By Chris Mbaisi – reproduced with permission from The Standard
He was once a barber on Sh20 a day. He once counted as a bedroom the rubble strewn shop verandahs in Kapsabet town. Broke, desolate and on the verge of suicide, he somehow rebounded to become one of the world’s greatest distance runners. In an exclusive interview, Boston Marathon champion, Robert Cheruiyot, tells Fever Pitch his remarkable story.
When Robert ‘Mwafrika’ Cheruiyot crossed the line to complete a glorious Kenyan double in the Boston Marathon in April, the smile on his face could have lit up a dark passageway.
Abandoned in his youth by both his parents; broke, on the verge of desperation, Cheruiyot once contemplated suicide as the only way to put himself out of his life’s misery.
He was homeless, having to put up on shop verandahs with watchmen at Kapsabet, and his job as a barber only fetched him Sh20 a day.
Of course, those days are now firmly in the past, and Cheruiyot is a millionaire many times over thanks to his exploits on the track.
In an interview with Fever Pitch last week, Cheruiyot narrated his life’s story.
Although the story is deeply poignant, Cheruiyot discusses it with a disarming cheerfulness and charm, repeatedly referring to himself in the third person by his nickname, ‘Mwafrika’ (a reference to his exceptionally dark skin).
“I am one man who believes that God is there. Sometimes I can’t imagine the Mwafrika of today and the Mwafrika of six years ago (are the same person).
I grew up without shelter, food and without someone to turn to. This is not to say that my parents were not there. They just decided to desert the family confining us to fate.
My parents separated and my mother decided to get married again while my dad decided to sell the only piece of land and disappeared. At that time, my brother was doing odd jobs in Iten, (about 40km from Eldoret town) and could hardly make ends meet.”
Unable to pay his way through school, Cheruiyot was forced to drop out.
“Things had initially been good when I joined class one in 1986 at Nandi Hills. However, I was relocated to my hometown of Mosoriot in 1990. I joined Tebesson Primary School in standard five and I was immediately promoted to the position of head boy. This was probably because I knew English and Kiswahili, having earlier on schooled in urban center. My problems however, begun after doing my standard eight examinations. It was around this time that my dad sold the only piece of land (the family owned) and took off. A distance relative then took me in with promise of paying my school fees.
He paid for only two terms at Kosirai High School but no sooner had I settled than he turned me into a houseboy. Here, my roles revolved around cooking, washing dishes, washing the children, milking cows and at times helping with some roles in the kiosks.
Having been initiated into manhood two years back, my traditions did not allow me to do some things like going to the kitchen and washing children but I had very little choice considering my fate.”
He later moved me to a relatively cheaper school in Chemuswa Secondary but did not last a term for want of school fees.
And, he says, matters were compounded when his relative kicked him out of the house on the grounds that he had willfully rejected schoolwork.
“For a while, the world was dark for me. I walked over 60km from Mosoriot to Iten to see whether my brother could continue paying school fees for me but the man could hardly afford a meal. I resigned to fate and walked back to Mosoriot the next day.
A lot of things including suicide crossed my mind but I decided to relax and wait for fate. In Mosoriot I approached a friend, who owned a barber shop and asked him whether I could assist in any way.
He obliged and gave me the role of cleaning and wooing customers. My pay per day was Sh20.
This was only enough to cater for food. Meanwhile I befriended a number of night watchmen, who agreed that we could be spending together on the shop verandas.
My earning was only enough to allow me eat half ugali and sukuma wiki and I ate this stuff for a long time. Meat and tea were more or less a luxury.
At one time, I took three months without knowing how tea tastes.
I then came to learn how to shave and this became my career. It was at this point that another distant relative sympathised with me and decided to accommodate me.
Unlike the others, this one took me as her own son, and for once, I felt very wanted. Having been an athlete in school I decided to start training. It was at that point that I met a driver at the Fila (athletics camp) named Chapter Keter, who promised to introduce me to (officials at) Fila camp in Kaptagat.
I approached my guardian to assist in buying the running kit. She allowed me to sell a few kilograms of maize and buy what I needed.
This I did and we immediately set off for Kaptagat. But there were still other bottlenecks. The coach did not like me much and wanted me out claiming I was consuming too much food and training less.
I was then forced to talk to the camp owner, who is the two-time Boston Marathon champion, Moses Tanui, who ordered that I stay. Here I got my first opportunity to take part in a local race in Chepkoilel and managed 24th position.
I went back to the camp a happy man and continued training. The turning point was when the current World marathon recorder, Paul Tergat visited the camp. I looked at the man and promised myself that I would once be like him.
After he left, I stared at his portrait, which hung on the walls at the camp for a while and psyched myself more.
He came back the next day and we went together for training. Impressed with my performance, he removed his training shoes and handed them over to me following it up with some encouraging words:
He said: ‘I think you can make a good runner as long as you train hard.’ I took it up as a challenge and when the Kencell 10km race was announced in 2001, I was on the frontline. Here, I won the race and bagged Sh10,000. This was like a dream. It was at this race that Fila decided to sign me up and they immediately took me to Italy for a number of road races.
In Italy, I won a number of races within six months and returned home with well over US$7500 (Sh540,000). This was now the beginning of my good life as I returned home and bought a five-acre piece of land and six cows.
I have never looked back since and I owe it all to God. May be if life had favoured me at the beginning I would never have become an athlete.”
source The Standard