Three years ago, Mark Loktare was a cattle rustler who raided villages in Kenya's northern Rift Valley. Now, the 21-year-old has traded in his gun for running shoes.
MAKUTANO, Kenya Three years ago, Mark Loktare was a cattle rustler who raided villages in Kenya's northern Rift Valley. Now, the 21-year-old has traded in his gun for running shoes.
His former gang, made up of members of the Pokot ethnic group, was one of many that stole thousands of cattle in night raids in Marakwet and Turkana.
Scarce resources in Kenya's arid east and north have sparked deadly clashes between tribes competing for land and water for their precious animals. But now, young men are being offered an alternative to the violent raids -- athletics.
Loktare would not say how many people were killed in the raids he took part in, beyond saying that many people died regularly when raiders attacked a village or when the villagers returned, bent on revenge.
"I feel bad when I think of those activities," he said.
Sometimes his gang would dash across the border into Uganda to steal cows from their pastoralist cousins, the Karamojong, themselves warriors prone to cattle rustling.
"Leading a life of hide-and-seek, always avoiding bullets is not good. I gave up my gun to authorities when Tegla Loroupe offered me a pair of spikes and I am happy now," said Loktare.
Loroupe, three-time world half-marathon winner and former two-time New York City Marathon champion, created the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation to support initiatives that promote conflict resolution and poverty reduction.
The foundation organizes peace races in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia to bring together the warring pastoralist communities in these poor areas often ravaged by severe droughts.
The races help raise money for the athletes and Loroupe also plans to open a peace academy with a school and a sports field to provide education and training facilities.
Loktare ran his first race in Kenya in 2003 and he won it. Loroupe, the first African woman to win the New York Marathon in 1994, also arranged for him to run the London Marathon in 2004 but he did not fare well, suffering from lack of experience.
PEACE & ATHLETISM
Loroupe wants to foster athletics talent in West Pokot, 310 miles northwest of Kenya's capital Nairobi, and help end cattle rustling among neighboring pastoralist communities in the place where she was raised.
"The world needs peace because without it, no meaningful development can take place. People are displaced, many die, children don't go to school. This had to change," Loroupe said.
Thanks to her charity, up to a dozen Pokots have stopped cattle rustling and are now pursuing a career in athletics.
Other Kenyan athletes have launched similar initiatives in the area, including Eric Kimaiyo, twice Honolulu Marathon champion, who started a training center in Kapsait, at the heart of a region that has produced some of the world's best known distance runners.
The problem of land-based conflict is rife across Africa where parched soil has been further degraded by overgrazing, erosion, population growth and global warming.
Across the continent, semi-nomadic pastoralists clash with crop growers or rival tribes of herders attack one another for cows, land and water, sometimes battling with assault rifles and machetes.
"We underwent gun-handling training in the bush by people from Sudan and Uganda," said Loktare. "At night, we would raid homes and snatch cattle."
"LIVE IN PEACE"
Loroupe's efforts to wean young people away from the gun and onto the track has helped restore peace to the Pokot region, encouraging schools to reopen.
Education can help save young people from being sucked into a life of violence -- as Paul Iriama, a Ugandan of Karamojong ethnicity, testified.
"Luckily, I went to school and never found time to go stealing cattle. But many of my mates who went there lost their lives," said Iriama, 22, who went to school in Uganda.
"We are happy for Loroupe, who spread her gospel for peace across the border. Many people did not believe it until she came to Moroto and organized a race where sworn enemies took part," Iriama said.
Loroupe's work is supported by Oxfam, the International Committee for the Red Cross and the International Olympic Committee, among others.
She has a simple wish: she wants athletics to become more popular than cattle rustling in the land where she was raised.
"That will make me a happy person. I am longing for that day when we shall live in peace."