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Grand Kenyans

Former Olympic Star Keino and His Wife Have Taken In More Than 100 Children and Given Them Hope

February 25, 2001|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four years later, at the Munich Games, Keino and Ryun met again in the Olympic 1,500--but, for a series of complex reasons, in the same first-round heat, not in the final. In one of the most poignant scenes ever to play out on an Olympic track, Ryun tripped on the heel of Uganda's Vitus Ashaba and fell.

Keino went on to take silver in the 1,500. As a challenge, he had also entered the 3,000-meter steeplechase. He won the gold medal, setting an Olympic record.

The worldwide reach of television made Keino famous. As the colonial era was dissolving, he and Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila, who had won the 1960 Olympic marathon while running barefoot through the streets of Rome, became arguably the most famous faces in sub-Saharan Africa--symbols of what Africans could accomplish. Bikila died in 1973. Keino remains one of the most recognizable African names in the United States. He is president of Kenya's national Olympic committee; last year, he was made an IOC member.

But, Keino said while driving recently in his beat-up Nissan around the vast tea plantations in western Kenya, not once did he ever think of parlaying his fame into fortune in the United States or Europe.

"I live here," he said. "I stay here. This is my country. I was born here and I will die here."

Family Man

When he came home to Kenya from the 1972 Olympics, Keino had four Olympic medals. By the end of that year, he and Phyllis would have eight children in their house.

Three had been born to them. Phyllis said she found the others queuing for food in front of a police station. A nurse, she told her husband that the children needed them. He agreed. "I feel the humanity of being a human being," he says now.

Thus was launched what is now the Kip Keino Children's Home. Since 1984, the home has been officially registered with the Kenyan government.

If they are old enough to remember, Phyllis said, the children who come to the Keino house typically have a horrifying tale to tell: They were abandoned. Or one or both parents died of AIDS. Or they were born to a mentally disabled woman who was unable to care for children.

Some stories, Phyllis said, are worse, relating the tale of a woman who got so drunk she beat her mother-in-law to death, whereupon the woman's husband beat her to death, whereupon the husband then killed himself with insecticide. Left behind were seven children. "I took four girls," then ages 12, 6, 3 and 6 months, Phyllis said.

The current Keino child count is 82, Phyllis said.

Half, however, are no longer living under the same roof with Kip or Phyllis. They are off at area boarding schools--essentially high school--or away at college.

Of the others, 18 live at the first farm Phyllis and Kip bought. It is called "Kazi Mingi," Swahili for "a lot of work." About 200 acres, it is dominated by a ranch-style house that features several additions designed more or less around long hallways off which are scattered rooms big enough to hold multiple numbers of bunk beds.

If not for Kip and Phyllis, "I would be somewhere else or maybe I would have died," said Alice Cheruto Keino, now 16. She adds that she now has ambitions: "I'd like to go to the army."

"I want to be a lawyer," said Nancy Waithera Keino, 13.

"A doctor," said Ruth Cherotich Keino, 13.

Twenty-three more live at the Keino's second farm, dubbed "Baraka," Swahili for "blessing." Five of these 23 kids are nursery school-aged. All 23 live in a dormitory-style building on the grounds; when the older kids go off to school, the younger ones study their ABCs or their numbers in a makeshift classroom in the dorm.

Baraka was bought in 1989 for the Children's Home through a Swiss priest stationed in Eldoret. The idea was Phyllis'. She wanted more land in order to grow more food for the children and to generate income for the Home.

The site, however, is problematic. Rainfall in the area is unpredictable. And the land itself was flat and treeless.

It took the better part of 10 years to make the land productive. Key financial backing came from Virginia-based Bread and Water for Africa, an affiliate of a nonprofit organization called Christian Relief Services. Manpower came from a Dutchman with a farming background, Jos Creemers; he moved to Kenya and took over day-to-day operation of the land.

Now Baraka is ringed with trees and boasts a reservoir. It even looks like a farm--with a herd of 120 Holsteins as well as a barn, feedlots, a milking station and, off the main house, a garden with fruits and vegetables.

Not all is rosy, however. In some ways farming at Baraka is evocative of the miseries many farmers encountered in taming the American West. Last year, for instance, Creemers said, half the corn crop was stolen.

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