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July 1, 2014

Running with the World’s Best

Henry Wanyoike and Joseph Kibunja. Photo by Nabina Liebow

Henry Wanyoike and Joseph Kibunja. Photo by Nabina Liebow

“Run with a Kenyan marathoner…” invites the sign on the fence at the entrance to Kenya: Mambo Poa at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival. What this means is that you get to run (a gentle thirty-minute jog is more accurate) with the legendary Paralympian Henry Wanyoike and his sighted guide, Joseph Kibunja. They are participating in the Festival to represent long-distance running, an occupation, skill, and achievement for which Kenyans are deservedly world-renowned—and these two are among the very best.

An amazing thing about the Folklife Festival is that anyone can come and meet people like Henry and Joseph—practitioners at the peak of their skills—and here at the morning run you can tag along, ask questions, and perhaps even secretly visualize yourself running side-by-side in a race with these world champions!

Henry and Joseph’s stories are riveting in every way: Henry was a young boy of humble beginnings who was small but also very fast and dreamed of becoming a star runner until he suffered a mild stroke at 21 that left him completely blind. Joseph was his tall, lanky childhood chum who had no thoughts of running, trained as a carpenter, but at the age of 26 agreed to try to become his old friend’s running guide. You will have to come to the Festival yourself to hear the details of their achievements—and learn more about Kenya’s past, present, and future in the process!

It is a wonderful experience to join Henry and Joseph in a run, to be greeted by Henry’s friendly and encouraging words, and to witness the remarkable trust and communication they share as Joseph works as Henry’s eyes and they move together in perfect physical harmony.

Running Sign Detail

The invitation to run. Photo by Erin Younger

Henry Wanyoike and Joseph Kibunja run with the public each morning at 10:30 a.m., present a public program about Kenyan long-distance running every afternoon (at the Karibuni Workshop stage), and have a table in the Kenya House where visitors can speak with them throughout the day.

Erin Younger is working with the material culture collection at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is focused on objects being made at the Festival this year but also couldn’t resist the lure of the special assignment presenting the Karibuni sessions with Henry and Joseph—and tagging along for the mid-morning runs!

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