When Wesley Korir was a student at the University of Louisville, teammates and friends called him “the politician.” At track meets, he shook hands with competitors before races began. He did the same thing in the bleachers and at school events such as graduations.
That nickname was more prophetic than anyone realized.
On March 4, Korir, who is a member of Southeast Christian Church, won a seat in the Kenyan parliament, representing Cherangany County in the Rift Valley where he grew up. He ran as an independent, free from ties to any political party.
Running for office wasn’t on Korir’s to-do-list as he racked up wins in the Los Angeles and Boston marathons. Though living in Kentucky since 2004 when he got a college track scholarship, he never turned his back on the suffering in his hometown.
While at U of L, Korir worked in the facilities department, living on little so he could send money home to help his family.
When he began winning marathons, Korir and his wife Tarah set aside winnings and founded the Kenyan Kids Foundation to provide school fees for children in his village, help farmers like his father get better crop yields and fund the rebuilding of a hospital for the village. He bought an ambulance that provides free transport for emergencies. His goal is to expand the reach of the foundation throughout Kenya.
As he trained part of the year in Kenya, part in Louisville with Coach Ron Mann and part in Canada, he heard a new call to run a different kind of race.
Frustrated after trying to work with elected officials, Korir decided to run for parliament and represent the poor and disenfranchised in the government.
What he saw and experienced growing up in Cherangany County became his platform.
“I have seen their suffering,” Korir said. “I know the obstacles people face. My family struggled with school fees. If you can’t go to school, you have no hope for a better life. When I was 12, my brother died from a black mamba snake bite because my family could not get him to the hospital on time. These people need access to health care and they need empowerment.”
For three months, Korir, his wife Tarah and daughter McKayla campaigned around Kenya, meeting people face to face. Korir visited house to house, gave speeches in villages and preached in churches. He talked about his own story and how God has been with him through the journey.
“We often went to churches to preach and talk with Christians,” Korir said. “One thing that differentiated me from my competitors is the fact that in every one of my meetings, I talked about God and the importance of peace.”
Korir’s platform was equal distribution of government resources, unity of purpose, education for all, improved health care and empowerment of the poor.
On March 4, people began making their way to designated voting rooms set up in villages. As in the United States, each registered voter was given a ballot to take into the voting box.
Throughout the day, Korir prayed that the election would be peaceful. It’s not something he takes for granted.
In 2007, while visiting his family over Christmas, Korir was caught in post-election violence that erupted near his hometown.
He saw young men hacked to death with machetes and placed himself between a man on his knees and a gunman. The gunman fled.
Korir eventually reached safety in Uganda and returned to U of L, but that crisis strengthened his resolve to help those in Kenya who struggle to survive.
He thought often of the uncle and local priest who paid school fees so he could graduate from high school, of Olympic Gold medalist Paul Ereng, who helped him find a scholarship in Kentucky, and of Southeast member Ron Mann, who took him under his wing at U of L.
Korir found out about his victory for parliament on Facebook.
“The first thing I did was pray and thank God,” he said. “I went for a run, then joined my family and friends for singing and praising God.”
Korir will continue to run marathons.
“I believe helping the people of Kenya is my calling in life,” he said. “Running is my talent. I’m going to use both to serve God and my fellow Kenyans.”
As a member of parliament, Korir will work on legislation to improve the lives of Kenyans, budgetary allocations to provide funds for government operations, oversight of financial and administrative public institutions and helping constituents with pressing problems.
Korir will return to Louisville soon to train for the Boston Marathon on April 15.