Paul Tergat crosses the finish line in Berlin (Lisa Coniglio) © Copyright
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Paul Tergat: Ambassador against hunger

Kenya’s Paul Tergat set one of the most outstanding World records last year when he became the first man to run a marathon under 2 hours and 5 minutes but his biggest challenge may yet have to come. Recently appointed as the United Nations World Food Programme ambassador Tergat is set for the most important battle of his life, the one against hunger in the world. By Bob Ramsak

Paul Tergat knows about the importance of a warm meal. Which is precisely why he’s approaching his recent appointment as a World Food Programme (WFP) Ambassador Against Hunger with the same level of seriousness as he is with training for this summer’s Olympic Games.

Long before he could even dream about his five World Cross Country championship titles, his pair of Olympic silver medals and his World record run in the marathon, Tergat faced a daily struggle for survival confronted by millions around the world - wondering where there next meal would come from.

"My Dad wasn't a rich man and he was quite old but the only thing he knew was that he wanted for us to go to school," explained Tergat, recalling his youth in a family of 17 children in the dry expanse of Kenya’s Rift Valley. "But it was very difficult to go every day because there was nothing to eat.  Most of the kids didn't want to go to school because they were more interested in trying to get food, so we used to stay behind to look after the animals.” But droughts would often kill his family’s meager herd of livestock. “I grew up in a very humble background. It was very difficult for us to go to school. Life was very difficult. Poverty was rampant in our area.”

That changed 25 years ago when the WFP began a meal distribution program in the Rift Valley’s schools, Paul’s among them, giving an entirely new meaning to his three mile trek to school.

“We were really excited to get a free hot meal,” Tergat vividly recalls. “It was one of the motivating factors that pushed up class attendance and enrolment. At school, we were served with maize and beans. At the time, we could not find this kind of food at home.” When the program was instituted, it was viewed as nothing less than a minor miracle in his drought and poverty-stricken area.

"When this WFP came, it was a relief to most of the parents to know that the kids wouldn't be around hungry and crying all day,” Tergat said. “My Mum was so excited. And it was the best incentive for us to know when we got to school we would get a meal of hot, steamy food. We didn't miss a single day."

The program had a life-changing impact on the young Tergat. "Getting the food when I was in primary school really helped me a lot to go ahead and realize my dreams,” he said. “I think without this motivation to go to school a lot of us would have dropped out. It is hard to concentrate on an empty stomach.”

Now, Tergat wants to give something back.

“There is a lot of hunger in this world and a lot of children are dropping out of school,” he said. “I feel I have an obligation to give something back to the community.” In his new Ambassadorial role, Tergat plans to focus most of his involvement with awareness raising and efforts to secure the fund needed to ensure that the UN Agency’s programs are not eliminated. In 2002, the WFP provided school meals for nearly 16 million children in 64 countries, with a goal of reaching 32 million by the end of next year, and 50 million by 2007. More than one million children have benefited in Kenya alone since its inception in the late 1970’s. Despite it’s critical role, funding shortages in Kenya last year threatened the program’s very survival. Early indications this year saw an improvement, but WFP has warned that the program is still very much at risk.

“The main thing is raising awareness and funds for the school-feeding programme,” Tergat said. “I am happy that many people around the world have been following what I am doing. And I think my contacts and image around the world would have a big impact in supporting this programme.” Tergat added that he will be working closely with the Agency’s offices in Rome and elsewhere “and will be involved in fund-raising to ensure that the programme is sustained for a long time.”

He hopes to play a key role in keeping the program viable at home where there is a great deal at stake. According to the WFP, Kenya ranks 51st of the 61 African countries in household food security. While 43 percent of the population lives in absolute poverty, those living in the arid and semi-arid regions of the country are even more vulnerable to food insecurity. The country, the agency says, remains disaster-prone.

“The immediate thing I would like to do is to support WFP fund-raising campaigns to save the school-feeding programme in Kenya,” he said. “We need to approach governments, organizations, individuals and other sponsors to ensure that the programme does not collapse.”

The global fight to end hunger is a daunting and complicated one, but Tergat, as he has so often proved in competition, is up to the task.  Indeed, challenges seem to come naturally.

“It is a very challenging [task], but not impossible. Most of my adult life, I have handled many responsibilities.” Tergat has actively supported efforts to bring basic health care and clean water to his childhood community. He has helped provide scholarships for local youth. This new role, he said, “Will help to push further what I have been doing in my own small way.”

Tergat cannot stress enough the importance of a program that costs only nine US cents per meal.

“Without this programme, many of us would not have had any formal education,” he said. “It made me realize my true dreams. Now I have strength, abilities and the literacy I need to look after myself.”

During regular visits to schools in marginalized areas of Kenya, Tergat has already noticed a stark contrast to the situation he remembers from his younger years.

“I see that they have a great future. Most of them are still very young, but they have faith and dreams. When you talk to these children, you can see that they have determination to succeed. They want to be pilots, doctors and engineers. This programme will help to fulfill those dreams.”

“Paul is a natural advocate for the WFP," said the agency’s executive director James T. Morris. "Few people are better qualified to explain how food aid can transform the lives of the world's 300 million chronically hungry children. It is a wonderful thing when people like Paul dedicate a part of their lives to help give kids a chance.”

Through his personal experience and knowledge of issues related to hunger, Tergat also adds keen insights that others may not possess.

“This programme has helped many children to develop a focus in their lives,” Tergat believes. “Without the food, they will lose the focus and return to hopelessness. A meal a day really helps to keep that focus. In other parts of the world, people talk of three or four meals a day. We need to raise the awareness that there are kids out there who don't have anything to eat.” Illustrating the clear link between hunger and literacy, Tergat knows that one cannot come without the other. “Without education, there is no progress in any country. Illiteracy should be kicked out of this world completely. The future of this world is in these children we are trying to keep in school. In many rich countries, people don't know about this programme. I am therefore a shining example of how one school meal a day can transform the life of a hungry child.”

“The food gave me a lot of strength and willpower. Without it,” he concluded, “I don't know if I would have achieved what I have achieved today.”

Published in IAAF Magazine Issue 1 - 2004