Being a Good Friend: Practices of Borrowing and Lending Money Among Kenyan Runners in Japan

30 July, 2015 by Michael Peters

Kenyans dominating in an autumn 10,000 meter showdown at dusk in the magical mist

The Real Action is not on the Track

In a Tokyo suburb on the last Saturday in November, with afternoon showers knocking the remnants of autumn leaves off the maple and gingko trees, an unheralded track meet was held on a local university campus. After the rain receded, a magical mist hovered over the foliage, track, and infield adding to the allure and legend this meet has for avid track-and-field fans willing to make the trek in inclement weather. One can stand as close as Lane 3 on the curves, free of admission, and watch some of the top ranked distance runners in the world duke it out on a tartan track situated on the back-end of this suburban hilly college campus. Typical track meets are promoted, often charge an entrance fee, and run over a period of several days with a full schedule of short, middle distance, and long distance running events in addition to a multitude of jumping and field disciplines. In this case, in contrast, only one event was scheduled: the men’s 10,000-meter race. There were six heats to be contested, featuring an average of twenty Japanese corporate and university runners, usually paced by one Kenyan runner. The final and highest seeded "A" heat was to be held before dusk. Between the sounding of the gun when the track is still amply lit by sunlight and the time the runners cross the finish line approximately twenty-seven minutes later (well within Olympic and World Championship "A" standard qualifying times), the sun will have set and the track will have been illuminated by the bright stadium lights. It is in this "A" heat where over twenty of the roughly one hundred Kenyan distance runners who are living scattered around Japan are in the same place at the same time.

As my fieldwork focuses on the lives of Kenyan runners in Japan, this was the place to be. It is a rarity for so many Kenyan runners to be in one place, let alone in the same race. This is because most Japanese companies and educational institutions only employ and give scholarships to a maximum of three foreign runners. Although many of the runners are based in the Kanto region surrounding Tokyo, they do not live near each other and have different work, training, and racing schedules. It is at organized races like this one that most Kenyan athletes living in Japan have the opportunity to catch up with each other.

Between heats of the 10,000, I saw a group of Kenyan runners stretching in a grassy area adjacent to the bleachers, and while in their general vicinity I was approached by a university runner who I have met with numerous times in my fieldwork. We chatted while watching a "slower" heat of the 10,000. He pointed to the same group of athletes stretching nearby and singled out one in particular whom he referred to as "a very kind man and very good friend." At first, I acknowledged his comment with a nod, and smiled without thinking much of the "fieldwork gem" he just presented me with. My young friend had told me that this man had graduated a few years before from the same high school as him back in Kenya. He elaborated that this older runner, "is a good friend because he lends me money and is always able to help me out when I need it for my family in Kenya." I asked the young man about the terms of agreement with his fellow countryman. He explained that the day will come when he turns professional and will have the means to repay. The conversation eventually turned to his recent personal best (PB) on the track: if he can lop an additional 30 seconds off of his 5,000 meter PB by his junior year, he will be able to attract Japanese corporate teams who can offer him a lucrative employment contract, and thus be able to follow through on his promise to return borrowed money. The faster his PB, the more "pull" he will have in negotiations for a higher salary. I was grateful for how much he was sharing with me just an hour before his race. He pointed to one Kenyan pacing a slower heat of the 10,000 for Japanese runners and gestured to his chest demonstratively telling me, "This is a business for us, you know?"

Kenyans dominating at the University Track and Field Championships

Fast-forward to three hours later, as I was jotting down my field notes on the bullet train back to Shizuoka, where I currently live. I reflected on a conversation my Kenyan friend and I had over the summer, during which he repeatedly referred to his coach as "my boss." Despite being an amateur athlete representing his university team, the young man interpreted his running in Japan as a profession. He delineated his understanding using specific language professional athletes use to describe their line of work.

As a former student-athlete about fifteen years earlier running and captaining my Brandeis University cross-country and track teams, I never saw the daily grind and dedication to training and racing as a professional trajectory. I carved out different plans for my future before I even made the transition from high school to college. One main reason was that I realistically did not have the talent or potential to ever "make it" as a pro in distance running. Running is a pursuit I am still passionate about and pursue to this day, but I knew from my days as a student-athlete that it would never pay the bills. My Kenyan friends assess what running means for me as a "recreational hobby." This is humbling and has quite frankly become an indisputable assessment, as I am about to reach thirty-five. Conversely, the valuation Kenyan athletes have of the sport of running are very different from mine. Running outside of Kenya, in a land so culturally and linguistically foreign to them, seems to bear a significance and cultural meaning that I am striving to interpret, interrogate, and ultimately capture. One major capacity that running in Japan can provide Kenyan athletes is to fulfil the role of being a "good friend" to other Kenyans.

