Toby Tanser

Toby Tanser, founder of Shoe4Africa Foundation, speaks during a visit to The Shoe4Africa All4Running Kapchorwa Secondary School in Kabirirsang village, Nandi County on December 25, 2021.

| Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

‘I knew if I wished to survive the attack, I must run in order to save my life’

What you need to know:

  • The Samaritan sped up to pedal by my side, offering to guide me to a clinic. I must have been a sight to behold
  • On Christmas eve, Toby Tanser, an athlete, humanitarian and founder of the Shoe4Africa charity, organised a relay race from the Equator to Eldoret with elite and legendary runners to break ground for a new children’s cancer hospital. We follow Tanser’s charity through excerpts from his latest book: Running with Destiny – An odyssey of Mistakes, Machetes and Miracles:

At last, I recognised the vague shapes of people. I must be close to the green exercise field. When I staggered in their direction, wailing for help like a drowning sailor, the two sunbathers stood and scampered.

Looking back, I understood why. Should a skinny foreigner—drenched in blood—come hobbling along and waving a machete calling Om-Om, I bet I would bolt too.
Dejected, I pressed on, relieved that I now recognized the imposing building where I began the run.

Cutting from the sands, I slipped through a patch of prickly grass higher than my knees, stumbling as the footing presented a challenge.

Why me? Feeling utterly sorry for myself, I craved to slump down and cry. But with the destination close, I inched onward.

Half-blind I slammed into a barbed-wire fence positioned between the beach and the building’s parking lot. Straddling the obstacle with my right leg, in desperation, I forgot to lift the other leg; what a sorry state.

Reaching the bike brought a gush of relief, and only now did I feel safe. I discarded the blade that had both wounded and saved my life. Given the circumstances, I scored a lucky escape.

Thankfully, the bike’s ignition keys had remained wedged in my hand, as when running, I always hook those items on the index finger.

This way, if approaching anyone from behind, I rattle the metal to avoid unnecessary alarm if people do not hear the footsteps.

That little trick helped today; otherwise, I would have lost the keys.

Looking towards the green field, I yelled with urgency to gain the attention of my companion. She saw me, walked forward slowly, then expressed the words to the effect of, ‘God! What happened?’ Having little energy for details, I burbled an explanation, handing her the ignition key, and implored, “Rush me to hospital. I must stop the bleeding.” As I vocalized this, she exclaimed she could not drive the bike.

When would the troubles end? The parking lot, barren and deserted, offered no options. I must escort myself.

Fortunately, the thieves had pinched the left shoe because I could not have kick-started the bike without my right. I know from painful experience how impossible firing up the engine is without footwear.

Unable to operate the injured hand properly, I loosened the bloody singlet from my wrist and bound my palm to the handlebar rubber grip. This way, I would be able to rotate the accelerator. We then set off on a most precarious ride.

The blurs and stars continued marring my vision, and I feared I might collapse. Utilizing the white lines painted in the center of the road, I navigated the route guiding us straight into Stone Town. At any opportunity, I forced my thumb to sound the horn.

Whilst driving, I grasped onto the vain hopes to spy a medical center to halt the bleeding, but seeing none, I decided to aim for the hotel. The staff must understand what to do and whom to contact. My mind became fixated on the plush bed and the notion of sleep. Yes, head for the Dhow Palace.

My thoughts were interrupted by a man on a bicycle hollering out. The Samaritan sped up to pedal by my side, offering to guide me to a clinic. I must have been a sight to behold; no wonder I caught his attention.

Presently, he directed us down a street and, when approaching a row of houses at the bottom of the hill, signaled with his arm and yelled, “You can receive help there. Good luck.”

But now, on the slope and lacking a footbrake, I did not possess enough strength to engage the front wheel’s brake lever with the injured hand. Never mind, I could slow the bike by grating through the gears—fourth directly to first.

When almost stopping, I urged the woman to jump from the bike moments before I crashed into the stone building. Unable to balance the machine upright, I tumbled to the ground. But I did not care—this dreadful journey had ended. Pulling myself up, I limped towards the clinic like I might approach the finishing line of a grueling desert ultramarathon. Thank goodness I made it.

But opening the building door brought pure shock. Gray walls, yet to see a lick of paint, smoothed concrete covering the floor, and a spacious, virtually empty room, induced a near heart attack.

Where the heck are the IV stands and flashing monitors, and the beds or even one bed? What of the usual fluorescent lights and the eye-watering odor of antiseptic?

