Saturday, November 15, 2008

Fitting tribute to Marathon Queen

By JULIUS SIGEI

Title: Catherine Ndereba: The Marathon Queen
Author: Ng’ang’a Mbugua
Publishers: Sasa Sema Publications
Year of Publication: 2008

It is often said that if you want to build an enduring reading culture, you do it among the young, and that biographies are whetstones on which reading is sharpened. This is because ordinary people are always intrigued by what celebrities do.

Perhaps it is in the appreciation of this principle that Sasa Sema Publications, an imprint of Longhorn, is churning out junior biographies under the series Lion Books, which target children and young adults.

The latest kid on the block is Catherine Ndereba, TheMarathon Queen, by Nation Media Group journalist Ng’anga Mbugua. The release could not have been better timed coming hot on the heels of the Beijing Olympics in which our athletes, who included Ndereba, did us proud.

So what is the strength of this book? First, it is the story of a girl from a humble background in Gatung’ang’a, Nyeri district. who beat all odds to become a world champion in athletics. In 1994, when Ndereba had just completed Form Four, a coach told her she had the potential to be a marathon queen. Surprised, she asked: “what is marathon?”

Little did she know that in six short years, she would win the Boston Marathon. That year alone -- 1999 -- she won eight international competitions and in 2001 she was entered in the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest woman in the long races.

In the same year, she received a golden shoe from the Association of International Marathon and Distant Races. What a fitting gift to an athlete who had won her first major race without shoes!

Ndereba is married to a fellow Prisons officer and now her manager, Anthony Maina. They have one daughter. Her childhood ambition was to be a teacher. Even though her dreams did not come true, it was her games master who inspired her. Mbugua writes that the teacher told her:

“Catherine, you have a gift. Make sure you use it and strive to get to the top. And when you get to the top, stay there. Remember it is easier to become number one than to remain number one.”

A highly religious woman, Ndereba went down on her knees just near the finishing line at the 2003 World Athletics Championships in Paris and began to pray.

It was a highly emotional moment and the world watched with bated breath. Journalists were waiting anxiously to interview her. The picture was published in newspapers all over the world.

Later that year, she was voted the Sportswoman of the Year by Eve magazine. She is also one of two outstanding athletes to have been honoured by the Athletics Kenya Museum in Nairobi with life-size bronze sculptures.

The other athlete is the legendary Kipchoge Keino. In 2005, Ndereba was awarded the Order of the Golden Warrior (OGW) commendation by President Kibaki.

But Catherine Ndereba the Marathon Queen is also the story of the politics of sportsmanship. For example, few Kenyans know the reason countries scramble to host the Olympic Games except perhaps the business opportunities such an event presents.

Now this biography offers us an insight into the benefits which accrue to the host country.

For example, when Ndereba won the equivalent of KSh36 million at the Boston Marathon, she had to part with a whopping KSh18 million as taxes to the state of Massachusetts in which the city of Boston is situated. Imagine the kind of money the host country can collect given the number of participants in such events.

It would be a disservice to review the story of this outstanding athlete without touching on her charitable nature. Ndereba, who is the coordinating sponsor of the Nyeri Half Marathon, has raised the event from its humble beginnings to international standards with athletes from all over the world now taking part.

A source of inspiration for many young people worldwide, Ndereba told schoolchildren in New York: “It took me 10 years to make it to the Olympics. Whatever you are doing, don’t lose heart. You can do it.”

Writing in a flowing narration, Mbugua also weaves a fascinating history of the Marathon race.

In 490 BC, a man named Pheidippides ran for 40 km without stopping from Marathon, a small war-torn town, to the Greek city of Athens to deliver a message of victory in the war. This event inspired the now world-famous race which has been modified over the years to 42 km.

Written in simple yet interesting language, the book has colourful illustrations which make it even more attractive to the target readers. It is also a welcome diversion from the beaten path of writing only biographies of political leaders which had sent the wrong signals to the young that, to be successful in life, you have to be a politician.

Catherine Ndereba is already a living legend who requires no prop to stand tall in the world. The biography is a fitting tribute to this Marathon Queen who has been dubbed ‘‘Catherine the Great’’ by the Western world.

It will serve to immortalise her in the annals of history as well as serve as a source of great inspiration to the young. Mbugua has also authored Mwai Kibaki: Economist for Kenya.

Mr Sigei is a freelance journalist and a literary commentator. [email protected]

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