Q+A: On the Ground in Kenya

August 11, 2015Georgetown 5000m runner Collin Leibold (C’15) recently returned from a service project in Lare, Nakuru County, Kenya, where he partnered with the Mother of Mercy Girls Secondary School—home to more than 200 students between the ages of 14 and 18. A biology of global health major and theology minor, Leibold spent time working with students as well as providing support to the school’s health care facilities and farm. This summer, Leibold is in Boulder, Colorado, working as a high school running camp counselor while training for his final season of NCAA eligibility in cross country and track. We caught up with him to hear more about his time in Kenya as well as his passion for learning from those who are deeply affected by global health issues.

Georgetown College: Why is it important for you to share running with others?

Collin Leibold: The great thing about running is that anyone can do it at nearly any point in their lives. The mental and physical benefits of running are available for everyone. Running releases endorphins that make people feel happier; at the same time, running has been linked with reducing chronic diseases like heart disease. It is the oldest and (in my opinion) best form of exercise. Part of the reason that I want to study former professional runners is that they often stop running because they no longer make any money from running. The motivation changes, and many runners aren’t willing to run for enjoyment or for health reasons. I’m curious about how those motivations—professional and health—interact. 

GC: Why did you choose Kenya as the location for your service project?

CL: Kenya was one of the countries that we studied in my biology of global health classes, in the context of malaria and neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Poverty is a risk factor for all of these diseases. Many developing areas—especially in equatorial regions—have a critical threshold of parasite-causing mosquitos to transmit malaria; they also tend to have risk factors for some of the NTDs, including poor sanitation and lack of quality healthcare. These diseases also contribute to poverty by reducing opportunities for education and employment. I knew all of this information, but from a bird’s eye view. I wanted to be with the people who experience these health care issues.

We studied other countries in my global health classes, but I chose Kenya because of its distance running prowess. Kenya has had success on the international level in middle distance and distance running. Runners contribute significantly to the Kenyan economy, especially in the Eldoret/Iten area in the Rift Valley, by bringing in winnings from out-of-country competitions. Professional distance runners are one means by which the Kenyan economy is growing and developing. I was interested in this means of development as a distance runner.

GC: What did you accomplish during the trip?

CL: The school is on a compound that also includes a drinking well, a farm, and a health care facility. Sr. Rose Kuria, of Georgetown Visitation, started the school in order to serve struggling families in the Nakuru area. The health care facility, well, and farm are all designed to improve the health and economy of the surrounding area.

In the health care facility, I learned how to do field tests for malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, and helminth diseases. I had learned about all of these tests in the abstract, but it was a much better learning experience to discuss them with a trained lab technician. I also got a sense of how the World Health Organization (WHO) determines its country health statistics, as the lab technician showed me the lab records, which he is required by the Kenyan health service to fill out. I also spent time learning about the farm. I was impressed by how much the students know about agriculture. They know what food they are eating, where it comes from, and how it got onto their plate. Americans can learn from the Kenyan approach; too often, Americans eat frozen food from the supermarket. I believe that a good relationship with food is important for public health and environmental reasons.

The majority of my time was spent studying with students and running with those who were interested in athletics. I was struck most by the seriousness with which the students took their studies. There was a culture of working hard in school; many of the girls seemed to recognize that education represented their best opportunity to succeed. That seriousness was at least partly due to the national exam that all Form 4s (equivalent to seniors) are required to take before graduation. The test determines where and what students are allowed to study. While I don’t think the testing system is perfect, I do think it is a valuable attempt to motivate students and compare schools.

GC: Was there anything unexpected about your time in Lare?

CL: I had read about the level of poverty in rural Kenya, but it was surprising to actually see the lack of diversity in the economy, the crumbling infrastructure, and the sheer number of idle men (because they were mostly men). It was challenging to see these issues and know that there is very little that I was able to do on that trip.

We talked a lot about solidarity in my theology classes—the idea that every relationship should be marked by equality, both parties benefiting from the exchange. Whenever I felt helpless in the face of this overt poverty, I remembered this concept. This trip was mostly for myself: I was able to learn more about the world by exploring a foreign place. Only after the trip—by talking about the trip and fundraising for Mother of Mercy—could I help the people of Lare. I don’t feel that I’ve repaid the people of Lare for showing me hospitality during my stay, but I hope to begin to do so in the future.

GC: What are your future plans for the project?

CL: I am currently applying to do research on former professional athletes in the Eldoret/Iten area during the 2016-2017 academic year. If my application is successful, I would live about two hours north of Lare, but I would return to visit a few times. One of the school’s goals is to build a playing field for girls to run and play soccer. To do so, they need to level a hill on campus, which costs a good bit of money. I plan to raise that money during the next year and check on the progress of that project during my trips to Lare.  

I hope that developing this playing field will allow more girls to train to be athletes. Athletics is one of the most stable sectors of the Kenyan economy. If one of the girls at the school can build a successful career as an athlete, she will be likely to give back to the Lare community. One pathway toward a career in athletics is competing for an American university in track and field. I am currently trying to get in contact with college coaches who would be interested in recruiting girls at Mother of Mercy. I hope that at least one girl will have the opportunity to live, learn, and train in the United States. This opportunity would greatly improve her career prospects—in athletics or in some other capacity.

—Melissa Nyman

Related Information

For updates from Collin Leibold, follow him on Twitter: @Theophilus_Runs.