Refugee athlete looks up to Kipchoge

Aboard a trailer from Kigoma in Tanzania, he made an unsettling journey that saw him cross into Kenya in 2010. He was fleeing a war in his homeland, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ever since, running for peace has been one of Francois Msafiri’s missions on Kenyan roads.

The refugee from the war-torn Eastern Congo has clocked about 1,000 kilometres of running since joining the ultramarathon fold last year. Ultramarathon is a footrace longer than the traditional marathon.

In a moving interview, Msafiri opened up to Pitchside about his life and what he hopes to achieve through running, even as he longs to return to his native home someday.

The first-born in a family of five boys and three girls started his athletics journey back in his home town Uvira, albeit informally.

“When I arrived in Kenya, I realised athletics is a big thing here, given priority and loved a lot. Many youths take part in athletics. This really motivated me, so I started training hard.

To reach where I’m now, I had no option but to follow the example of Kenyans,” says Msafiri who trains in Ngong.

At first, life in Kenya was very difficult for him. “Being jobless in a foreign land forces you to find menial jobs to put food on the table,” he offers.

Despite this, Msafiri never stopped running. Racing is in his blood.

With the help of pacemakers, he ran for 512kms from Haile Selassie roundabout in Nairobi to Treasury Square in Mombasa in June last year, courtesy of a well-wisher, John Nalianya.

He did 155kms from Eldoret to Nakuru in February this year to prepare for the 320kms challenge from Eldoret to Nairobi, which he accomplished between June 3 and 4.

“I ran from Nairobi to Mombasa to raise funds to support the education of at least 5,000 refugee children living in Kenya. The race I did three weeks ago was all about preaching peace.

"My cry is for peace to be restored in Congo and especially the eastern part which has been volatile for 26 years. I’d like the United Nations (UN), African Union and East African Community to help us broker peace,” says the marathoner.

His athletics journey has not been without challenges. He doesn’t have a management team due to lack of funds, a fact that’s denying him the joy of realising his goals.

Mkongoo, as he has been nicknamed in Syokimau, dreams of becoming a super marathoner in the world.

“That’s my target. I prepare myself mentally for that challenge by doing ultramarathons. Attaining Kenyan level  prowess needs strategy,” he admits. “My vision is to run the Berlin Marathon in 2024 and in under two hours. It’s a very difficult task.”

By doing ultramarathons, Msafiri is looking for endurance. “After these very long races, I will do a lot of speed work, which will make it possible for me to run 42kms in under two hours. In one or one and a half years, I’m sure I can get support and a person who can push me. I’m 100 percent sure I can run under two hours,”  he insists.

At the moment, the only human being who has aced 42kms in under two hours is double Olympic marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge, who timed 1:59:40 during a special marathon, the INEOS 1:59 Challenge in Vienna, Austria in 2019.

Msafiri says he is not targeting Kipchoge’s record, but admits the world famous marathon king inspires him to train harder.

“He’s one person I follow a lot. He’s the mirror of society and everybody watches him. It’s possible to reach where he has,” the refugee says. “I ask myself, ‘what did he do to be the greatest of all times, and what can I do, to even surpass his record-breaking performance?’”

Msafiri prays for strength and wellness to realise his target in 2024.

“It’s ticking like the hand of a clock. That’s the only thing in my mind even when I sleep. The Berlin Marathon 2024 is my big target. Although I’m yet to reap financially from athletics, I’m as fit as a fiddle and not about to give up until I benefit,”  he vowed.

Msafiri, who is coached by Enock Rotich, has never met Kipchoge but has had the pleasure of meeting his physiotherapist Peter Nduhiu.

“We meet very often in Syokimau. He advises and motivates me a lot. He tells me ‘train hard, you will make it one day, so never give up’,” says the marathoner, who has competed in 10kms and half marathons, but not 42kms.

His secret  is commitment.

However, Msafiri has not fitted into the Athlete Refugee Team under Kenyan legend Tecla Loroupe. He says ultramarathons are not so popular, especially in Africa, so getting support is hard.

Msafiri has been invited by the International Association of Ultrarunners to participate at the 2022 IAU 100km World Championships on August 27 in Berlin/Bernau, Germany.

“I have the opportunity to show that even refugees can do something important in the world. However, my fear is I might not be able to honour the invitation because one requirement is financial support, which I don’t have,” says Msafiri.

Apart from athletics, Msafiri is a barber, so he has to balance between the two, which he says is not easy.

He was employed in a barbershop for three years in Syokimau before opening his own in 2014.
In 2020, he was forced to close his shop for three months due to Covid-19 restrictions. Worse still, he could not engage in athletics in the period.

“I know my business will never be the same again. Many customers bought their own shaving machines during  lockdown.

"Yet this is what I rely on to pay rent for my house and shop, buy everyday needs and also send something to the rest of the family back in Uvira, so you can imagine how difficult life has been for me,” Msafiri shares.

As a refugee, he hopes to return to Uvira someday, although he can’t stop wondering when peace will return so they can resume their normal lives.

He hopes to use ultramarathon to bring their grievances to the attention of the world through agencies like the UN.

Msafiri advised the youth to consider taking up athletics.

“When you’re idle, you’re likely to engage in vices such as drug abuse. If you concentrate on a sporting activity like athletics, then you won’t have the time for wayward acts. At the end of the day, athletics will improve your life,” says Msafiri.
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