What are some distinguishing features of being considered a "kind man (or woman)" in Kenya? (Distance running in Japan involves both Kenyan women and men.) How does a Kenyan athlete who goes abroad live up to the ideal or expectation of being a "good friend?" Does running in Japan enable a Kenyan athlete to reach respectable adulthood by "making it" in their livelihood projects and improving the lives of many others who depend on them?

Fiduciary Responsibility, Reciprocity, Risk, and Self-Management Strategies

Most Kenyan runners hail from rural Western Kenya. Out of the forty-two ethnic groups in Kenya, runners are for the most part Kalenjin, Kamba, Kisii, Kikuyu, or Masai. Theories on why running is prominent among some ethnic groups and not others will not be discussed here. However, it is imperative to delineate who Kenyan runners are with regards to their identity. Therefore, the words "Kenyan runner" hereafter refer to individuals who identify with one of the five aforementioned ethnicities. Although not every runner comes from a poor family, precarity is a common feature of daily life. Therefore, kin are often economically dependent on wage earners. Scholars James Ferguson (1999) on Zambia, Daniel Mains (2012) on Ethiopia, and Parker Shipton (2007) on Kenya have found that dependence amongst family members is not unidirectional, but that an alliance is beneficial to both sides. Most Kenyan runners in Japan intend to eventually return to Kenya and be reunited with their families and communities. Consequently, athletes who intend to return to Kenya cannot isolate themselves socially from their kin, despite their lengthy separations. Thus, athletes must not be negligent in sending remittances to support many who are depending on them and in order to secure their own social standing in Kenya.

In "The Nature of Entrustment," Shipton defines borrowing and lending practices as part of a fiduciary culture comprised of "shared, learned ways of thinking and acting that involve some sense of obligation." I apply this concept specifically with regards to the transfer of money and human relationships. Money exchanges may be reciprocal, but can at times be discharged, involving serial transfers passed between generations in a "pay it forward" fashion. Ferguson found that a disconnect and failure to fulfill obligations towards kin and others in need can be perceived as selfish and disrespectful. Decisions not to give when one is able to do so can prove costly in the future. Shipton described the consequences of having a reputation for being stingy when others are in need by cautioning that, "culture influences action with subtle sanctions." People keep away from those who have the reputation of being reluctant to share what they can. Additionally, in the future, when that person who was unwilling to help others is in the position of needing assistance, fewer people may be willing to extend a hand. People who are unwilling to share may run the risk of losing face or becoming an object of gossip.

Accounts of individuals facing dire consequences for their unwillingness to share in gift economies have been documented by prominent scholars. Bronislaw Malinowski (1922) discovered in the Trobriand Islands that if one wants to be considered a good person, one must generously share one’s wealth. Participants in the Kula exchange system were guided by a social and moral code that enforced a practice of giving out of fear for being stigmatized as greedy and uncooperative. Marcell Mauss (1925) similarly describes this code embedded in the "ancient morality of the gift" and how people in gift economies participate in obligatory acts of giving, receiving, and reciprocating to maintain a favorable social standing amongst their families and communities. For many in Kenya, a reluctance to share contradicts the definition of friendship. Therefore, other Kenyan runners in Japan in addition to relatives and friends back in Kenya may consider one who does not share their wealth, nor send remittances when they have the means to as someone who cannot be a good friend. As one interlocutor expressed to me, "That’s why the importance of generosity is always emphasized." People want to be considered by others as a good person.

Borrowing and lending is prevalent in Kenya to cover the costs of social welfare, despite the existence of a National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) and a pension system called the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). However, these are not mandatory to join and are only accessible for those fortunate to be employed and afford the costs. In "More Fire: How to Run the Kenyan Way," Toby Tanser (2008) describes the lack of an accessible social security system in Kenya, "where one never sees advertisements for life insurance or pension plans." So when people reach old age or become ill, they are often dependent on and supported by relatives or people in their community. Rachel Spronk (2015) finds that in relatively well-off families of young professionals in Nairobi, there are major disparities in career development, creating structures of obligation between kin. Despite the fact that none of the athletes in my study are from Nairobi, an important link can be made with Spronk’s findings, in the sense that not all members in a runner’s family can "make it." When they are able to, they pay for their sisters and brothers to pursue an education and help in any way they can.

