The sporting population want to be runners. The majority of people are afraid of the water. Crocodiles,
hippopotami and sharks must be taken into consideration. Boats are something to go fishing in. To become a
rower in Kenya is no walk along the Thames.
Photo: © Kenyan Rowing Federation
Kenya’s top rower, Ibrihim Githaiga, is a
Navy corporal. Githaiga, a father of two,
holds his country’s indoor rowing record
and is currently working towards another
record – being the first Kenyan rower to
qualify for the Olympic Games.
Githaiga’s quest has taken him to
training camps in both South Africa and
Australia. Called a “natural boat mover”
by South Africa’s head coach, Christian
Felkel, Githaiga works regularly with
Kenya’s head coach Juvenalis Gitau.
Until recently, Githaiga has been training
in South Africa with the South African
national team. The first altitude training
camp is planned for the end of March at
Lessos Dam near Eldoret, Kenya.
Mombasa, where the Kenyan Rowing Association is based / Mombasa, au siège de l’Association d’Aviron du Kenya.
Kenya is best known for its wildlife and
world-class distance runners. Rowing is
about as recognised as a rainy day in the
desert and internationally Kenyan rowers
are yet to register on the sporting
barometer. But something is going on in
this East African nation. The sport is in
motion and has been making moves both
inside and outside the country.
But there have been a number of hurdles
in developing the sport. “Communities
that live in the desert are afraid of water
because they have never seen it except in
bore holes,” says Patwa. This has affected
people’s attitude to any kind of water
sport. On top of this some waterways are
unusable because they are far from
populated centres and under National Park
jurisdiction. Crocodile or hippopotami
presence can also be a deterrent.
But rowing development does not stop
there. Legendary runner, Dr. Kipchoge
Keino, is fostering the link between
running and rowing, both endurance
sports. Keino has suggested two altitude
training bases for rowing. Close to the
“running capital of the world,” Eldoret,
are two bodies of water with the
potential for rowing at altitude.
Rowing in Kenya goes back to the 1930’s
when British expatriates introduced the
sport to their social clubs. Its present
shape, however, is in its infancy. The
newly formed Kenyan Rowing
Federation is less than 10 years old, but
under the guidance of Federation
chairman Seifudin Patwa the infant is
developing into a child.
However, attracting locals to rowing
when running dominates the Kenyan
athlete mindset is complicated.
Becoming a top runner in Kenya literally
means being one of the fastest in the
world and top runners proliferate. It also
leads to lucrative sponsorship, fame and
fortune. So Patwa is focusing on
appealing to the next tier of runners.
“We literally have thousands of potential
The first rowers in singles on Mombassa’s harbour
carried knives. “In case of sharks.”
So far the checklist of accomplishments is
impressive. These include securing a fleet
of boats, holding two national indoor
rowing championships and qualifying a
home-grown coach. The sport has also
gained publicity for the first solo row
across Lake Victoria – the world’s second
largest lake – and the federation is gearing
up to qualify their first rowing
representative for the Olympic Games.
Rowers mainly come from Kenya’s Navy.
“They’re fit and they’ve got a lot of free
time,” says Patwa. Initially the Navy marine
divers were singled out for their ability to
deal with danger. Patwa describes how the
first rowers in singles on Mombassa’s
harbour carried knives. “In case of sharks,”
he adds matter-of-factly. The Navy’s
commitment to rowing has since made
Mombassa the hub of Kenyan rowing and
spawned their most accomplished rower.
world-class runners in the vicinity of
Eldoret,” says Patwa, “so we are aiming
for the second and third level runners
who may not make it to the top.”
Patwa continues to look towards the
future: qualifying for the Olympics this
year is just one step in the plan to nurture
Kenyan rowing out of its infancy.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” says
the African proverb.