Toby Tanser

Shoe4Africa charity founder, writer and ex-athlete Toby Tanser explains a point when he visited the construction site for the Shoe4Africa Children’s Hospital at the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital precincts in Eldoret on June 10, 2014. Tanser is now mobilising funds to build a children’s cancer hospital.


| Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

Anticipation of Kenyan athletics adventure came a fair dose of trepidation

What you need to know:

  • Stiff-legged... following the nine-hour flight, I stepped into Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport
  • On Friday Toby Tanser, an athlete, humanitarian and founder of the Shoe4Africa charity, will organise a relay race from the Equator to Eldoret with elite and legendary runners to break ground for a new children’s cancer hospital. Over the next few days, we follow Tanser’s charity mission through excerpts from his latest book: Running with Destiny – An odyssey of mistakes, machetes and miracles.

E. V. Gordon and J. R. R. Tolkien bonded as dear companions. Collectively they formed the Viking Club, whose purpose centered upon discussing the old Icelandic sagas enjoyed over a beer in the company of their students.
One fortunate scholar to be employed as Gordon’s successor was granddad Afi.

Countless decades later, Afi gifted me—a young child — a book called The Hobbit. I asked, “Is this fact or fiction” and “are you woven into the story,” having befriended the author. My grandfather, owning a spherical bald head and bushy black overgrown eyebrows, offered a sly wink, “I am not handing you a book—this is a path to discover your journey.”

Devouring the paperback to unwrap a personal quest, as I understood it, you merely set off trusting your heart, and fascinating experiences present themselves. People you encounter when traveling will offer guidance as the needs arise. Could it be that straightforward? Just trot off and trust your heart?

As a youngster, I presumed these words reflected the gospel truth.

Only now, relaxing in my airplane seat and Nairobi bound, did I muse upon how lucky the individuals were who gained that chance to table the book and embark upon their adventure. I knew I must seize this incredible opportunity and run with it.

Stiff-legged and shuffling off the plane following the nine-hour flight, I stepped into Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport.

Breathing in, the typical jet fuel stench that lingers around landing bays like a moldy carpet welcomed me to Kenya. Along with the anticipation of adventure followed a fair dose of trepidation.

The truth, I had not given much thought to the logistics since Noel’s abrupt announcement. I came from a family that acted upon the spur of the moment. My dear mother, on a whim, had attempted to end apartheid by becoming the white Rosa Parks.

Finding herself in South Africa in the 1980s, she utilized segregated public transport and adopted the stance of sitting alongside the Africans.  

Her homespun plan backfired —those in the vicinity confessed to being uncomfortable at the behavior. “But I did try,” she countered. Trying your best in life is what counts.

Some individuals acquire books, learn a language, rummage, and research details before considering a flight ticket. Coming from the opposing school, only after stepping on the soil did I initiate any investigations.

Describe it as the economy of effort class — besides, in 1995, search engines meant looking for motorcars.

And now, when walking inside the gates of Kenya, I wondered, what is the official language? Am I to encounter problems communicating like on last month’s trip to Istanbul, Turkey? Fortunately, English is the primary language taught in schools before Swahili.

With last-minute planning, I had not even bothered exchanging money to the local currency — I shuffled dollars like a drug smuggler, stuffed into hidden pouches inside my jacket.

The entire world understood the mighty dollar, at least everyone who has ventured anywhere near an airport. Besides, any hotel could exchange dollars for whatever currency the Kenyans carried.

Checked luggage missing

Inside the international airport, designed and probably last painted in the 1970s, I hurried to beat the queue and navigate the immigration control.

The pace of the foot traffic thwarted me at every turn. Little moved swiftly, least the personnel who jotted down the entry forms of all the passengers in triplicate.

At the baggage claim, I may have been the first to enter, but I would be the last to leave as none of my checked luggage arrived. This was not how I envisioned the grand African entrance.

Worse yet, when encountering Kenyan athletes on the circuit, they all bemoaned of a lack of running stores in the country. How could I survive without replenishing the equipment? Run barefoot? Are you kidding? I needed my Nike’s!

Finding a complaint desk, I joined a lengthy line of disgruntled passengers to file a lost luggage slip.

Leaving the arrivals hall, a magnificent clear starry night reminded me of my departure from the gloomy clouds of the frozen north. The equatorial calendar offers the opposite season of Europe’s — welcome to the embrace of the Kenyan summer.

Despite the late hour, the warm night wind bore unknown smells of exotic lands and promised immediate excitement.

My eyes surveyed the road for the taxis. Yellow cabs in NYC, black in London, what color for Kenya?

Piled up in the parking lot, I observed stacks of dilapidated non-metered private beat-up salon cars. Were these authentic taxis?

Drivers swarmed to me like moths around a flame, and men tugged both arms and jacket, pleading I hired their vehicle. Looking like the night’s final customer, I became hot property. Goodness, what to do, and whom to select?

I resorted to no better plan than evaluating the chauffeurs by the teeth philosophy Amma, my Icelandic grandmother (herself sporting falsies), adopted to adjudicate trusty characters. As toothy smiles chase optimistic attitudes, she may be onto something.

“So, where to boss?” inquired the chosen fang-man. An excellent question, where to indeed? Runners detest crowding, “Is there a park or area known for exercising, and if so, any chance of an inexpensive hotel close-by?” I wondered. “Yeah, there’s a place I see runners—let’s go.” He replied.

As we departed, under the grumble and splutter of an untuned engine, I thought I heard him mutter, “Let us drive to the Shady.”

The word caused me to reflect on the decision to enter this cab. Shady? It dawned upon me the taxi-man could be an ex-murderer.

Pictures of my dissected body in a Nairobi jungle might be the gory news of tomorrow’s papers — Went running with the Kenyans, did not run fast enough. Yikes, best not dwell on such notions.

Instead, I gazed out of the window, hoping to spot an elephant.

We pulled up at the hotel past 12:30 a.m., the name The Shade suited the joint perfectly. After a couple of long blasts on the horn, a hefty iron gate, surrounded by a thickset privet hedge hiding any viewing of the buildings, opened a sliver.  

A towering man in a gray trench coat strode forward, and wielding a club gripped in his hand, offered anything but a friendly welcome. I alerted the driver; was he aware of our impending doom?

“The stick, is it for decoration or an emblem of the hotel perhaps?” I asked, extremely concerned for my safety. The driver sniggered, “It’s a rungu. This man will direct you to the hotel’s reception.”

Snoring receptionist

Apparently, the threatening chap worked as the night watchman and clutched a Maasai cudgel, called a rungu. If he represented the good guy, what would the bad look like?

Cudgel man escorted me to a sparse room brightened by a naked light bulb, and I had to rattle the door handle to arouse the snoring receptionist.

Dorcas, wrestling a grossly undersized red nylon pantsuit, appeared unhappy at my impromptu arrival, retorting her regular guests had the courtesy to call in advance.

She shoved a dog-eared sign-in book across the counter as I inquired,
“Any runners residing near here? Maybe a chance of an introduction at breakfast?”

On Saturday: “Fortuitously, I stumble upon arguably the greatest distance running group on the globe.” An Odyssey of Mistakes, Machetes and Miracles is available at: