Sebei’s great runners and the ‘wizards’ of Mt Elgon

Wednesday May 22 2019


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

There’s this 18-year-old Ugandan Jacob Kiplimo. Devoted athletics fans already know him. By the time he is 20, and if he suffers no physical mishaps, sports commentators say fans everywhere in the world will know him.

At Sunday’s 10-kilometre Great Manchester Run, he embarrassed the field, taking the tape so far ahead of the field, by the time the next runner arrived, his sweat had dried – so to speak.
Among his remarkable exploits already at that tender age, Kiplimo won the San Silvestre 10k in Spain in a time of 26:41 in December.

It would have been a world record, but because the course has an elevation drop, it didn’t count. That win, though, was a new course record, formerly set by Kenya’s marathoner Eliud Kipchoge in 2006 with 26:54. He shaved 11 seconds off Kipchoge’s time. If Kipchoge is now untouchable in the marathon, the optimists say if Kiplimo keeps bettering him, then you know what he will do when he “grows up”.

Kiplimo is a child of the mountains. He grew up in Kween on Mount Elgon, in Sebei land that is now churning out a record number of long distance champions, including our man Stephen Kiprotich, who sensationally won gold at the 2012 London Olympics men’s marathon.
Like their distant cousins across the border in Kenya’s Rift Valley, the popular view is that the Sebei Sub-region is producing long distance champions because living at high altitude, they develop the physical and mental attributes conducive to running marathons.

But that, surely, can only be part of the story, because not all high altitude parts of Africa, let alone the world, produce marathon champions. Even if living at high altitude confers some advantages, you still actually do need to go out and run. Which brings us to a story told to me years ago, by the late progressive scholar and politician Prof Dani Nabudere. Nabudere was one of the luminaries of the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) that, in 1979, with the help of the Tanzanians, overthrew military dictator Idi Amin.

Months after Amin’s overthrow, Nabudere told of a time when he and others in the UNLF went mobilising for the then controversial Nyumba Kumi, the predecessor of the Resistance Councils/Local Councils, in the Bugisu and Sebei areas of Mt Elgon. Economic conditions were much harder then, and the world was different – there were no mobile phones, no FM stations, and infrastructure was still primitive. Many communities in the mountains were largely cut off from the rest of the country.


Although it was months after Amin’s fall, many of the people in the mountains hadn’t heard the news. It was normal for them to ask, “Where has Amin gone?” when they were told he was no longer in power. That seems so long ago now. Peter Kamalingin is also a child of the mountains. He is Oxfam’s Pan-Africa Programme Director, based in Nairobi.

As an Oxfam person, Kamalingin is interested in poverty and economic justice issues. And also in the environment and climate change. He is taking baby steps as a farmer. On his Twitter page, he regularly posts photos and tweets on the beauty of the mountains of Sebei – but also the ravages of environmental degradation. Some of the photos of mountainsides stripped of trees, and battered by over-use and erosion are depressing.

There is a line running through Nabudere’s remote Mt Elgon, Kamalangin’s tweets about the punches it is taking from climate change, and the athletic glory of folks like Kiprotich and Kiplimo.
Globalisation has come to Mt Elgon - with a vengeance. In the 1970s, it was possible to thrive there - grow your food, feed your family, and get by in the quiet of the mountains oblivious to the rest of the nasty world.

The Elgon Mountain and Sebei are no longer remote. The mobile phones, roads, growing population, and the shifting social and economic contours of East Africa have taken care of that.

It is harder to make a living off the land. At the same time, the knowledge of other opportunities in far away places is abundant, compared to 1979. For those with skills, and talents like running, there are roads to take them out of the high altitudes of Sebei to places where they can cash in.

The Kips came down, and have not stopped running. They might not have, if the slopes of the mountain had remained fertile, and they could marry many wives, dozens of children, and still fill their stomachs with the fruits of the land.

I am meeting Kamalingin for coffee in a few days. I hope he will still pay for it when he reads my suggestion that climate change, deadly as it is, also gave some of his brothers’ wings to fly away to greater things.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data.
visualiser and explainer site. Twitter@cobbo3