Kenya's Legally Blind Gold Medalist Henry Kiprono Kirwa Runs To Fight Stigma And Build Peace

Henry Kiprono Kirwa.  – Photo by Wes Parnell

Henry Kiprono Kirwa.  – Photo by Wes Parnell

NAIROBI, KENYA – Henry Kiprono Kirwa leads a group of lithe runners through a set of stretches, bounces and toe touches on a dusty, littered field next to a national track stadium in Kenya’s capital city.

Then, to conclude a morning training run and stretching rituals, the 20 Paralympic athletes hold hands, bow their heads and pray.

Though they come from different ethnic tribes from different parts of Kenya, these elite runners have several things in common: the triumph and suffering that comes from living with a disability, a love of running in a country that excels in that sport, and religious faith that helps them overcome the former and enjoy the latter.

The group was training for the World Para Athletics Championship in London that ran July 14-23. They were training at a contentious moment in Kenya ahead of a pivotal presidential election. They said sport and their faith is key to unity as athletes and key to unity for the nation during a contentious election season that pits leading tribes and political dynasties against one another. 

“We have been preaching about peace, love and unity,” Kirwa says. “If we don’t have unity, we cannot move anywhere.” He pointed to civic strife between tribal groups in 2007 that sprang out of elections. He and others have organized races in Kenya designed to condemn tribalism and to bring people together. “Kenya has some elections. We pray God will lead us and people to come together and not to fight but to vote for peace. We thank God for that.”

"if you have a disability, many families separate you. It’s like a problem in the family. You cannot be employed. You cannot do anything."

Kirwa was born with eye problems on a small farm in Kapsabet in Kenya’s Rift Valley into a family of runners in a nation where running is the national pastime. His vision got worse until, in sixth grade, he couldn’t read well enough to do his school work. And because Kenya requires families to pay for schooling, many families don’t let children with disabilities attend school.

The World Report on Disability by the World Health Organization and the World Bank estimates 1 billion people worldwide live with a disability, and 10 percent of them are children. And UNICEF estimates that 90 percent of children with disabilities in the developing world do not go to school. 

“At first, I felt so stressed,” Kirwa said. “Because if you have a disability, many families separate you. It’s like a problem in the family. You cannot be employed. You cannot do anything. So, it’s a problem… Many people hide their children in their rooms who are living with some disability. They don’t take them to school in the community where I lived.”

Coach Stephen watches over practice. – Photo by Wes Parnell

Coach Stephen watches over practice. – Photo by Wes Parnell

“Me too,” says Henry’s Paralympics coach Stephen Waweru Waithaka, a former discus thrower and shut-putter in the Paralympics.

“I didn’t get an education because nobody assisted me,” Kirwa said. 

So his ticket to a better life was to run. Running is to Kenya what baseball, football and basketball are to America, or what soccer is to Brazil. Runners bring home gold medals, marathon money and fame to this East African country. His parents ran. His brothers ran. His older brother Paul Kibii Tergat, held the world record for the marathon between 2003 and 2007 with a time of 2:04:55. 

Kirwa often ran with his brothers, following their shadows and their footsteps, learning to keep pace and not to stumble despite limited vision. And he was undeniably fast. Eventually his brothers and a kind woman suggested Kirwa pursue the Paralympics. He says they taught him that “disability is not inability.” 

In 2007, at age 34, Kirwa ran his first competition in the All-Africa Games and landed gold and silver medals. He started winning more international competitions. And, in 2008 at the Paralympics in Beijing, he won gold medals and set world records in the 1,500 meters, 5,000 meters and the 10,000 meters. The Kenyan government paid him an award for each medal.

“When I went back to my family, they received me and celebrated together with me,” Kirwa says. He gave half his prize money away to help pay for disabled children to attend school.

In 2009, he was named a “U.N. in Kenya Person of the Year” according to the Paralympics website. It says Kenya’s UN system identifies a person each year who inspires other Kenyans and succeeds in “bringing to public notice significant issues related to the Millennium Development Goals.” Kirwa has since worked with the United Nations Development Program on projects to help disabled children earn money to attend school. 

“I didn’t go to school. I didn’t go anywhere. It was my problem,” he says. “I didn’t go for learning in schools because I was isolated by my family.”

The U.N. sponsored him to learn English so he could give speeches as a U.N. Honoree. He now speaks about how the disabled miss out on educational opportunities in some parts of the world. “[In Kenya] They don’t recognize you,” when you have a disability, he says. "They see you as nothing."

To Kirwa and his coach, Christian faith is at the heart of training. Coach Waithaka is a pastor at his church in the West Pokot County of Kenya. He has worked in a school for visually impaired people. He says the nation has amputees when people are shot by the guns of cattle rustlers. Some of his athletes were bitten by snakes or other wild animals and had fingers or hands amputated by their mothers.

Waithaka started coaching disabled athletes in the early 1990s and discovered that their success makes him happy. He whips out a packet of photos, showing pictures from earlier competitions and pointing to early gold medal winners from Kenya, taking them to tournaments in the Netherlands, Greece and London. “I have had the desire to help, right from the beginning,” he says. “I went to a school where everyone has a disability. I had a feeling that I should help others. That is what I have been doing.” He says prayer and Bible study is a natural activity for him and the team members as part of their training regimen.

Waithaka says he would love to find an organization to "help us preach peace through Paralympic sport." He also wonders whether "we can start a team of disabled pastors who will go through the world preaching during games. That is my prayer.”

Kirwa says he asked a pastor to pray for him during the Olympic Games in 2008 in Beijing. They prayed before each race. Then, after each gold medal he won, he went to thank the pastor for his prayer. The pastor gave him a Bible each time. They repeated the ritual three more times. “We depend on God,” Kirwa says. “We pray always.”

He’s since been to races in New Zealand, Lebanon, Brazil and many other places. He’s brought home several more gold and other medals from these competitions. Even his 1,500-meter time of 3 minutes and 58 seconds is only seconds slower than that of non-disabled Olympians. “You see disability is not inability,” he says. “So, we thank God because everything I have received is from Him.” 

In his category for the recent London games, Kirwa did not compete in the 5,000 meters. Coach Waithaka says some team members, including Kirwa, had trouble getting visas to London. As a result, Kirwa was not able to compete in London. His countrymen with last names like Koskei, Kimani and Sum landed top-10 finishes and two gold medals.

Now, in his 40s, Kirwa says he is considering moving from middle-distance to long-distance races, graduating to half-marathons and marathons “as my brand” after 2020.

“Maybe I pray to God for that,” he says, walking near the national track stadium in Nairobi. He says he has run marathons in 2 hours and 27 minutes when he trains with marathon runners at home. He thinks he has a sponsor from Dubai who will help him start entering marathons.

“Maybe, if I get ambitious, I can run in the Tokyo marathon. That’s my plan.”