Running in Kenya, a Field Story


Ukalamukadze, Dave! Where did you run today?” My neighbor shouted from his doorway, holding a steaming cup of chai and motioning to join him on the open veranda in front of his house. “The footpath near the missionary graves,” I shot back. “Past Kaya Ribe, out to the road, and then back the same way.” “You know,” he paused, sipping from his cup of tea, “that was a caravan route from Mombasa long ago, wakati wa Waarabu.”

Long ago, “during the time of the Arabs,” is a common stand-in to refer to Mombasa in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Prior to the formation of the British East Africa Protectorate in 1895, Mombasa, a significant coastal city in modern Kenya, was administered by two successive Omani dynasties, the Mazrui and the Busaidi. During the nineteenth century, caravan routes, starting from Swahili-speaking urban centers like Mombasa, connected the coast of East Africa with trade centers far into the interior of eastern and central Africa. My usual running path, as it turns out, was a part of a much larger global story, related to the international market for ivory, slavery on coastal plantations, and East African’s own demands for foreign commercial goods.

I will admit, the caravan path in Ribe, a small town on a forested ridge in Mombasa’s immediate hinterlands, was one of the more interesting running routes that I traversed regularly while conducting fieldwork in Kenya between 2013 and 2014. Indeed, the two other place references described on the run above—missionary graves and Kaya Ribe—are hardly innocuous physical markers. Just two kilometers down the ridge from Ribe’s town center, the small overgrown graveyard is dominated by the tombstones of young Methodist missionaries who arrived in East Africa in the mid-1800s, but never lived long enough to see Kenya’s second oldest mission station develop into one of the coast’s most longstanding Christian communities. Kaya Ribe meanwhile is considered a “sacred grove forest” and is a prominent political and ritual center in local oral traditions. In 2008, the forest grove became part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

United Methodist Missionary Society graves at Ribe, photo by author.

United Methodist Missionary Society graves at Ribe, photo by author.

I am an historian of East Africa and I am also a runner. I ran in high school, I ran in college, and more recently I have taken my interest to long-long races on trails and in the mountains. Being a runner who also happens to travel regularly to Kenya elicits a lot of assumptions from friends and family members about the overlap between my intellectual and leisurely passions. Kenyan long-distance runners have dominated international track, cross country, and road race competitions since the early-1990s so that the association between running and Kenya is practically ubiquitous. But as I am always quick to emphasize to inquirers, the coast of Kenya is hundreds and hundreds of kilometers from Iten—a town in the Rift Valley that is often described as the distance running capital of the world. Running, as my common refrain went, had nothing to do with my research. Nevertheless, the more and more I ran during fieldwork, moving self-powered through the physical environment I was studying, I became aware that my daily runs were beginning to influence my research questions and project.

My dissertation focuses on coastal East Africa’s engagements with social and economic networks in the Indian Ocean world from the first millennium to the 1800s. I am specifically interested in the histories of societies who reside in the immediate hinterlands outside of Mombasa, Kenya (one of the oldest and most important economic hubs in the western Indian Ocean) and have historically rejected the cultural and economic norms most associated with coastal East Africa. The Swahili-speaking inhabitants of East African port cities, like Mombasa, were among the world’s earliest converts to Islam and played a crucial role in the growth of global commerce in the Indian Ocean. My research asks why communities immediately adjacent to Mombasa, despite developing out of the same ancestral linguistic groups as Mombasa’ residents and sharing intimate familiarity with Islam, did not convert to Islam, flock to urban centers, or push to participate more directly in the Indian Ocean world economy. Gaining an intimate familiarity with the environments inhabited by the Mijikenda-speaking communities that reside immediately outside of Mombasa, was therefore essential to the stories I sought to reconstruct. Even now, looking back over my fieldnotes, I can see how my personal experiences traversing the landscape intersected with the entry points of my research project.

Dirt road in Shimba Hills/Kwale on the coastal ridge southwest of Mombasa with Indian Ocean inlet in the distance, photo by author.

Dirt road in Shimba Hills/Kwale on the coastal ridge southwest of Mombasa with Indian Ocean inlet in the distance, photo by author.

Yesterday when I was running on the ridge it really dawned on me for the first time how much of the coast you can see: Mombasa, Bamburi Cement, the sisal plantation by Kilifi. Descending off the ridge, the coast and the Indian Ocean, felt so close. Like I was right on top of it.” Fieldnotes excerpt, 23 July 2014.

