship in Precolonial Ga Society," The International Journal of African Historical Studies 35.1 (2002): 39–60.

19. For boxing in Harare, see Terence Ranger, "Pugilism and Pathology: African Boxing and the Black Urban Experience in Southern Rhodesia," in Sport in Africa: Essays in Social History, ed. William J. Baker and James A. Mangan (New York: Africana Publishing Company, 1987), 196–213; For wrestling, see Matt Carotenuto, "Grappling with the Past: Wrestling and Performative Identity in Kenya," The International Journal of the History of Sport 30.16 (2013): 1889–1902; Sigrid Paul, "The Wrestling Tradition and Its Social Functions," in Sport in Africa: Essays in Social History, 23–46; for football, see Mark Deets, "'Grown-Ups on White Plastic Chairs': Soccer and Separatism in Senegal, 1969–2012," History in Africa 43 (2015): 347–74.

20. Jon Holtzman, "Politics and Gastropolitics: Gender and the Power of Food in Two African Pastoralist Societies," The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 8.2 (2002): 259–78; Henrietta Moore, Space, Text and Gender: An Anthropological Study of the Marakwet of Kenya (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Regina Oboler, Women, Power and Economic Change: The Nandi of Kenya (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985); Bonnie Kettel, "The Commoditization of Women in Tugen (Kenya) Social Organization," in Women and Class in Africa, ed. Claire Robertson and Iirs Berger (New York: Africana Publishing Co., 1986), 47–61; Dorothy Hodgson, "Pastoralism, Patriarchy and History: Changing Gender Relations among Maasai in Tanganyika, 1890–1940," The Journal of African History 40.1 (1999): 4165; Barbara Bianco, "Women and Things: Pokot Motherhood as Political Destiny," American Ethnologist 18 (1991): 770–85; A. Talle, Women at a Loss: Changes in Maasai Pastoralism and Their Effects on Gender Relations (Stockholm: SSSA, 1988); Dorthe von Bulow, "'Bigger than Men?' Gender Relations and Their Changing Meaning in Kipsigis Society," Africa 62.4 (1992): 523–46.

21. Grant Jarvie and Michelle Sikes, "Running as a Resource of Hope? Voices from Eldoret," Review of African Political Economy 39.134 (2012): 629–44.

22. Ross Tucker, Vincent O. Onywera, and Jordan Santos-Concejero, "Analysis of the Kenyan Distance Running Phenomenon," International Journal of Sports Physiology Performance 10.3 (2015): 285–91.

23. Tucker, Onywera, and Santos-Concejero, "Analysis."

24. Gabrielle Lynch, I Say to You: Ethnic Politics and the Kalenjin in Kenya (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

25. This catalogue remains a matter of debate. See Gabrielle Lynch, "Histories of Association and Difference: The Construction and Negotiation of Ethnicity," in Our Turn to Eat: Kenyan Politics since 1950, ed. Dan Branch, Nic Cheeseman, and Leigh Gardner (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2010), 177–98; Gabrielle Lynch, "Negotiating Ethnicity: Identity Politics in Contemporary Kenya," Review of African Political Economy 33.107 (2006): 385–410.

26. Lynch, I Say to You; David Anderson, Eroding the Commons: Politics of Ecology in Baringo, 1890–1963 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

27. An extensive literature critically examines the traditional archives of colonial history. See, for instance, Ann Laura Stoler, "Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance," Archival Science 2 (2002): 87–109; and Jane Guyer, "Household and Community in African Studies," African Studies Review 24.2/3 (1981): 91

28. In Bale and Sang, Kenyan Running, 50.

29. R. Hennings, African Morning (London: Chatto and Windus, 1951), 163.

30. Ian Orchardson, The Kipsigis (Nairobi: Eagle Press, 1961).

31. Orchardson, The Kipsigis, 34.

32. Regina Oboler, Women, Power, and Economic Change: The Nandi of Kenya (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985), 58.

