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Sports talent galore in forgotten Turkana camp

Tuesday July 23 2019

Refugee athletes, from left Yiech Pur Biel, Angelina Nadai, Paulo Amotun, Rose Nathie and James Chiengjiek, who have been running under the IAAF-Refugee flag since 2016 after they were selected for the Olympics Games in Brazil. They arrived at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Turkana County on June 15, 2019 and this has been their home after they fled war in South Sudan. The athletes camp in Ngong, Kajiado County. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA |

Refugee athletes, from left Yiech Pur Biel, Angelina Nadai, Paulo Amotun, Rose Nathie and James Chiengjiek, who have been running under the IAAF-Refugee flag since 2016 after they were selected for the Olympics Games in Brazil. They arrived at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Turkana County on June 15, 2019 and this has been their home after they fled war in South Sudan. The athletes camp in Ngong, Kajiado County. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

BERNARD ROTICH
By BERNARD ROTICH
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 SAMMY LUTTA
By SAMMY LUTTA
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Turkana County, they say, is the latest African destination with huge oil deposits, perhaps to mitigate against its unsuitability for arable farming.

The script, however, goes with scant mention of world beating athletics stars born and bred in this far-flung region.

From the flamboyant Paul Ereng, the 1988 Seoul Olympic 800 metres champion and former herdsboy and 2010 World Cross Country Championships gold medallist Joseph Ebuya, to 2010 Commonwealth Games marathon champion John Kelai, Turkana is no doubt another cradle of Kenyan distance running.

Throw in 2010 world 5,000m bronze medallist Alice Aprot, Irene Limika who finished 20th at the 2009 IAAF World Championships marathon in Berlin, road race veteran Elizabeth Ewoi and World Cross Country Championships runner Jane Ekimat and the world is in awe.

And these stars aside, the United Nations refugee camp in Kakuma, 491 kilometres north of Eldoret, stands out as another seedbed of athletics bigwigs.

GOOD PERFORMANCES IN RIO

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At the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, a United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) team from Kakuma attracted great deal of attention.

They included Rose Nathike (800m), James Chienjiek Nyang (400m), Angelina Nadai Lohalith (1,500), Paulo Amotun Lokoro (1,500) and Yiech Pur Biel (800) who were the camp’s first athletes to compete at the world’s biggest sport bonanza.

Apart from staging good performances in Rio, they demonstrated how sport remains the fulcrum upon which the valves of unity hold the planet together.

Kakuma and Kalobeyei camps had a population of 186,692 registered refugees and asylum-seekers at the end of last November.

With an influx of new arrivals in 2014, Kakuma surpassed its capacity by over 58,000 individuals, leading to congestion in various sections which forced the UNHCR, the national and county governments along with the host community to seek further land.

Land for a new settlement was identified in Kalobeyei, which is 20 kilometres from Kakuma town where another group of refugees call home.

Rose Nathike lives in “Kakuma 3” what she has called home for the last 17 years. She and her family fled from their home in South Sudan due to the civil war.

Nathike, who specializes in the 800 metres race, lives with her 10 other school-going siblings.

On arrival at the camp, one is met by small children playing and others curious to see visitors who have just arrived in the camp in a different vehicle, because they are used to UN-registered Land Cruisers.

We are ushered into two small houses by a man, whom we later learn is Nathike’s father John Lokonyen (45), and we are later joined by her mother Veronica Nakidichi (44) in a small tent made outside to ward off the hot conditions.

As we settle down for the interview, Tom Namilo, who is the third born in the family, acts as an interpreter.

Refugee athletes James Chiengjiek (left) and
Refugee athletes James Chiengjiek (left) and Yiech Pur Biel (third left), their aunt Rebecca Nyagony (second left), and other family members, at her home in Kakuma Refugee camp in Turkana County on June 15, 2019. They are among athletes who have been running under the IAAF-Refugee flag since 2016 after they were selected for the Olympics Games in Brazil. This has been their home after they fled war in South Sudan. The athletes camp in Ngong, Kajiado County. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The parents narrate how they fled from the war-torn country saying they didn’t know their daughter would “go places” after what they went through back home. “My daughter has really done us proud and when we see her travelling to various places, we are left smiling and thanking God for the far she has been able to go. It’s not everyone who gets such chances but as a family we are happy,” said Lokonyen, a father of 14.

He urges the other siblings to follow in the footsteps of their sister by using their talent “because it will help them in future.”

And from the look of things, the siblings are indeed following in Nathike’s footsteps. Natalena Nakire, a class six pupil at Gambella Primary School, plays in the school’s girls’ football team while Joseph Likiru, also in standard six, plays for the boys’ team in the same school.

David Taban, who is in standard seven, is also a good footballer while Joseph Lokonyen a form one student at Vision Secondary School is described as one of the best footballers in the area.

Her mother says she would love to see her daughter Nathike in action one day.

