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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Wesley Korir twice left his native Kenya, figuring he was looking at his homeland for the last time. The 2012 Boston Marathon winner returned to Louisville last week, and told his story to a group at Crescent HIll Baptist Church on Saturday, unfolding a tale of faith and adventure.
When Korir first departed Kenya, for a track scholarship at Murray State in 2003, he thought he probably was leaving for good.
"I remember telling God, Hallelujah," Korir said. "I've left the poverty land. I'm going to the land of riches. In my heart and head, I never thought I would go back."
He had never seen an airplane up close, only looked up on his daily runs to see them fly high overhead. When he arrived in Paris on his way to Kentucky, he was stranded for four days because he missed his connection. He'd never seen an escalator, and got himself caught in an endless loop in the airport, riding up and then down again.
In 2007, having transferred to the University of Louisville after Murray disbanded its track and cross country programs, he went back to Kenya to visit and got stuck when violence broke out after a national election. He saw killing and, for a short time, was conscripted into a roving gang. He escaped through Uganda, where he spent a fortnight as a refugee.
"As I was going across the border," he said, "I looked at my cousin, who had to go back, and told him, bye bye. I won't see you again. I'm going to America and I'm going to be in America forever. That's what my heart was saying. But let me tell you, God had a different idea. When I said that, I believe God in heaven was laughing."
Korir broke into a smile himself talking about what happened during the next election season in Kenya. Five years after his escape, Korir found himself again in Kenya at election time. But this time, he was not an observer, he was a candidate. Korir unseated a wealthy longtime incumbent and became the first independent candidate ever elected to parliament, representing the Cherangany region.
"Until September of last year, I never thought of going into politics," Korir said. "By November, something started tingling. I told my wife, let's pack and go. Let's go to Kenya and get into politics. She asked me, are you sure? I wasn't sure. I had only three months to campaign. . . . But after winning the election, the celebration didn't last long. I got home and realized, there's work to be done."
Korir remains an elite runner. He's training for the New York Marathon in November. He felt the bomb blast from the Boston Marathon last April, while taking a shower after the race. He busied himself for hours accounting for all of his fellow Kenyan runners in the race. But in addition to his running, he's also on a political mission.
He's been involved in humanitarian efforts in his home country for several years. He helped build a hospital in his hometown. His Kenyan Kids Foundation pays for kids to go to school, and has expanded into establishing preschools in churches, because so many Kenyan children never get started on the path to going to school. The foundation pays the tuition of students, and also pays the salaries of teachers.
That wasn't enough for Korir, however. And now that he is seated in parliament, he has consulted with experts to determine that the best thing he can do for his constituency is deliver clean water.
"For fifty years, since our independence, this has remained a problem," Korir said. "I want to find solutions."
"Water is medicine," Korir said. "If you can get water, you get rid of 80 percent of our diseases. That's why water is the song I am going to sing for the next five years. I'll get money from the government. And I'll put as much money as possible in water projects. But it won't be enough. That's why I will partner with people. Every dollar people give us in our area, I'm going to match it."
It's why he was back in Louisville. Here, working with Dr. Bill Smock, physician for the Louisville Metro Police Department, and others, Korir has been working to make partnerships. He spoke Saturday at a fundraiser for MedWater, a start-up Louisville-based nonprofit that partners with existing medical humanitarian groups to make water purification and distribution a part of their efforts.
Beyond that, Korir came to get training in repairing water pumps.
"About 20 years ago, a Swedish group came in and drilled wells in every village," Korir said. "They put in pumps and they left. After a year or two, they all broke down. For 15 years or more, most of those pumps did not produce water."
During a recent trip to Kenya, Smock and others repaired five wells in a week, to huge celebrations in the villages. Armed with the knowledge he picked up here on repairing wells, Korir hopes to be able to repair them in Kenya, then establish training sessions to teach others to maintain and repair the wells. Beyond that, he's looked to tap into Louisville Water Company expertise in helping local people hook into a Chinese water pipeline running through several communities.
It's just one area of his plan. In general, he said, he wants to address the causes of problems, not just the problems themselves.
"Whatever we do, antibiotics, anything, it wears off. And they go back to drinking the dirty water," Korir said. "You can send teams in, again and again, but they will see the same people, over and over. . . . To fight poverty in Kenya, maybe we're not touching the right place, maybe we're not finding the right people. That's why I have offered myself as a way to find solutions. Let's find the cause of the problems, and then take that out. Then we will have changed Kenya. It's like cutting a bush. If you cut it down from the top, it grows back. We need to go to the roots."
Korir's story continues to take remarkable turns. After arriving at the University of Louisville to little fanfare, his aspirations are reaching to the highest levels of Kenyan politics. He said on his recruiting trip to U of L, new coach Ron Mann had been on the job for only one day and didn't even have an office, just a table and chair in a hallway. Where other schools had sent fancy cars to get him, Korir said he got to Louisville and had to take a bus to campus.
"It's the only time in America I ever took a bus," he said. "I got to campus and didn't know where to go. It seemed like we spent all night looking for a Holiday Inn on Crittenden Drive. But coach Mann told me he wanted to make me the best person I could be -- not the best runner, but best person. That's all I needed to hear."
Today, the 31-year-old is married to Tarah Korir, a native of Canada and fellow runner from U of L, and has two children. The entire family made the trip to Louisville last week. He says he's using his current term in parliament to see how effective he can be.
"I'm testing to see if I'm really capable of changing Kenya," Korir said. "I have five years to learn and accomplish something, and then there are elections again. My goal, my ambition really, in the next ten years, is to run for the presidency of Kenya."
For those familiar with Korir, it won't be surprising if that's a race he winds up winning.