33. Bale and Sang, Kenyan Running, 51.

34. Orchardson, The Kipsigis, 104; G. W. B. Huntingford, The Nandi of Kenya: Tribal Control in a Pastoralist Society (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), 75; for the Samburu, see Holtzman, "Politics and Gastropolitics."

35. Orchardson, The Kipsigis, 83.

36. Orchardson, The Kipsigis, 92.

37. A. Hollis, The Nandi, Their Language and Folklore (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909).

38. Oboler, Women, Power, and Economic Change, 24.

39. Oboler, Women, Power, and Economic Change, 25.

40. Oboler, Women, Power, and Economic Change, 25.

41. Susan Chebet and Ton Dietz, Climbing the Cliff: A History of the Keiyo (Eldoret, KE: Moi University Press, 2000), 104.

42. Chebet and Dietz, Climbing the Cliff, 105.

43. Chebet and Dietz, Climbing the Cliff, 106.

44. For studies of gender relations in different pastoralist societies in eastern, western, and southern Africa, see Dorothy Hodgon, ed., Rethinking Pastoralism in Africa: Gender, Culture and the Myth of the Patriarchal Pastoralist (Oxford: James Currey, 2000).

45. Oboler, Women, Power, and Economic Change.

46. Oboler, Women, Power and Economic Change, 58.

47. Oboler, Women, Power and Economic Change, 58.

48. Oboler, Women, Power and Economic Change, 59–60.

49. Oboler, Women, Power and Economic Change, 59.

50. Njoki Nathani Wane, Indigenous African Knowledge Production: Food-Processing Practices among Kenyan Rural Women (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 108.

51. Hollis, The Nandi, 24.

52. Huntingford, The Nandi, 71.

53. Ian Orchardson, "Some Traits of the Kipsigis in Relation to Their Contact with European," Africa 4.4 (1931): 469.

54. "Indigenous Tribes and the Customs," film 2081, roll 1, Kenya National Archives collection, University of Syracuse Archives, Syracuse, New York. See also Hollis, The Nandi, 57–59.

55. For more about the custom of becoming female husbands, which has been documented in more than thirty populations in Sub-Saharan Africa, see E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer (London: Clarendon, 1951); Eileen Jensen Krige, "Woman-Marriage, with Special Reference to the Lovedu: Its Significance for the Definition of Marriage," Africa 44.1 (1974): 11–37; I. Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society, 2nd ed. (London: Zed Books, 1998); and Joseph Carrier and Stephen Murray, "Woman-Woman Marriage in Africa," in Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities, ed. Will Roscoe and Stephen Murray (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 255–66. For studies focused on female husbands from Rift Valley communities, see Oboler, Women, Power and Economic Change, 69–88; Janet Bujra, "Women 'Entrepreneurs' of Early Nairobi," Canadian Journal of African Studies 9.2 (1975): 231–32; J. Peristiany, The Social Institutions of the Kipsigis (London: Routledge, 1939), 81–82; and C. Obbo, "Dominant Male Ideology and Female Options: Three East African Case Studies," Africa, 46.4 (1976): 371–89.

56. Obbo, "Dominant Male Ideology."

57. Oboler, Women, Power and Economic Change, 132.

58. R. Jean Cadigan, "Woman-to-Woman Marriage: Practice and Benefits in Sub-Saharan Africa," Journal of Comparative Family Studies 29.1 (1989): 89–98.

59. Wairimũ Ngarũiya Njambi and William E. O'Brien, "Revisiting 'Woman-Woman Marriage': Notes on Gĩkũyũ Women," NWSA Journal 12.1 (2000): 1–23.

60. Njambi and O'Brien, "Revisiting 'Woman-Woman Marriage,'" 14.

61. Regina Smith Oboler, "Is the Female Husband a Man? Woman/Woman Marriage among the Nandi of Kenya," Ethnology 19.1 (1980): 69–88.

