WEST KENYA – Her name is Mama Chiri (pronounced cheery) in these parts.
Her arms are tanned with the Kenyan sun, and her feet – most often clad in flip-flop sandals – are stained with red dirt.
She’s a wisp of a woman; the only ounce of extra weight on her athletic frame is her five-month pregnant belly.
Tarah Korir is a runner, most recently having competed in Japan on a six-person marathon relay team. After graduating high school in her native Canada, the now 25-year-old received several scholarship offers. She chose the University of Louisville, and a young Kenyan chose her.
“I said no the first time,” she recalled about meeting her husband. “He chased me.”
Wesley Korir has a winning record. The world-class athlete has won the Los Angeles marathon twice and the Boston marathon last year. And, he won the girl too.
Tarah, the eldest daughter of two schoolteachers, was raised taking family camping trips and inventing an improvised version of water skis with her sister. Those family experiences helped prepare for her Kenyan life.
Living in her husband’s village in Cherangany is much like camping, said Tarah as she spoke of the village children’s innovations with an expression of respect.
“There is none like Tarah,” said Lydia as she watched her young sister-in-law talk with a crowd of women in a different village in Cherangany.
Tarah places public speaking as one of her worst fears in another life – the western one, but here in the Kenyan rhythm of giving school scholarships to struggling students and being a mother to a young bilingual child as well as a wife to an internationally known marathoner and village hero – she addresses hundreds of women and even more children in a language not her own: Swahili.
“Tarah is African,” is a sentiment shared by many of the villagers in her adopted home in the Rift Valley.
The Canadian native visited Kenya for the first time in 2007. She arrived with Wesley and a church group that stayed near Nairobi, about six hours from Cherangany. Two years later, Tarah visited the Korir family home in the village of Biribiriet alone.
“I wanted to see if I could see myself living here,” said Tarah, adding that the visit alone took away the buffer Wesley provided when it came to communicating since her mother-in-law speaks little English.
The immersion worked. In 2010, Tarah and Wesley got married on a date that neither remembered last year. From the beginning, the couple’s world revolved around the Kenyan Kids Foundation, which Wesley founded four years ago.
“I knew I wanted to help people,” said Wesley about co-founding the foundation with his wife in 2010. “For me to do what I’m doing, I need a good wife. I’m very impressed (by Tarah). I’m very thankful.”
Instead of wedding gifts, the newlyweds requested donations to the nonprofit organization. Tarah said she and her husband didn’t need a bunch of stuff to move and store since their lives involve constant travel.
The young family divides its time between Kenya, Canada and the United States on a schedule mostly dictated by Wesley’s professional running career.
In recent months, Tarah has assumed more responsibility for the foundation and spends considerable time sorting through hundreds of applications for secondary school scholarships. It’s a serious matter, and one she doesn’t take lightly. Her youthful face is often pursed in thoughtful concentration as she inputs student application information (often written on paper or entered into notebooks by family members) into her laptop.
With two or three Kenyan men looking over Tarah’s shoulder at any one moment, murmurs of Swahili reverberate off the walls of her mother-in-law’s home as they pore over words, numbers and stories.
In Cherangany bush, everyone has a story to tell.
With school fees due soon, Tarah is pressured to continue typing scholarship information into her computer, while village residents enter one at a time to present their financial needs.
An old woman with large holes in her ears speaks to Timothy Kibungei, one of the young men helping Tarah. “She says she is poor and doesn’t have anything,” he said. There is no money to give today, though, and so he gives her his cellphone number to call later. She leaves and another woman enters.
“There’s a misconception among Kenyans that we are able to help everybody,” said Tarah. “We physically cannot help everybody.”
It’s difficult to decide which students get the limited scholarships. A student may fall below the criteria created by the foundation, but if they are an orphan, they’ve had additional stress, which could have an impact on their studies. There are no black and white lines in Cherangany.
Everywhere Tarah goes there are more scholarship applicants. A pastor hands her a pile of applications when she visited his nursery school, which the foundation sponsors. More villagers waited for her at the foundation’s tiny office. And always there was a parent or a student pleading their case.
The foundation has about 15 school scholarships to give this term, and the number of applications far outweighs the available funds. In a nearby village one evening while visiting the home of a student who applied, men, women and children gathered close, some asking: “Why haven’t you helped my child?”
On another morning, across from Tarah, in Pastor Luke Kiptoo’s sitting room, are a mother and her daughter. They cannot afford the secondary school fees, much less the required uniform, books and exam costs.
“I’m telling them that just because we can’t help them now doesn’t mean we can’t help them later,” said Tarah. It’s a message she gives often.
It’s that “later” that keeps Tarah up nights. She admits that sometimes her mind is overrun by fundraising ideas to enhance the foundation’s financial resources. She’s often forced out of bed to write down her thoughts on her donated iPhone or laptop.
“When it’s out of my mind, then I can sleep,” said the expectant mother.
Chiri is an abbreviation of her 2 ½-year-old daughter’s Swahili middle name: Chepchirchir. The little girl is rarely called by her first name, Mckayla, in the village.
While Tarah handles the endless scholarship requests, Chiri plays with village children, but on a recent afternoon the little girl wanted fruit and only her mother could get it for her. Tarah went to find an orange.
Parenting is different in the village than in Tarah’s Canadian homeland, and it took her a while to get used to the independence of children. The older kids take care of the younger ones, she explains. The village is the little girl’s playground, and her cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents are her playmates.
Tarah said she worries about things like her half-Kenyan daughter not remembering English, but her concern is eased when westerners visit and Chiri responds to the English questions in Swahili, or speaks English to the visitors, even though the youngster “thinks if you’re in Kenya, you speak Swahili,” recalled Tarah with a laugh.
“I was Skyping with my sister and Chiri told her the same stories I had, but in Swahili, so at least I know she understands,” said Tarah, adding that her daughter’s Swahili vocabulary is surpassing her own.
In the evenings when the vehicles carrying Wesley and other villagers home, mother and daughter sit on the grassy knoll that overlooks the village road. “She likes watching the lights,” said Tarah about the little girl’s pastime.
In an African culture galvanized by tribal lines (there are 42 of them), Tarah is a symbol of unity in her adopted homeland. Tribal barriers can be broken. After all, “if Wesley can marry a mzungu, then we can all work together,” she said.
Together, the couple works together in balance to achieve what Wesley dreams.
“I’m a big dreamer,” said Wesley. “And she’s the one who has to take the little steps to get to the big dream. Without her, my big dream would never happen.”
There’s a “clashing point,” he said, between his big dreams and her realism, and “sometimes we get frustrated with each other because of our different ways of doing things, but we’re always able to come to an agreement.”
The western-educated visionary commends his wife for adapting to the slow Kenyan pace after being raised in a home where everything was planned and organized.
“She used to be the person to test the temperature (of the water) before she jumps,” said Wesley. “Now she just jumps with me.”
Read about how the Kenyan Kids Foundation funds Cherangany education
Read about the Kenyan Kids Foundation supports Cherangany agriculture
To learn more about the Kenyan Kids Foundation, click here.