As in other new African nations, one of the most serious problems in Kenya has been the creation of a feeling of national unity among a disparate lot of peoples who, aside from the customary political divisions, do not even speak one language. There are no fewer than twoscore different tribes in the country—among them the Baluhya, who live near Lake Victoria and are known for their stature and dignity; the coastal Nyika, who are short and introverted; the cattle-worshiping Turkana, whose principal food is milk; and the Wakamba, who lately have turned from the long bow and poisoned arrows to remarkably progressive agriculture but still file their teeth. In Kenya's African population of nearly 10 million there are four main language groups, with various dialects in each of them, not to mention the fractured Swahili of resident Englishmen and the variety of Asian tongues.
When he came to power in 1963, President Jomo Kenyatta, himself a member of the Kikuyu tribe, recognized the problem forthrightly. He established as a national slogan the word harambee, which means "Let's all pull together." (Our own E pluribus unum is not too different.) Now there is beginning to be genuine harambee in Kenya, and it is being advanced by something the politicians never considered. The Kenyans are finding a source of unity in their dazzling sports figures and are taking a pride in their athletes' feats that is truly national.
No small part of what Kenya is discovering about athletics, and what the world is discovering about Kenya's athletic potential, can be attributed to the unique and dedicated man at left, a small, sprightly, ceaselessly working Englishman named John Velzian. Hired by the British eight years ago as a physical education officer for Kenya, he did not leave the country, as many of the British teachers and administrators chose to do, after the granting of Kenya's independence in 1963. Instead he remained to oversee and improve the physical education program in the fast-growing school system.
He has succeeded so well that other countries have sent representatives to see what he has achieved. Among other things, he has set up standards for schoolboy and schoolgirl athletic performances, with the government awarding formal certificates of merit to those who exceed certain marks and distances—a system just now being started in the U.S. as the Presidential Physical Fitness Award. This is the kind of thing Velzian is paid to do, and it takes up much of his time. But he is also coach of the Kenya national track team, and the evidence suggests that as a coach he has few peers.
Sport never meant much to Kenya's Africans when their country was a British colony, or before. When the colonists finally introduced games they did so in a spirit which implied that nothing much could or should be expected of natives in sport. The African concept of competition was embryonic, if anything, and there were some colonials who believed that its full development might well end in a threat to management. One early report on this aspect of the problem held that "a victory over the dominant race in the field of sport by the people in bondage may have a dangerous effect and there is a risk that it could be exploited by the local opinion as an enticement to rebellion."
For quite a while events seemed to bear out the correctness of the colonial idea. When soccer first was introduced to Kenya, a game frequently would degenerate into a random contest to see which player could kick the ball highest, and never mind the score. Barbara Dodds, a pioneer organizer of physical education in Kenya who was assigned there just before the end of World War II, relates that in the country's first netball match between blacks and whites a member of the African team was distressed that her side was winning by a large score. "For, madam," the girl explained, "they are our visitors." Miss Dodds's efforts to introduce the broad jump to Kenya proved to be "amusing but aggravating." Broad-jump practice would turn into a rhythmic exercise, "finishing with a jump of about six inches, all of the team working in complete unison."
It is quite different now. In the brief period since that netball game, Kenya's Africans—and Africans of other new nations—have learned that winning, or trying to win, is basic to sport. Soccer is now immensely popular in Kenya, and Kenya teams are so eager for victory that they have acquired a reputation for rough play.
All Kenya's sports have shown remarkable development, both in interest and quality, but it is in track and field that the country's emergence as an athletic force has been most apparent. Kenya has been involved in international track and field competition as a team only since 1954, when it participated in the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, B.C. with no great distinction. In 1962, in Perth, Australia, Kenya and some other African countries began to take home Commonwealth gold medals in some quantity for the first time (three for Ghana, two for Kenya and one for Uganda). Four months ago at Jamaica they won 12 (five for Ghana, four for Kenya and three for Nigeria).
Now, with the Olympic Games coming up in 1968 in Mexico City, Africans are receiving a great deal of attention, and Kenya is leading the way. The new country has produced Kipchoge Keino, who turned in the world's second fastest mile (3:53.4) in London last August and, perhaps correctly, considers himself better suited to the three-and six-mile distances. Then comes Naftali Temu, who defeated Australia's magnificent Ron Clarke in the six-mile at Jamaica. "I can't believe it," Clarke said afterward. "I don't believe it. I've got to take a cold shower to make me believe it." He had, after all, lost to the unknown Temu by 140 yards. A few days later Keino beat Clarke at three miles. There is also Wilson Kiprugut, the Olympic bronze-medal winner in the half mile; Ben Kogo, a steeplechaser; John Owiti, the second fastest sprinter in Africa; and Daniel Rudisha, the Masai who had participated in only five races before he went to Jamaica and narrowly missed taking a bronze in the 440. "Give him more experience," says Keino, "and Rudisha will be one of the greatest." Keino may well be right. It is even more interesting, though, that Keino, a Nandi tribesman, went out of his way to compliment a Masai. That is harambee working.
The rapid rise of Kenya in sport pretty much coincided with the arrival of John Velzian, whose approach and dedication certainly have spelled the difference between mediocrity and excellence. He set out by challenging the ancient view that primitive peoples are primitive by nature and must remain so. "The reason it has taken so long for Kenya to come through in athletics," he says, "is that Kenya was a colony and sport was run by a colonial sports department. Sport was organized for the African, the Asian and the Arab, but there was no integration. When I came to Kenya the attitude was that you organized a sport meeting for the Africans because it was the done thing. When one of them won you rewarded him with something useful or, the belief was, he would not run at all. When I suggested that the African was capable of running for the pure amateur love of it and would work hard to achieve, I was held up to ridicule before the Athletic Association. Oh, yes, I was. To dare suggest that the African athlete would work for the intrinsic value of sport—that was unthinkable. I spent my first four years trying to break down this colonial attitude, and I succeeded. The willingness of the African to compete and to work for the glory of it is now established."