The Strength of a Woman
Throughout history women have been considered as second class citizens. In every race, religion, and society, women were categorized as physically and mentally weak. Empowerment, equality and democracy have now placed them in their rightful place in society. Today, women are business leaders, political figures, and sports superstars.
Strong women, spoken of, are known to be performers in Hollywood movies and similar other platforms. From popular culture icons to numerous executives, women inspire, elevate and empower other women. Yet, unspoken women such as traditional midwives and mothers, especially those in Kenya and Africa bear the greatest responsibility of raising the entire society. Their unconditional love, sacrifice and unrelenting service to all is truly magnificent.
Joan Jepkosgei Mitei represents the powerful story of a young girl who relentlessly succeeded in her educational quest through sports. Despite the numerous challenges in life, and overcoming societal inequities - she went on to become the most decorated student-athlete in the United State. In the fall of 2008, Joan together with her two friends dissented at Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina after a thirty-six hour flight. Her eyes summed it all; exhausted and fatigued beyond measure. Seated at the baggage claim section; she gazed at me with a stunning smile, and immediately requested for a place to sleep. The University of South Carolina alumna had missed a flight in Europe resulting to subsequent flight misses that culminated into a travel nightmare.
Made in Kerita
Joan was born and raised in Kerita village in Uasin Gishu County. Kerita village is synonymous to Kerita dam, a water reservoir that was constructed by colonialists’ years ago. Natives claimed that Kerita is a derivative of one lord Kiter, a white settler, who had occupied the massive arable farm land. The Kalenjiin people who are the original owners of this land coined his name to Kerita from their default linguistic pronunciation. Kerita borders three other villages with similar name characterization: Ketiplong, formerly Kapkandongo (lord Kanton), Kapnaila (lord Leyland) and Lelmolok formerly Kapsimit (lord Smith).
During the post-independence era, many families in Kerita became successful large scale farmers having gained knowledge as farm workers. Children became affluent to early education with the existence of mission schools that were built by imperialists. The climatic condition and the reliability of rainfall aided food security from the pamper harvest. Houses were unlocked, children played together, food donations overwhelmed charity centers, communal festivities and activities were plenty, and peace prevailed. Clearly, villagers enjoyed life and peace of mind.
The story and history of Kenyan runners is widely known. In 1950s, Kenyan runners had conquered the world running under the guise of Her Majesty the Queen. By 1960s, Kenya was already famous in the world of athletics - thanks to our athletic legends: Kiprugut Chumo, Dr. Kipchoge Keino, Naftali Temo, Naftali Boon, and Sabina Chebichiy for leading the way.
Statistics indicate that the performance of Kenyan athletes is directly correlated with their dominance in long distance running at the global championships. Various studies have examined the similarities and differences in their motivational factors as well as environmental, physiological and anatomical advantages as reasons for their dominance. Presently, other nations such as Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi are rising athletically and demanding the slice of the pie. Even though the research predicts Kenya to continue dominating in distance running, but the question is, for how long? Developmental framework, leadership structures and motivational factors are challenges Kenya is currently facing. For example, the athletic federation has not instituted grass root and developmental policies that promote youth initiatives to fully utilize their talents from the available opportunities. Major concerns are redundant programs that fail to inspire young girls to pride themselves with their athletic potential. Kenyan athletes earn their expert status on individual basis that are supported by survival instincts. Joan’s journey represents one of the successful stories in the world of athletics today. The last born twin-sister placed het mission first, and fixated her sights on the prize – the American degree acquired through athletic participation (sic) ‘from legs to brain.’ In many villages today, upcoming runners face considerate resentment and rejection due to luck of athletic investment capacity. Nonetheless, Joan road to success is an epic masterpiece of great sacrifice from ridicule, pain and suffering, but even greater redemption and joy.
Regrettably, some of our communities promote negativity towards aspiring individuals especially athletes therefore diminishing the morale of their future stars. If a young girl for example aspires to become an athlete, she is either daunted or intimidated. Societies and communities don’t celebrate or support the aspirations of individual efforts when they commit to explore sporting opportunities around them. However, when they succeed everyone seeks to be associated with their success story. Kenya’s athletic history speaks for itself. Since 1960s, Kenyan athletes have continued to dominate on the roads, on the track & field and on the turf cross country courses, turning their lives into a fortune and becoming millionaires overnight. Majority of these athletes come from humble backgrounds, where life is desolate, and reward of their hard-work and determination have turned their sporting abilities into wealth. It requires a lot of sacrifice, self-discipline, patience, and determination to rise on the global stage. Communal, social, and professional support is crucial for armature athletes to grow and flourish. Societies that support the aspirations of its youth are more likely to realize social and economic capital.
Like her predecessors, Joan confronted communal negativism. In our societies today, people are more likely to discourage youth from exploring sporting activities. Athletics in a larger context is viewed as a recipe for lung problems or for school dropouts. To elude societal undertones, many upcoming runners train very early in morning or in the forested areas to avoid contact with the masses. Some runners are typically deserted by their own peers citing wild sporting dreams that are oblivion bound. Other critics associate athletic risks to athletes who have succeeded, but failed in the investment component. Apparently, majority of people prefer straight forward paths that assure them returns instantly. Like a business, athletics constitute risks and its associated costs. The road to athletic stardom is very frustrating, however, the higher the athletic risk, the higher the return on winning, contracts, endorsements, and appearances. Female runners are often chastised and bullied especially when they exhibit the characteristic of a tuned runner - the protruding cheek bones, submerged eyes, and darkened melanin. As a result of strenuous exercises, athletes’ appearances are often compromised and thrown into sickness gossip while others hurl their bad luck wishes. Sparingly, when the days become weeks, weeks become months, and the runner transforms herself into aspiring student-athlete – a star has been born. Developed economies and societies celebrate diversity because it is a fusion of talents with unique abilities, social benefits, and capacity. Thus, supporting youth programs is not only essential, but necessary in promoting their sporting skills while gaining economic advantage.
American UniversityTo fine tune herself for international assignments Joan signed up with a local athletic camp close to her home. In only four months, she had transformed herself into a masterpiece and a champion in the making. In a prolific quest, she secured an athletic scholarship to study nursing in one of the prestigious universities in the United States. The pronouncement of her educational journey, courtesy of athletics, made her village go wild. Critics were now fronting her success in a fashionable manner. Others were curious of how she had her dream into reality. Old time friends were requesting contacts and social media friendship so that they can keep in touch or helped them to go abroad too. In societies that ridicules her armature athletes, but celebrate them upon succeeding needs redemption and reflection of its beliefs, values, capacity and self-worth. Youth need guidance, encouragement, individual and community support in order to excel.
For four years, Joan dominated in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) A-Sun Conference in track indoors, track outdoors, and cross country, and setting records in the process. In 2012, she and her teammates established the university’s athletic history by winning the elusive 5,000 meters at the A-Sun Conference Championship in a fashioned 1-2-3 finish - a feat unparalleled in the athletic history. In three consecutive years, she donned the President’s List as a student-athlete. It is amazing how she was able to balance both academics and athletics in a foreign land that is both challenging and rewarding at the same time. In Feb 2018, Joan was inducted in the Hall of Fame as the most decorated student-athlete in the Class of 2012, preceding her elder sister, Emily, who was inducted in 2016. In societies that glorify their own only when succeed, but ridiculed them during their transformation phase, perhaps, it is time to reverse the course. Joan is now stronger and will be back to-give-back dutifully.
Indeed, Joan’s journey is full of irony, pain, and sarcasm, but truly exhibits a story of a resilient young woman who did extra ordinary things to become who she is today. To the young girls out there, sky is never the limit any more, wake up today and go directly to the sun, then cool it off for a minute, and return to earth and tell the whole world that girls can do it too.
Joan is currently a professional nurse, an active community organizer for aspiring young girls, a mentor for upcoming runners and a health-eating habits associate. She continues championing women empowerment through sports, and education around the world.