University of Louisville cross-country runner Wesley Korir’s story of being caught up in violence in his native Kenya and his escape back to the United States was far too big, it seemed, to tell in a single newspaper story. Truthfully, each day he spent during the most tense times could have been a story unto itself.
I’d strongly encourage you to watch this 4-minute video put together by C-J videographer Scott Utterback, which includes excerpts of my more than one-hour interview with Korir. But even that isn’t enough.
Here’s a short discussion of the process of putting the column together:
Here’s an audio version of the column, for those who might not have had time to read the whole thing this morning, but might have time to download it to an MP3 player to listen: KorirColumn.mp3
And below, a transcript of additional material from my discussion with Korir . . .
Korir on Kenya, before the violence:
Kenya, the country I knew and grew up in was a very peaceful country. Actually it was so beautiful, green all the time, and people were living together like neighbors, different tribes. And everything was good. Culture was good. Economy was growing. This is a country that was so much in love with people. It was a leading (African) country in income, there were a lot of tourists, and it was just a country where you want to go, a country that I loved and wanted to be there.
Korir on how he became a great distance runner:
I used to run everywhere. I lived like five miles away from the school I used to go to when I was a little kid. I would wake up early in the morning to get to school on time, because if you are not in school on time, you get punished, you get whipped. So my place was really hilly, so I used to run to school all the time. Five miles to school, five miles home for lunch, five miles back to school and five miles home in the evening. And most of the years me and my brothers and my neighbors, we would compete. There were different routes and we would try to see who would get home the fastest. And I used to beat them all the time. Also my mom used to send me to the shop, three miles away. She would be like cooking or washing dishes and say, “Oh, I don’t have the soap, somebody has to run to get me the soap.” And I was the one being picked to run all the time. She tell me I had to run to the shop and she would give me a time to come back, and she would time me and if I didn’t come back in that time she would whip me. So I used to run all the time. I didn’t really know that I was going to become a runner then. I was just running for fun, going and coming back.
Korir on the Christmas message he took to Kenya:
I had really good plans for Christmas this year. I went to Canada before I went home to talk to high school kids about Christmas. And I had this idea of Christmas the way we are celebrating these days, for Christians, is not what it is supposed to be. It is not about getting gifts or the giving of gifts, because it is celebrating the birthday of Jesus Christ. So if you are celebrating someone’s birthday, you are taking them gifts. Yet now we expect to get gifts on Christmas, but we are not Jesus. And Jesus, in Matthew 24, says that whatever we do to these little ones, the poor, the hungry, those who don’t have clothes or who are suffering, we do unto him. So for us to give gifts to Christ, we are to give gifts to the poor, to those who are sick in the hospital, to those who are often. So my idea for Christmas this year was not really my family or not really myself, but was pretty much the poor or orphans or people who didn’t have much of anything. So that’s why I collected a lot of tennis shoes and running shoes from the track and field team. I took 30 pairs of shoes, and I was bringing them to people. I preached in two churches, tried to teach people about Christmas, and then on Christmas day I brought food, clothes and everything people need and went to different houses, four houses of poor people who didn’t have anything, who were sick, and there were a lot of kids I was able to distribute shoes to. So that was really fun, preaching in a church on Christmas.
Korir on tribal relations in Kenya:
Most of the people who were affected were my friend. Because I always grew up not knowing the difference between the Kalinjin, which is my tribe, and the Kikuyu. Most of my friends have always been Kikuyus. So most of those affected were my friends, and I couldn’t imagine why my people were fighting them.
Korir on surveying the damage of a church fire:
What went through my mind was that this is now evil. The devil is entering people’s mind. Three things are pretty much very important in the community: church, school and hospital. Those are the people, no matter who is in there, no matter who it belongs to, are things you don’t touch when you are fighting. Because those are things that benefit everybody and things that have to be kept strong. So when I saw that I knew that this is not political. This is the devil has entered people’s mind. Burning a church, a church is something important. It is like you are burning God. Crosses were burned there. Jesus’ images were burned there. So it’s like you are burning Christ, out of Kenya, banning him, saying “God we don’t want you here in Kenya. Get out of here. We are burning you.” At that moment I knew, this is not political anymore.
Korir on thinking he was trapped in Kenya:
I thought there was no way to get out. I had run out of money. I missed the date to renew my visa and there was no way of getting it renewed. . . . I was hopeless. I told my mom, “I’m stuck here. I’ll never get out of here. I don’t know what to do next.” And I prayed a long time to God, “If it’s your will for me to stay here, let it be. If it’s your will for me to go, I know you will do it.” That night, my roommate and teammate called me and I told him to tell coach I’m here and I’m stuck. So he called coach and told him you better call Wesley. Coach Mann called me on the second (of January). And he said what is going on? And he kept telling me to stay there, and stay calm, and that’s when I had hope. There’s no way I could have gotten out of Kenya without my coaches. I believe God used my coaches a lot. They called me every single day to make sure I’m okay. And from that day, the second, people from the mission team at Southeast called me every single day. And that’s when now I could see light. I could listen to them talk to me and tell me to calm down, relax, God is with you. Right there, I could see now that I am okay. Though I’m in the middle of all this chaotic stuff, I had them to encourage me and pray with me. They helped me a lot. . . . After that, I was so much concentrating on getting out. After my mom told me what she told me, and after praying, and coach calling me, it became clear to me that God wanted me to get out of there, so I concentrated more on getting myself out of there than on getting myself killed. My coaches encouraged me, don’t get out. Stay in the house. Every time they called, they said stay in the house, I know
you can’t stand to see people suffer, but stay in the house.