Glancing to the far end of the long room, I noticed a lady stepping forward. Tall and erect, the woman held the facial structure of a Somali friend, Sahra.

Clutching my good hand, she guided me to a wooden bench, the type befitting an old English country school. The nurse stated the doctor had scurried off to break his Ramadan fast, but not to worry, he should be returning shortly.

Then, after asking me to recline, she examined the wounds. Fetching a tin milking bucket, she scooped a cupful of chilled water to trickle over the lacerations.

“Oh my God, oh my God.” She spoke in English and pronounced Oh like an R.

“How bad is it? I am going to be OK, aren’t I?” I nervously asked, dreading yet longing for her reply. She looked at the floor as if the answer lay there.

“Aren’t I?” I repeated now with an apprehensive tone. Then, as I forced her to speak, she muttered two words.

“Very bad.” She sighed and squeezed my hand tighter.

“But I will be OK, right?” I pressed, anxious for at least one optimistic word. She repeated in clipped English

“You are…Very. Bad. Very. Bad.” Her eyes could not maintain contact with mine. I stopped asking for reassurance. Still rational, I grasped it only a matter of time until I might pass out. I presumed I required a blood transfusion, given the amount I detected outside of my body.

Yet, months before, I read horror stories of infected transfusions in Africa being a principal cause for the widespread transmission of HIV. Although I experienced a deep urge to sleep, I stayed conscious—if only to instruct the doctor, I would not accept plasma.

Instead, I must leave Zanzibar and fly to Sweden. Yes, leave this was not medical care—a clinic possessing no machines? Getting home to Sweden became the focus. I knew of tourists who, when injured, received airlifts to Europe on medical planes. The concern was I lacked any insurance plan, but I could address that issue later.

Before long, a cheerful Asian middle-aged doctor entered the clinic, delighted to discover a client. Unlike the nurse, who tilted on the verge of tears with wetness hanging like cobwebs in the corner of her brown eyes, he chatted away cheerily as he doused more water on the wounds.

“How did this happen? Have you enjoyed your stay in Zanzibar? Have you seen our colobus monkeys? Could you please lie down on the tarpaulin stretched on the floor?

Have you visited Africa House?” All the words were sandwiched into one short sentence as I lowered myself to the floor. Meantime, the sister now lit a lamp, allowing the doctor to inspect the head wound as darkness fell. Suddenly, I recalled my request, “Please, no blood transfusion.”

“You should be so fortunate,” he laughed, inviting a view of his resources with a sweep of his arm. He added, “I certainly do not maintain a blood bank here, but I will cleanse these wounds, cease the bleeding, stitch and bandage you up. OK?”

I made the correct decision to get up and fight. Scraping away the dried blood, the doctor surmised that a stone had also damaged the skull. Who knows what happened after I blacked out?

Today, if I trace my fingers, it feels like a tennis ball smacked furiously against the head but did not rebound and consequently indented the bone. Cleansing the wounds, the physician shook his head whilst wiping crumbs from his mustache.

“Sorry, no anesthetics or antibiotics. We don’t even have antiseptic cream. We are on short stock.” What? What kind of medical center is this?

Following the treatment, both medics advised I recuperated upstairs. Presuming the nurse to be on call, I willingly accepted. The brief walk of ten-odd steps felt like a mile, and climbing each stair took an immense amount of effort. The recovery area—it could have been a budget youth hostel with nothing but junior beds—stood dark and gloomy.

My companion, wringing her hands, lurked uneasily in a space between the bunks and the entrance. Addressing the awkward silence, I suggested she return to the hotel, and she nodded. Since we constantly bickered, the thought of her lingering gave me nothing but prickly palpitations.

About the author

After living in five countries on three continents, surviving two brain surgeries on either side of the skull, Toby intends on settling down—soon. He is a philanthropist, coach, author/writer, former professional athlete, race director, and founder of Shoe4Africa.

Profiled twice on CNN, featured as a Humanitarian of the Year for Runner’s World, with commendations by the Presidents of the USA and Kenya, he worked—unpaid—for two decades on charity projects. Most memorably to build East and Central Africa’s first public children’s hospital.

During this period, he constructed schools, hosted AIDS awareness, hookworm and peace events, and re-gifted thousands upon thousands of pairs of used running shoes.

Toby has authored the books Train Hard, Win Easy. The Kenyan Way, The Essential Guide to Running The New York City Marathon, More Fire, How to Run the Kenyan Way and now Running with Destiny, An Odyssey of Mistakes, Machetes and Miracles.