The lion bloodline running Uganda’s global medal hunt

Kiplimo (L) is not in Hungary to race alongside Cheptegei. PHOTO/COURTESY 

What you need to know:

  • Uganda has in the recent years established itself as an athletics powerhouse, upstaging traditional giants such as Kenya and Ethiopia. But we have one family to thank the Kaprui of Kapsumbata clan, writes Tonny Musani

Of Uganda’s more than 30 global athletics medals over the past 11 years, the Sabiny from Sebei Sub-region account for more than 70 percent, setting it aside as the country’s powerhouse.  Yet even more interesting is that the most decorated athletes share a bloodline. And we take a look at this. The trophy cabinet owes most of its glitter to the Kapsumbata (Kaprui) clan, particularly the Simba (lion) family, which has produced global superstars Jacob Kiplimo, Victor Kiplangat and Oscar Chelimo, and the Kaberwa family which gave us the most decorated athlete, Joshua Cheptegei.

Mr Moses Kiptala of Kaptosic clan, an elder from Mengya, Benet Sub-county, Kween District, says the Simba family has an athletics prowess that the government has never exploited.

“The Simba family and Kaberwa family have the same origin. Simba gave birth to Noibe arap Simba, who later sired Stephen Chebet arap Simba, the father of Jacob Kiplimo,’’ he said.

Simba is a Kiswahili word meaning Lion. Mr Kiptala says ancient stories say the late Simba manifested all the attributes of a lion. A man who possessed strength and power while hunting.

“Simba’s prowess dates back to being a great poacher. He would chase buffalos up to Kenya and kill them single-handedly. That’s why he was prominently named Simba,’’ Mr Francis Cheptoyek arap Kaberwa, another resident of Kween District, says.

He prides himself in having his ancestry linked to the Kaberwa family. 

In narrowing down to the Simba family, the elders say Mzee Stephen Chebet arap Simba, a grandson of Simba, proudly married four women.

His first wife, Kokop Flomena of the Kabunyai clan, gave birth to 11 children. Victor Kiplangat who won gold during the men’s marathon at the 2023 World Athletics Championships last month in Budapest hails from this family. The second wife of Mzee Stephen arap Simba is Kokop Rispa of Kabai Clan. Olympic medalist Jacob Kiplimo belongs to this family. She gave birth to seven children.

The third wife is Kokop Mercy from the Kapyomet clan. She is the mother of Oscar Chelimo who won the country’s third medal during the World Athletics Championship in Oregon, US, after finishing third in the 5,000 meters final. She gave birth to seven children.

The fourth wife is Kokop Aron of the Kaptosic clan. She has four (girls).

In Sebei culture, the word koko means grandmother. 

The word kokop means grandmother of. The phrase is attached to the first grandson or granddaughter to give a respectable title to the grandmother.

Inherited gift?

Meanwhile, the grandmother of Stephen Kiprotich is the elder sister of Mzee Noibe arap Simba, the grandfather of Jacob Kiplimo.

Kokop Cherotwo is the first born of Simba. She got married in Kapchorwa District.

“Our genes are strong. All Simba’s children demonstrate the powerfulness of his offspring. Three different women now have children with important medals,’’ Mr Cheptoyek said.

“It is the reason Kiprotich’s mother took our blood to another family and we saw fruits in the marathon race,’’ he added.

Kiprotich won a gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics marathon. He also won another gold during the 2013 World Athletics Championships in Moscow.

Olympic champion and three-time world champion Joshua Cheptegi, who is Uganda’s most decorated athlete, is from the Kaberwa family.

The great grandfather of Jacob Kiplimo (Simba) is a brother of Kaberwa Ericana who gave birth to Mutei arap Kaberwa, the grandfather of Cheptegei.

From the lineage  Cheptegei is Kiplimo’s uncle.

The Simba family and the Kaberwa family originate from the lineage of Mzee Arapto and Mzee Kiprui.
Why the prowess

Mr Cheptoyek said genes stand out as the number one factor for gold medals from one family.

“Our talent moves from one generation to another,’’ he said.

“In Endebess, Kenya, we have our daughter who has three children actively engaged in athletics. Very soon they will be reaping more medals for Kenya’’.

The type of food athletes eat also matters.

“We still have some taboos that athletes must respect. We were not supposed to eat recklessly. I know our parents used to prepare local dishes. My worry is that the children of our athletes will embrace modern foods such as pizzas and burgers. If they grow fat, we won’t expect them to follow the footsteps of their parents,’’ he said.

Science also shows that the type of environment molds sportsmen and women.

Mr Kiptala said: “There is a lot of exercise in the upper belt [near Mt Elgon]. In the high jump, for example, we realised that people from the lower belt [near Karamoja Sub-region] performed very well while those of us from the upper belt won in long-distance races’’.

While paying tribute to athletes in Parliament last month after the World Championships, Kween County MP, William Chemonges, who represents the Simba Family in the 11th Parliament, begged the government to consider constructing a road that connects the upper belt of Kapchorwa, Kween, and Bukwo districts.

“The road connecting Kween and Kapchorwa on the upper belt near Mt Elgon Forest should be tarmacked. The athletes have told me this stretch offers the best temperatures for them to train,’’ he said.

Another significant issue is maintaining the tradition. The elders cite ancient games such as wrestling and running competitions by cattle keepers.

Elders revealed that musopishiek (used to refer to people living near the mountain) used to have festivals where they would compete in wrestling and even celebrate outstanding hunting heroes.

“This kept us active and competitive. The government should gazette a national festival for us to exhibit our tradition and encourage the younger generation to do sports,’’ Mr Kaptala said.

Mr Cheptoyek said the government should map out families with talented children and establish a database that tracks future gold medalists.

“We have the potential to beat Kenya in the number of medals in world competitions. The government should create a specific budget that supports upcoming athletes. We need scholarships in good schools for our sons and daughters. This will motivate them to represent the country,’’ he said.

Mr Moses Cherotich from Kween District said: “We need to engage the government such that elders or herbalists can be allowed to get medicinal roots for the athletes from the forest.’’