62. Oboler, "Is the Female Husband a Man?" 74, 80.

63. Oboler, "Is the Female Husband a Man?" 86.

64. Matson, Nandi Resistance, 20.

65. Oboler, Women, Power and Economic Change, 28.

66. Huntingford, The Nandi, 38.

67. Manners, Kenya's Running Tribe, 26.

68. David Anderson, "Stock Theft and Moral Economy in Colonial Kenya," Africa 56.4 (1986): 399.

69. Anderson, "Stock Theft," 400.

70. Orchardson, "Some Traits," 467.

71. For more details on this conflict and its relation to the establishment of British rule in Kenya, see Gordon H. Mungeam, British Rule in Kenya, 1895–1912: The Establishment of Administration in the East Africa Protectorate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966); John Lonsdale, "The Conquest State of Kenya, 1895–1905," in Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa, Book One: State and Class, ed. Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale (London: James Currey, 1992), 13–44; D. A. Low, "British East Africa: The Establishment of British Rule 1895–1912," in Oxford History of East Africa, vol. 2, ed. Vincent Harlow and E. M. Chilver (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965); Anderson, Eroding the Commons, 41–47.

72. H. Mwanzi, 'Koitalel arap Samoei and Kipchomber arap Koilege: Southern Kalenjin Rulers and Their Encounters with British Imperialism," in Biographical Essays on Imperialism and Collaboration in Colonial Kenya, ed. Benjamin Kipkorir (Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1980): 15–36.

73. Mungeam, British Rule, 158.

74. Louis Greenstein, "The Impact of Military Service in World War I on Africans: The Nandi of Kenya," The Journal of Modern African Studies 16.3 (1978): 495–507; Bale and Sang, Kenyan Running, 75; for a history of the KAR, see Hubert Moyse-Barlett, The King's African Rifles: A Study in the Military History of East Central Africa, 1890–1945 (Aldershot, GB: Gale & Polden, 1956).

75. D. Ellis, "The Nandi Protest of 1923 in the Context of African Resistance to Colonial Rule in Kenya," The Journal of African History 17.4 (1976): 555–75.

76. Hal Brands, "Wartime Recruiting Practices, Martial Identity and Post-World War II Demobilization in Colonial Kenya," The Journal of African History 46.1 (2005): 103–25.

77. 1952 Uasin Gishu District Annual Report, Kenya National Archives, DC/UG/1/2/1952.

78. 1959 Uasin Gishu District Annual Report, Kenya National Archives, DC/UG/1/4/1959.

79. 1957 Nandi Annual Report, Kenya National Archives, NDI/AR/1957.

80. David Anderson, "Black Mischief: Crime, Protest and Resistance in Colonial Kenya," Historical Journal 36.4 (1993): 851–77.

81. Brand, "Wartime Recruiting," 112.

82. Bale and Sang, Kenyan Running, 91.

83. Martha Marta, "Kiprugut, Kenya's Forgotten Hero," Kenya Today, 10–17 October 2010, 3.

84. John Manners, "Masters of Men's Track," Africa Report 19.1 (1974): 14–18; F. Noronha, Kipchoge of Kenya (Nakuru, KE: Elimu Publishers, 1970).

85. Excellent runners from Nyanza Province during this era included Ibrahim Nyatake, Christopher Areri, and Nyandika Maiyoro. Bale and Sang, Kenyan Running, 95.

86. Jean Allman, Susan Geiger, and Nakanyike Musisi, eds., Women in African Colonial History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002); Sandra Greene, Gender, Ethnicity, and Social Change on the Upper Slave Coast (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996); Dorothy Hodgson and S. McCurdy, "Wicked" Women and the Reconfiguration of Gender in Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 2001).

87. Kettel, "Commoditization of Women"; Hodgson, "Pastoralism, Patriarchy and History."

88. Mora Etienne and Eleanor Leacock, eds., Women and Colonization: Anthropological Perspectives (New York: Praeger, 1980); Oboler, Women, Power and Economic Change.

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