Kenyan exchange student runs for his tiny village back home


Kikanae Punyua of Glenelg Country School hails from a tiny village in Kenya. He had no running experience before coming to the United States, but now owns the fastest 1,600 time in Maryland this year and has secured a college scholarship. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
April 26, 2011

Kikanae Punyua was born into a culture where family and togetherness are valued above just about all else, but since arriving in the United States a year and a half ago he’s become no stranger to being alone.

He set out on his own in 2009 when he took the 8,000-mile flight from Kenya to Maryland as a foreign exchange student. Today, Punyua is the only member of Glenelg Country School’s track team. When the senior All-Met goes out on long runs through his Columbia neighborhood, there is no one else there to encourage him to push through the pain.

Not that he lacks for motivation. The last 19 months have peppered the slender 18-year-old’s life with complex twists and turns, but one simple concept has guided his decision making: The best way to help the people he’s closest to is to leave them.

Punyua owns Maryland’s fastest time this season in the 1,600 meters (4 minutes 19.36 seconds) and the No. 2 time in the 3,200 (9:12.16). On Friday he will compete in the 3,000 at the 117th Penn Relays and the 71 / 2 circuits around historic Franklin Field in Philadelphia will be far and away the most difficult and fastest race of his season. Punyua says that how he runs in general, but specifically in high-profile races like Friday’s, impacts his ability to one day improve the lives of his family and his tribe in the tiny Masai village of Ntulele.

“I’m not just running for fun,” said Punyua, who has signed with Maryland. “I’m looking at the long goal, not just what’s in front of my face.”

The long goal, as Punyua puts it, is a difficult one. He wants to return home to a village that has no electricity or running water and ask a mostly illiterate population focused mainly on herding sheep and cattle to learn how to read. He also wants to put a stop to female genital mutilation.

“There are some not-so-good cultures that I want to abolish,” says Punyua, who has three sisters and seven brothers. “I’m lucky to get this opportunity, so it’s something I feel I need to do.”

Quickly the No. 1 runner

Whitty Bass had seen just about everything in 40 years of coaching, but he couldn’t believe his eyes when Punyua showed up to his first cross-country practice at Wilde Lake in 2009. He looked down at Punyua’s feet and noticed that his shoes had cloth soles instead of rubber. Bass, the pastor at St. John United Church in Columbia and cross-country and track coach at Wilde Lake, had spent years half-jokingly hoping for a Kenyan or an Ethiopian to enroll at his school. Now, the one that actually had had no running experience.

Bass sent Punyua out with the freshmen on about a two-mile loop, but when they returned the new kid wasn’t with them. To Bass’s surprise, Punyua came in 40 minutes later with the varsity runners. They had gone out on a nine-mile run and Punyua had stuck with them.

When he showed up for the next day’s practice, Punyua’s ankles were the size of grapefruits. He had never done distance running before, let alone on pavement. He spent the next couple of weeks with his feet in an ice bucket. When he finally started running again, Bass started him with just a half-mile jog on a grass field before increasing the distance in small increments.

“The miracle is within four weeks he was our No. 1 runner,” Bass said of Punyua, who placed sixth at the 2009 Maryland 3A cross-country championships before capturing state 3,200 meters indoors and outdoors titles. “He had enormous spirit and determination. I’ve coached national champions in other states before, but you could see he was special.”

New visa, new school

Punyua returned to Kenya after completing his junior year at Wilde Lake, happy to be reunited with his biological family but feeling unsettled. He had unfinished business in the United States. Bass and his wife, Gretta Ferrell, became Punyua’s host parents while he attended Wilde Lake — they still are today — and they tried everything they could think of to extend his visit, but to no avail.

Punyua couldn’t get another J1 visa so returning to Howard County Public Schools was not an option. Gloria Friedman, an American Field Service volunteer who was Punyua’s liaison during the exchange program, began looking elsewhere.

She contacted the admissions office at Glenelg Country and gave a glowing recommendation of Punyua. The small private school in Ellicott City accepted him and found a sponsor willing to underwrite his tuition for his senior year.

“He’s such a well-liked kid,” Friedman said. “It’s like looking at pictures on the Discovery Channel or National Geographic, seeing where he’s from and being a member of the Masai tribe. And then he’s at Columbia Mall. It’s remarkable not just because of his running achievements, but how he has adapted to an amazingly different world.”

Punyua, meantime, was using social media to stay in contact with his American caretakers. He was happy to learn through a Facebook message that he had been accepted to another American school. All that was left was to get the proper documentation from the Kenyan government.

It wasn’t going to be easy. There was no Internet access in his village, so Punyua went alone on the bus to the capital city of Nairobi to request a visa. After a two-hour ride over rickety roads, the embassy turned him away and told him he had to apply online. “At that point I was like ‘Oh my God.’ I was ready to give up,” he said.

Punyua’s application was eventually accepted online, but after the deadline. Glenelg Country overnighted a letter to the Kenyan embassy saying that he would still be admitted. With everything finally in proper working order, Punyua kissed his family goodbye — for now.

“You have to believe in yourself. It’s really great to achieve one of your dreams,” Punyua said. “It’s just like a dream come true. I came a long way, up and down, until I got it.”

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