“I didn’t know my daughter would one day board a plane, but now, she has gone to different places. I would love to see her one day when she gets into the stadium to compete,” says Nakidichi.

The athlete narrates how they fled the war by walking for three days without food to seek peace in Kenya before getting onto trucks that ferried them to Nadapal at the border of South Sudan and Kenya.

“We managed to get trucks at a place called Chukudum where we boarded and headed to the border. We were received at the border and given passes before being transferred to Kakuma where our lives started afresh,” she narrates.

“When the war broke out in 2002, we fled at night and I was young but I was able to help my parents,” adds Nathike.

Nathike moved to Ngong in Kajiado County at a camp established by Kenya’s former world marathon record holder Tegla Loroupe, who is also a “peace ambassador,” as one way of improving the refugees’ lives using sport. The athletes are selected at trials.

When she was selected to run under the refugee flag at the Olympics Games, Nathike saw her dream of competing at a major global championship come true. “I used to play a lot of soccer in school and my teacher would call me an athlete and I didn’t understand why,” she says.

Walking into the Macarana Stadium during the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony carrying the refugee flag is what made Nathike known worldwide.

“Carrying the flag during the opening ceremony was something I didn’t expect and when I was selected to do the task, I was touched and at the same time became happy because I was representing thousands of refugees in the event,” adds Nathike. She was also lucky to be among the few who represented the refugees during the IAAF World Championships in London where she also participated in the 800m race and clocked her season’s best time of two minutes, 20.06 seconds in 2017.

But for her, it has not been a walk in the park as she has gone through a lot of ups and down to get where she is today.

Born on January 1, 1993, Nathike joined primary School in Kakuma before transferring to Day Spring Academy in Nairobi.

She later joined the Angelina Jolie Girls Boarding Primary School funded by the Hollywood actress the school is named after.

In 2011, she joined Kakuma Secondary School for her ‘O’ levels, graduating in 2014 and later recruited by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) as a girl mobilizer in sports. Her duty was to encourage young girls to join sports as a career at the same time seek education.

Determination describes Nathike’s drive to earn the coveted Olympic Games ticket next year for the Tokyo Games.

Refugee athlete Rose Nathike (left), her mother
Refugee athlete Rose Nathike (left), her mother Verenika Nakitizi, her brother Tom Namilo and Simon Lokonyen, their relative, at their home in Kakuma Refugee camp in Turkana County on June 15, 2019. She is among athletes who have been running under the IAAF-Refugee flag since 2016 after they were selected for the Olympics Games in Brazil. This has been their home after they fled war in South Sudan. The athletes camp in Ngong, Kajiado County. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

“Sports makes me busy and to have peace of mind. I will be looking forward to going to Tokyo next year to represent the refugee team. This time round, I would love to see a good number representing the team so that the world is able to know that we exist and we are all equal,” she says.

She says she is not rich yet.

“It’s a tough life and many may see me as a rich person, but I’m not. I’m just able to sustain myself from the support we get from the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation and the UNHCR,” says the athlete. Hear teammate James Chienjiek Nyang was born in February, 1993 in Bentiu village in Bentiu State in South Sudan and was forced out of the country by the civil war.

Just like Nathike, he fled from South Sudan because of the war. He was accompanied by his mother, Nyanduk Geay Mut, as his father was killed during the war.

Nyang says their community was recruiting soldiers to go and fight and his mother was against the idea and that led him to flee to Kenya. “We fled to Kenya after my mother asked me not to join the soldiers who were being recruited to go and fight. My father died in the fight and she didn’t want to lose me and that is why we fled to Kenya,” says Nyang.

He joined Fuji Primary School where he developed sports and could play football in various school games before joining Manor House High School in Kitale, Trans Nzoia County.

In 2015 he competed in trials to select a team that will join the Tegla Loroupe camp and he managed second position in the 10-kilometre race, earning him an automatic ticket to the camp.

Nyang was at the Rio Olympics where he represented the refugee team in the 400m and finished eighth in his heat, clocking 52.89

Last year, he competed in the Africa Championships in Nigeria where he clocked 1:58.69 in the 800m race.

ROLE MODEL

He says nobody wants to be a refugee but that, having participated in various competitions, there is hope.

“Sports has really opened up my mind and I would always encourage the youths in Kakuma to always participate in various disciplines to keep themselves busy,”

“So many refugees are losing hope as they sit as destitute in the make-shifts, always thinking about their troubles and reminding themselves of the conflicts and their relatives who were killed back at home,” says the athlete.

He is now focusing on giving support to more refugees realize their dreams without frustrations.

“I want to be a role model in sports and after the support I got from the Tegla Peace Foundation and UNHCR, I would also love to support the younger generation as a way of giving back to the community.

“Whenever I meet people not from my tribe within the refugee camp I always tell them that we have one thing in common. We are refugees and while we are here, we must have good relationships because that is when we can have peace within ourselves,” adds Nyang.

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