Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Letter From Kenya: "Obama! Obama! Obama!"

"When we walked in on race day wearing our USA gear, the Kenyan people started chanting, but I couldn't quite understand what they were saying," Marty Rosendahl told us yesterday about his trip to Mombasa, Kenya for the World Cross Country Championships there.

"It sounded like they were chanting 'Osama, Osama, Osama.' But when I listened closer, they were chanting 'Obama, Obama, Obama.' I guess [Illinois Senator and U.S. Presidential candidate Barack Obama] had visited the area a few months ago -- one of the heads of our security team had been with Obama's security team when he visited. And I guess that Obama has a heritage to Kenya, and from what I experienced there, if he ran for President of Kenya, he'd win in a landslide."

"They loved him there, and they loved us because of him! We ran and they'd chant 'USA' or 'Obama.' At least since I knew they were chanting his name, they were being encouraging, so that was neat."

DtB sent Rosendahl, a Fridley native and MSU-Mankato grad who trains with the Michigan-based Hansons-Brooks program, a few questions about his Kenya experience and in return we got a thorough, breathless report from him on the experience. We're hoping to publish some of his photos as well. Rosendahl finished 103rd in the senior men's 12K.

"The crowds were huge," Rosendahl confirmed. "I read in the Nairobi newspaper the next day that there were 30,000 in paid attendance for the race, but there were at least that many more sitting on the hillside, up in the trees, on top of the buildings, standing outside the fence, etc. etc. Probably 50,000 - 60,000 in total spectators was a figure I think I heard. I couldn't believe that all those people were there despite the conditions."

Rosendahl noted that official temperatures for his race were 88 with a heat index of 97 and 66% humidity. For the earlier-in-the-day junior women's race, the temperature was 90 with the heat index of 99 degrees.

"Then even through Kenya rocked the team competitions," Roesendahl continued, "when we were leaving they still yelled at us 'USA is #1!' I pointed to the winners podium and said 'Kenya moja!' (Moja is Swahili for 1.) They replied 'No, USA is #1!'"

"With all the travel warnings and security, I thought maybe they didn't like us, but Kenya seemed to love us. They were some of the most friendly people I've ever met. I really enjoyed their culture, eating their food, and learning as much of their language as I could. I'd like to try to repay a little of their hospitality too."

"The day before the race, we visited a local elementary school and passed out used shoes to the kids -- many of them had mental disabilities, but they were mainstreamed with the rest of the students. We also gave them candy. When we showed up they sang and danced and entertained us, and they were so grateful for the gifts we gave them."

"Their poverty really struck me, though. There were a little over 30 kids at the school that lived at the school, and they shared 2 rooms -- one male room, one female room. Each room had about 6 or 7 single beds. But their spirit was amazing, they didn't seem to care or even notice that they lived in poverty. And the teachers were totally committed to giving them the best possible education they could have."

"They really impressed me, and there were dozens of little kids that I wanted to adopt and take home because they were so adorable. Two of the kids are on the Kenya team to run in distance events at the 2008 Special Olympics. But they were paying a big rent for the land and buildings they had their school at, and they are working real hard to try to buy their own school. The principal/administrator of the school says it would cost between 5-7 million Kenyan shillings to buy a school (my head-math says that's about $100,000 US.) So when we got back on the bus to leave, I told Sam Grotewald (elite athlete coordinator for the New York Road Runners) that I wanted to start a foundation to raise money to buy them a school, and then maybe to provide continuing aid to them and other schools in Kenya."

"I said I could use the Olympic Trials as a sort of pledge-fundraiser type of thing. He said if I got the foundation set up and really wanted to do it he'd pitch it to USA Today, the NY Times, and the Today Show. It really would be great to pay back their hospitality because the Kenyan people really are a wonderful people -- and they love distance runners, especially Kenyan and American distance runners."

We plan to post more of Rosendahl's impressions -- and perhaps some of his photos from the trip -- on DtB later in the week.

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