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Sometimes it takes a tragedy. It shouldn’t have to, of course, but history has so often shown that meaningful change only occurs when society gets sufficiently angry about an injustice.
In October, Mary Ngugi was on her way back to Kenya following a third-place finish at the Boston Marathon when her world was turned upside down. On a layover in Doha, Qatar, a friend asked her if she had heard the news.
“What?” she asked back.
“Agnes is dead.”
A month earlier, Agnes Tirop had broken the world 10K record on the road, clocking 30:01 at a race in Germany. But on October 13th, the 25-year-old was found stabbed to death at her home in Iten, Kenya. Tirop’s husband, Ibrahim Rotich, fled the town and was arrested the following night near Mombasa, arraigned on suspicion of murder. Local police said a confession letter was found at the couple’s home, allegedly written by him.
Among the outpouring of grief that followed, there was also rage. Female athletes in Kenya took to social media to vent about gender-based violence. Ngugi was among them, but as she came to terms with Tirop’s death, she decided it couldn’t stop there.
The 32-year-old had long wanted to make a difference for her countrywomen, but she never quite knew how.
“After Agnes, I said, ‘This is it.’”
She and Tirop knew each other but they weren’t close. Tirop was primarily a track runner who was based in Iten, Ngugi a road runner who lives about 150 miles away in Nyahururu. The two exchanged greetings when they crossed paths, aware and respectful of each other’s achievements.
In the days after Tirop’s death, Ngugi had dozens of conversations with athletes in Kenya and abroad, which resulted in her creating the Women’s Athletic Alliance. On its website, its stated mission is to “provide essential assistance for athletes suffering from domestic abuse, whilst offering mentorship and guidance to up and coming female athletes.”
Domestic violence is an issue everywhere, but Ngugi believes it’s especially prevalent in Kenya.
“It’s something that happens almost every day,” she says. “It’s not just athletes, it’s everywhere. When you see how women are treated here, even in public, it’s not the same. It’s completely different.”
Ngugi knows how deep the inequality runs, though she counts herself lucky to have parents who treated her just the same as her brothers. She grew up in Kikuyu, outside Nairobi, and first tried competitive running at the age of 16. Back then, going to races on weekends was a nice alternative to farm work, and her talent quickly showed despite her doing no training.
At 17, she left home to join a running camp and though her parents supported the idea, her uncles were against it, telling her father not to let her go. She went anyway, developing into one of the world’s most promising distance runners in her late teens and early 20s. After taking a couple of years out to become a mother, she returned to running in 2012 and focused mainly on the roads thereafter, netting podium finishes at some of the world’s most prestigious races.
When she looks at the landscape for female athletes in Kenya today, she sees pitfalls at every turn, many of them due to men who enter women’s lives early in their careers with promises of financial assistance.
“That’s how you get into this, how they start controlling you,” she says. “Because these girls are young, they start brainwashing them and when you start performing, they make it (so) your self-esteem is too low (to walk away). There’s been cases of coaches sleeping with the girls and threatening them: ‘If you leave this camp, I will do this to you.’”
With the Women’s Athletic Alliance, Ngugi plans to visit schools and training camps, warning girls of the red flags that could signal toxic relationships. She also wants to empower them, giving them the confidence and skillset to make their own decisions about their careers and finances.
“These men have made them believe they can’t do it by themselves,” she says.
Another goal is to tell stories about female athletes from East Africa, amplifying their voices to the world.
“The more we celebrate women, the more we give them confidence so they believe in themselves,” she says. “When someone starts believing in themselves, it’s hard for someone to control them.”
Ngugi received hundreds of messages of support from around the world after starting the initiative, but the depth of the issue was highlighted by the pockets of criticism, with one man telling her to retire and another arguing that supporting a woman financially makes her his property. After going back and forth on that subject, Ngugi soon followed a friend’s advice to ignore him.
Then there was the silence of male Kenyan athletes, which persisted as so many of their female counterparts voiced their anger about gender-based violence.
“Everybody was talking about Agnes but they were silent,” says Ngugi. “They all knew her, they had been to the Olympics with her. I’d love to see more men, especially the athletes in Kenya, talk about this but they’re not, which makes me mad. They feel we are attacking them, but we are not.”
As she looks to the future, Ngugi has many goals. As an athlete, she wants to win a Marathon Major, break 2:20, and compete at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
“It sounds like those goals are big but I know I can do it,” she says. “Nothing is impossible if you work hard and believe in yourself.”
That same philosophy underpins her mission outside of running. Now that she’s started a movement, where does she hope to see it end?
“More equality,” she says. “I’d like these women to feel we are equal, that the guy doesn’t make me feel like I’m less of a human, or that we cannot be heard.”
And if Ngugi achieves her goal, the tragic end to Agnes Tirop’s life could ultimately signal a new beginning for her countrywomen.
“Yes, we are mad about what happened, but this is not just about her,” she says. “Tirop is gone, she will never come back, and (now) it’s to prevent that happening to other girls.”
This profile was first published in the Winter 2022 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Women Who Lead: Power Women of 2022” which celebrates 15 women who are reshaping the running industry for the better. You can see the full list of honorees here.