Jamuhuri Larumusi easily gets lost in the crowd of 1,200 people eager to run in the wild.
For many of the runners rubbing shoulders with him, the thought of pushing themselves to their physical limits, against the backdrop of undulating grassland and the odd chance that a lion may be lurking nearby, is a memory they will keep forever.
For Larumusi though, the run is more than just a race; more than the Facebook status updates or the obligatory Insta-stories. Before the starter pistol goes off, his muscles tighten, moving the beads on his barely clothed back closer together. For him, the Safaricom Marathon in Lewa means much more, the 21 kilometres between gun and tape offering a chance at redemption.
Larumusi runs with a group of fellow morans who have been preparing for this race for weeks. It is not about an individual finish for them, but a team victory.
“I was a wild person,” Larumusi says after the race, struggling to break a smile. The half marathon has left him a bit winded. Eventually though, after he has caught his breath, a smile lights up his face effortlessly.
“I was a champion rustler. That was my way of life. We were brought up taking even that which did not belong to us,” he says as he wipes sweat off his brow. “My targets came from different communities. I stole from the Somali, Pokot and also the Turkana communities. I fought with them everywhere we met.”
He might have left that life behind, but the scars on his body are a constant reminder of a tumultuous time. One of the scars, from a bullet, runs across his right thigh.
Next to him, his friends and former comrades listen, hanging on to each word.
“That is what the life of a Samburu moran was all about,” he says.
It’s almost impossible to picture Larumusi in the thick of things, running wild, gun in hand. It’s even harder to imagine someone outside his circle of brotherhood managing to convince him to abandon the age-old practice of cattle rustling for something far less exciting or prestigious.
But someone did, and Larumusi and his friends chose a path different to that of their forefathers. Their turning point was the intervention by the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT).
“Our message to the warriors and herders is simple,” says Tom Lalampaa, CEO – NRT. “We want them to know they can earn a living through other means. It is about them changing their mindsets.”
The Northern Rangelands Trust is a community-led, non-governmental organisation that was set up in 2004 in northern Kenya by a coalition of local leaders, politicians and conservation interests. Its mission is to develop resilient community conservancies that transform people’s lives, secure peace and conserve natural resources.
Set up in an area synonymous with the volatility that accompanies cattle raids, inter-community fighting and the constant fear of death and destruction, NRT had quite the job on its hands: how do you convince communities that have for centuries held on to their traditions, clinging to everything their culture represents including glory in cattle rustling, subduing rival communities and carrying away plunder?
It takes determination, and the ability to sell the idea of a better life. The idea that a shift in mindset could spark a transformation that promises a more secure future, a common thread that runs through the fabric of the friendship between Larumusi and his friends Ruso Jacob and Moses Lomuria.
Larumusi is a ranger at El Karama Conservancy while Lomuria works for Nasuulu Conservancy, another of the NRT partners.
The NRT currently has 35 member conservancies covering 4.5 million hectares across northern and coastal Kenya.
With support from donors, the organisation is empowering communities to develop locally led governance structures, run peace and security programmes, take the lead in natural resource management, and manage sustainable businesses linked to conservation.
“With their support, I do not need to go to the bush again,” Lomuria says.
Just like Larumusi’s, his smile is not about a nostalgic past, but rather a hopeful future.
A few weeks back, Lomuria won an inter-county half marathon that came with a highly coveted prize.
“I won a cow…just from running. A cow!”
His smile is infectious, and points to the regard with which livestock such as cows, goats, sheep and camels are held in the Samburu culture. The Samburu are highly dependent on their livestock for survival, with a diet comprising mostly of milk and meat, and wealth and respect linked closely to the size of men’s herds.
Which makes what NRT has achieved around here a pretty big deal, convincing young morans to abandon what could eventually lead to great wealth and respect within their communities, for a life of conservation – and a different kind of respect.
“I have a job now,” Larumusi says. “I run for peace.”
This peace that he and many other like-minded morans choose everyday has translated into something greater: financial empowerment.
Many of the reformed morans have pooled their earnings together to establish a SACCO, into which they all contribute a standard amount each month.
“The money I earn from SACCO dividends and my work as a peace ambassador has helped me grow and rebuild my life,” Lomuria says, adding that without this gentle push, their lives would undoubtedly have taken a different direction.
“I never finished school but now, I have a chance to save and go back. It may be late in the day, but the sun hasn’t set yet,” Ruso Jacob, another moran says.
“If Lomuria can get cows from running, not running away from anything or anyone, but just from running, then everything is possible,” he adds.
Individually they all have dreams and ambitions.
Ruso says he dreams of a day when peace will build a permanent house in his village. Not a manyatta that can be blown off by strong winds, or one whose structures will be folded up and moved at the slightest hint of a drought.
“I want to change the narrative of violence and conflict.”
Their head coach, Atoi Boru, a former 1,500 metres World Junior champion, is optimistic.
“It is time we use our legs for wealth,” he says. “After the races and after their legs stop aching, we sit down and work on ways of improving our livelihoods.”
This improvement is what they all seemed to be chasing as they ran, their strides making it look effortless, steps almost in perfect synch, eyes fixed on a spot in the horizon only they could see.
To those who knew their story, every exhaled breath seemed like an act of exorcism, like they were running away from the demons of their pasts towards the embrace of a much brighter future.