The proximity of different hinterland communities to the Indian Ocean and to each other were all brought into full relief on runs and helped me develop a repertoire of interview questions. Sometimes I asked about physical features I saw on the run—like how long a certain footpath had been in use or where a nearby creek terminates—and other times I ran to places that came up in interviews. As a scholar of the distant past whose primary evidence comes from comparative historical linguistics, I was not entirely concerned with the veracity of these stories. More so, I used the conversations to build mental maps and to visualize the ways people moved through the landscape. Imagining past activities and uses of the spaces I inhabited both as a runner and as a researcher, I hoped, could help inform my reading of various types of historical evidence.

One of my research interests, for example, focuses on social and economic exchanges between the earliest Bantu-speaking societies in the coast and autochthonous hunter-foragers. Limestone cliffs dotting the eastern edge of the coastal escarpment contain evidence of habitation by lithic-using groups during the first millennium and are located in close proximity to many modern communities. When interviewing people about the hunting lexicon in their language or the stories they had heard about hunter-foragers who lived long ago, I also learned about well-known rock formations, down a certain road or in a neighboring location. If located within a reasonable running distance, the places described to me in interviews became research destinations on their own. And so, I set off some mornings on “active fieldwork,” soliciting directions along the way to what were often only vaguely described locations, making mental notes about the landscape as I went. Linguistic data, oral traditions, and archaeological reports all yield important insights into relationships between different sociolinguistic groups in the distant past. However, getting out and physically moving between historical settlements enabled me to more effectively anchor these disparate types of evidence in place and to better conceptualize the interplay between different social actors within the landscape.

I make no claim that my interactions with the environments of Kenya’s coastal hinterlands as a runner replicate the ways that societies’ whose historical experience I study moved through similar geographies. Nevertheless, the work of an historian necessarily entails not only interpretation, but also a healthy dose of historical imagination. We build up the historical context of another time or place by reading texts or other primary sources, and creating detailed images of past events and actors. Although Kenya’s coastal hinterlands have changed greatly since even the most recent temporal depths of my study (which ends in the mid-1800s) my own contemporary movements (namely, running) still offer insight on the region’s historical landscapes.

Wasini limestone rocks in Kambe, photo by author.

Wasini limestone rocks in Kambe, photo by author.

In Ribe, I began each morning with a grunting climb up a narrow dirt road leading to the town center. I turned left just before Ribe Methodist Church and started to descend toward the low coastal plain along a hundreds-of-years-old path. Most houses in Ribe are clustered around the top of the ridge, but as you move off the escarpment and toward the coast, the slopes are also heavily cultivated and dotted with family-owned farm plots. After the descent begins a stretch of gently undulating terrain. I ran past the prominent forest grove that encompasses Kaya Ribe and across a small footbridge which crosses a rushing creek running through the kaya forest. Shortly after passing the kaya forest the terrain flattens out, leading into the low-coastal plain, just a short way from the Indian Ocean.

Oral traditions and documentary records from the nineteenth century include stories of travelers from Mombasa regaling the kaya’s leadership with gifts and heshima (literally meaning “respect” or “honor” in Swahili) for permission to pass through the area on their caravan journeys upcountry. Ribe’s geography did not just grant residents relatively easy contact with coastal traders. Within an easy walk, ancient settlers could access productive agricultural lands, catch and collect freshwater resources, and hunt and gather wild forest products. By traveling only slightly further afield, they could reach neighboring settlements, hunt larger game, or exploit the marine resources of Tudor or Mtwapa Creek. Running for me was yet another entry point to visualizing and reconstructing the past practices that likely unfolded within the larger environment surrounding places like Ribe, as well as other locations in Kenya’s coastal hinterlands. And so, each morning at six, I placed myself inside my research, one stride and then another.

Featured image: Kaye Ribe, Kenya. Photo by author, 2013.

David Bresnahan is a PhD candidate in African history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on coastal East Africa’s entanglements with the Indian Ocean world social and economic networks from the first millennium to the 1800s. He also sometimes runsContact.

8 Responses

  1. Dan Fourney says:

    Great read and keep running!

  2. Alex Ouma says:

    Well penned, Dave!

  3. Dave Thomas says:

    My wife and I were Peace Corps volunteers in Nakuru, Kenya from 1971-73. We completed 6 weeks of in-country training at Mombasa when we first arrived and often visited friends at the coast. It was a magical place. Thanks for bringing back some of the memories.

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