Slightly over 21 years ago, Henry Wanyoike lost his eyesight after a stroke. But then things started looking up for him when he took to the athletic tracks and they have never stopped. He is the current holder of three world records in 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and full-marathon paralympics. He founded The Henry Wanyoike Foundation that helps raise funds (and empower) for vulnerable children and youth. In 45 days, he will be running in another “Seeing is Believing” Standard Chartered Marathon where he is the goodwill ambassador and has run over 15,000 kilometres. In his spare time, he loves to plant trees. “Our existence as human beings depend on trees in many ways.”
He met JACKSON BIKO at Deli, the coffee shop at Sankara Nairobi.
Do you find that people treat you better because of your visual impairment or because you are a celebrity?
I think people treat me better because of my success. When you are successful everybody wants to be associated with you. You owe it to them to be humble, respectful and down-to-earth because it’s the same people who make you who you are. I also think that most people have stopped seeing my disability but now focus more on the good work I do.
I’m training for this year’s marathon as an uber athlete. What kind of advice would you give someone like me?
If you have new shoes, don’t run the marathon in them! New shoes cause serious blisters, so you have to “break” them first by running in them for at least a month before the marathon. Go with your pace during training and during the marathon, don’t race with people, race with only your time. Don’t forget to stretch before and after the run. Lastly, you see those water points during marathon? Always pick a bottle of water there to drink, even if it’s a sip. Hydration is very important. I will be leaving in a few days for the Vienna Night Run and then the Cologne Marathon a few weeks after that, so I’m training and hydrating.
Running must have been very lucrative for you…
It needs a lot of determination, discipline and sacrifice. I’m proud that you cannot talk about sports of people with disability without mentioning the name Henry Wanyoike. Being a role model in this way is a great thing. I have visited over 700 schools to give talks and give hope to young people who feel hopeless. I find that very lucrative.
Do you remember the dreams you had before you lost your eyesight?
My dream was to become a world champion in athletics. At that time I was already running for my school teams and very good in 5,000m. I used to go all the way to the national levels. When I lost my sight in 1995, I was so disappointed and I thought it would never happen. Three years after that I picked myself up and got to work; rehabilitation and what not. Then I started running and it was tough in the beginning, I fell down so many times, you can see from the scars on my hands. (Chuckles). But I stuck to it and I’m proud of myself because being a world champion is not so easy.
Did you meet your wife before or after you lost your sight?
(Chuckles) We met after.
How did you meet?
We met in 2001 during my training at Nyayo National Stadium. I had gone to a phone booth to call my guide who was late. This was before we had mobile phones. She had just finished calling and so I requested her to help me make that call.
How did you know that, ‘I want to marry this one’?
Initially, she didn’t seem like she wanted to help me, I had to convince her. She kept asking me; how did you come here? Who brought you here? But later she helped me. Then I asked her out for a cup of tea— there’s a café near there. After that I gave her a phone-booth number she would call and she also gave me a phone booth number I would call. (Laughs) Then we became friends!
I’m curious. I once interviewed someone who is visually impaired and she touched my face and described me. Can you describe your wife to me?
(Laughs) I can’t tell you exactly how she looks like but I know she is a good lady because she always takes care of me. I also know she is brown in complexion and is a bit taller than me. I also had to ask her what she looks like at some point...
Wait, can you tell what complexion I am? Here, touch the back of my hand and tell me...
(Touches feels my skin) You are black. (Laughs). When you lose one sense your other senses get better. So from the texture of your skin I can tell your complexion...I can tell that my two sons looks like me. We have four children, two who belong to me, one that my wife had in a previous relationship and one who we adopted.
I think you being visually impaired has come with so many blessings. You have done so much…
I move to churches, to organisations, to schools… telling people that you should be proud of the way you are. You need to appreciate whatever you have. We need to thank God and be grateful and always take the challenges you are going through in a positive way.
If you were told that you had an hour of sight what would you want to see?
The first thing I’d love to see is my wife. (Chuckles). Then I’d love to see my own children and then these 10,000 children we have supported under ‘Seeing is Believing’ programme. I would want to see the difference I’ve made to these children. Then I would want to see the 80 children I’m taking care of under my foundation. I think my hour would be over after that…(Laughs).
Choose between fame or fortune.
If you are seated across the table talking to someone, can you tell if they are wearing a sad face?
Yes and if they are smiling or not. I can also tell if you are sad if you speak. The voice is very important. I decide to open to somebody the first 30 seconds of meeting them. When you stood up and pulled a chair for me when I came in I knew you were a good person. There are some small things people do without realising that shows what kind of people they are, and we— people with visually impairment— note them a lot.