In Common with the Kalenjin

Originally a Restroom Reflection, first published in November 2013. When I wrote it, I was missing and worrying about my daughter, far away from me at college in New York. I'm posting it again now because my son has just graduated from high school. My heart goes out to all kids leaving home, and to all parents with college-age kids.

Today I learned in a podcast about the Kalenjin people of Kenya and their global domination of long-distance running. People have studied the Kalenjin for decades, ever since Kipchoge Keino ran six races in eight days at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, winning gold in the 1500 meters and silver in the 5000 meters…all of it in extreme abdominal pain caused by a gallbladder infection. A doctor kept sending him to bed, but he kept getting back out of it.

“Kip” Keino is one of many Kalenjin who have sped to the front and stayed there. David Epstein, senior editor at Sports Illustrated and author of the new book The Sports Gene, said in the podcast, “There are 17 American men in history who have run under 2:10 in the marathon. There were 32 Kalenjin who did it in October of 2011.”

People have looked at climate and geography, diet, physique and behavior, but have had trouble identifying anything particular to the Kalenjin. Lots of Kenyans live at high altitudes, eat corn meal, have long tapering limbs, and grow up running many miles a day to and from school. What is now considered a defining factor in their long-distance excellence, however, is the social pressure to tolerate pain. Excruciating pain.

The podcast listed elements of Kalenjin initiation as crawling naked through stinging nettles and being beaten on the bony part of the ankles. Then, of course, there’s the circumcision, performed with a sharp stick. No effort is made to ensure the circumcision is rapid and painless. The boy must keep his face impassive, and in some cases a layer of mud will be caked on his face and left to dry so that the onlookers can see if he causes it to crack. A crack is an invitation to beat him.

The men who prevail in this test get the pick of the women, and the pick of the women are often those who haven’t flinched during their own initiation rituals and genital mutilation. Pairs like these are considered to be most likely to produce pain-tolerant children. Warriors. Olympic medalists.

Where I come from, we don’t, as a rule, make our kids crawl through stinging nettles and beat them, not in any socially agreed way.

We just make them leave home.

I dropped my accomplished but also apprehensive daughter at college at the end of August, and got on a plane that would put 10,000 miles between us. Six or seven weeks into the experience of figuring out who her friends might be, wondering whether her long-distance relationship was going to work out, and grappling with the constant question of where she was “from”, she called me. She was so bleak, so frozen with self-questioning and self-loathing, feeling weak and stupid, that I wondered if she’d make it through the semester. 

Listening to the podcast on the Kalenjin people had me wondering about how Kalenjin parents could watch their children being beaten and humiliated, and deprived of sexual choice if they didn’t measure up. I’ve realized, though, that when I hung up from a tearful and seldom conclusive call with my daughter and didn’t get on a plane to bring her back to me, I was doing a version of the same. I was watching her suffer, and doing what I could to help her stay in the game.

Her spirits are back up now. She’s had fantastic midterm grades, she’s exercising, she’s volunteering with cats, and her boyfriend will be picking her up at the airport when she comes home for Christmas. We now say that she’s “come through,” that she’s “come out the other side.”

Out the other side of what? Well, I know what to call it now.

Tribal initiation.