My American mom called me, Linda Stiles, I told her I’m here. She called me three times a day. I told he the coaches got me an appointment at Kampala. She said do you have any money. She said that she was going to send it. I told her there was no way I could get it, the bank and Western Union were closed. Nothing is open. She said I’m going to just try. If you get a chance, I don’t know, I’ll just send it. So she sent it. And one day my brother-in-law got out of the house and was walking in the town, and where he was walking he saw a Western Union that was open with a lot of police army around it. So he called me and told me to come, and I got in there and entered in and they closed. They were just there to change the money. But I entered in the door and when they closed it they closed me inside. I was like, man, I need money, I need to get to Uganda tomorrow, I need to get out of here. And the man was very cooperative and allowed me to do the transaction. So it was really God who delivered me. Not only was it open that day, but I was able to get the police to help me get out of there, and get the car that my brother-in-law drove me out of there. And on the way there were trucks burned, cars burned, horrible things, bodies in the street and everything.
Korir on the long drive from Kenya to Kampala, Uganda:
I remember on that drive seeing people who were desperate, running away from their homes, people crying for their dead. I felt so much, “What is going on?” I couldn’t see why people were fighting, why all of this was going on, and asking when this would end. . . . I got to Uganda on a Sunday night, crossed the border. I had never gone to Uganda. It has always been bad. Kenya has always been peaceful. But me crossing the border to Uganda, I felt so peaceful. Normally Uganda is not that good, but I felt so peaceful. So we drove all the way to Kampala and slept in a hotel, had my appointment to renew my visa. . . . Now I could not make my flight out of Kenya, so my coaches called to get my flight changed, and I had to stay there for a week, but it was nice.
Korir on visiting a Kenyan refugee camp in Uganda:
I got a chance to go visit a refugee camp of people from Kenya, and I wanted to go visit and see what was going on. And I got there, and these guys were being arrested, who crossed the border from Kenya, came to the refugee camp and poisoned the food. And I was like, “What is wrong?” People are running from Kenya, and you follow them out to a refugee camp and poison their food? Luckily, the poison was so concentrated, it turned the food yellow. They really poisoned the food. . . . Just looking at that, thinking about people wanting to kill refugees, it’s just out of control. . . . I talked to a couple of people and just let them know about God and prayed with them.
Korir on why he made it out:
If I didn’t have my coaches, if I didn’t have to be here (in the U.S.) definitely I would be either a victim or a suffering. But I know God brought me here for a reason, and I know he brought me back to Kenya for a reason.
Korir on getting stuck in Atlanta on the way home:
At 4 we were on a plane ready to leave, and it started snowing. So we were in a long line of planes. I sat on the plane from 4 until 10. And at one point they told us, we’re going to cancel the flight. And my teammates and friends were waiting for me (in Louisville) at the airport. So they were taking us back to the gate, I remember praying, “I want to go home, I want to go home, I’m so tired, I need to rest.” And the plane just stopped, and they announced, “We’ve been cleared to leave.” I remember people were complaining so much. I was telling the person sitting next to me, “I’m not complaining. It’s better sitting on this plane than sitting somewhere with people shooting at you, or not knowing where you are going to live next.”
Korir on Chuck Norris:
I’ve never known why Chuck Norris has been my favorite actor. But there were times I prayed, “Make me like Chuck Norris.” And now I know why he’s my favorite actor, because he saves people. And I wished I had the power that Chuck Norris had in the movie just to save people and fight these people and bet them all and help people who are suffering.
Korir on the loss of possessions in Kenya:
There were people living well in the city, teachers, principals, a lot of big houses, cars, but those houses burned in five minutes. They burned so quick. And watching those houses burned, and looking at all those people upset because their belongings were gone, you really know what the Bible is talking about when it says not to store wealth on this earth. It can be gone in five minutes, something you have been trying to build over a lifetime, can be gone in five minutes.
Korir on who is doing the killing:
People from poor to people like teachers. So many people are organizing groups, telling people to go fight, are people I respected a lot in life. Some people that I looked at them and said, I can’t believe you’re doing this, killing all these people. People shouting Kill him, kill him. I looked at a man, this guy who has always been my friend and a very respected teacher, and he was shouting to kill someone, and I looked at him and said, I can’t believe you’re saying that. I can’t believe you’re shouting for someone to be killed.
People say the reason people are fighting in Kenya is political. I don’t think it’s politics anymore. Politics was a catalyst that caused something that has been building for years to react. Listening to people talk, it seems they have been waiting for this chance for a long time. . . . Even if a political solution is found, it is going to be so difficult to find the Kenya that we knew, because these things are not going to go from people’s minds. Because if you see someone killing, or see someone burning someone’s house, you are not going to be friends with them. So we just need a lot of prayers. We need God. This is a time if you ever had a heart for Kenya or prayed for Kenya or went on a mission trip, this is a time to pray for them and help them, because Kenya needs a lot of help.
Korir on getting back to Louisville:
Landing in Louisville was a joyous moment. I’ve always taken off and come back. But I’ve never felt the way I felt when I got back to Louisville. I felt like I was home. I said to myself, “I’m home at last.” These people here, really helped me to get back. They prayed for me and worked for me, and I feel like these are my family now. This is home. Seeing all those people there, with signs, to see my coach there, my American mom there and all my teammates and friends, felt so great.
Korir on speaking out:
At first when I came back I didn’t want to talk about it. But then I decided, God put me there to bring the news to people. I should let people know that Kenya needs a lot of prayers and a lot of help. People are suffering. I call my brother-in-law all the time, and he’s a high school principal there, and his school is being used as a refugee camp.