In rural Kenya, farmers often try to keep a significant portion of their property illiquid, removed from their own temptation. This is in order to have a good part of their wealth accessible in a crisis by avoiding frivolous spending. Lending money to people that are trustworthy can shelter one’s assets from taxes or demands from others, and to keep one’s wealth inconspicuous. For many, services like Western Union are the preferred method for wiring money overseas. People can circumvent banks since they can retrieve their money at a local branch of a financial service company. In her study of mobile money usage in Kenya, Sibel Kusimba (2013) found that most Kenyans did not have sufficient funds to justify opening a bank account and were discouraged to do so anyway by exorbitant bank fees. Additionally, people perceive banks as places to store large amounts of money not needed in daily life. For many, having direct access to the limited money they have is a problem. Some people keep their wealth in indivisible forms by utilizing a mobile phone based money transfer service called M-PESA, in which the "m" represents "mobile" while pesa is the Swahili word for "money." The majority of monetary transactions through M-PESA are made to send money between friends and relatives. People who use M-PESA can transfer money instantly to others. This can be at times problematic since money changes hands literally at the click of a button on one’s phone, making it harder for the giver to visualize the actual debit in his or her account. Consequently, people can be tempted to lend money when it is unadvisable to do so.

Runners, coaches, agents, and the media before race time

The aspirations of East African youth follow a general narrative that place individual success secondary to one’s relationship to family and community. If an individual can secure employment, first helping one’s own parents and siblings with the costs of education prior to providing for one’s own family is a normative practice. Most athletes come from a background where their families have struggled or continue to face financial difficulty. Acquiring items deemed a luxury, for example a mobile phone, or even access to basic amenities and having three meals a day, was and often continues to be a struggle for most runners’ families. One interlocutor elaborated, "Families desire to live in a proper home, eat good food, go to a nice school, and wear nice clothes. Therefore, the moment they have some cash, they try as much as possible to make a difference in their family." What is often problematic for runners is that people are often expecting a sudden improvement in lifestyle. It is not uncommon for many people in Kenya whom have never been abroad to carry a preconceived notion that money is easily attainable overseas.

A Japanese university coach, formerly a Kenyan national who has lived in Japan for over twenty years, explained to me that one’s family in Kenya has no idea how their relative is struggling on a daily basis in Japan in order to earn money to send back. He expressed his frustration towards the families back in Kenya failing to grasp the big picture, venting that families in Kenya are "sitting and waiting while you are suffering here (in Japan)." According to him, and similar opinions shared by just about every runner I have talked to, Kenyans often imagine Japan as a far-off land where money is abundant and readily available, despite the fact that student-athletes do not earn a salary. It is questionable that family members would be completely clueless with regards to how much their relatives are struggling abroad. The same applies to this coach and many other Kenyan runners in Japan who have a degree of knowledge of the situations other Kenyan athletes encounter in Japan. The statement of "sitting and waiting" is loaded with emotions, ranging from feeling of irritation but also resignation to the fact that people back in Kenya are ignorant of the struggles their family members face abroad. Perhaps, this is a classic situation described by Ilana Gershon (2000) in her research on Samoan migrant exchange. She found that both migrants and those remaining in Samoa strategically practice "not knowing." Migrants attempt to hide how much wealth they have actually accrued in the hope that relatives and friends cannot expect too much from them. Despite athletes’ efforts to conceal, people for the most part are not deterred from asking for money. According to one athlete, a tactic that some people who seek to receive money use is to claim that a potential lender’s choice to hold onto their money is a form of braggadocio by acting, "bigger than others." When succumbing to the fear of being stigmatized just for declining, people may feel added pressure to give. Those remaining in the country of origin pretend not to realize how hard one is struggling when making requests and often unhesitatingly ask for money fully aware that denying requests will cast a negative light on the person abroad. Those who request money may shift the onus on lenders by stigmatizing people who are reluctant to give.

Even though student-athletes only have a monthly stipend provided by their universities to live off of, since they have no time for a part-time job, they often feel the pressure to prove that they are at least on the road to "making it" and there is apparent "progress" to validate their actions. A former female university runner explained: "you just start with the basic things and by the time you graduate, you would have done a lot of important things which always brings joy to one’s family." Runners are expected to make families proud back in Kenya. Similarly, when analyzing Samoan migrants’ participation in ceremonial exchange known as fa’alavelave, Gershon found that providing for the daily costs of living are not as important as helping maintain family pride. In the eyes of many Kenyan families and athletes, being able to purchase a new home with the help of money earned by migrants abroad would make a family proud. Another former female runner running for a Japanese university used the money she saved off of her monthly stipend to purchase a new cow and buy additional land for her family’s farm. Often university and professional runners assist a sibling or their friend’s children by paying for their school tuition. How does a university student who only receives a modest monthly stipend intended for daily lunch money, or a corporate runner who has only received one or two months’ worth of paychecks, come up with the resources to deliver on endless requests of remittances and expectations? In his research of land reform settlements in Northeastern Brazil, Benoît de L’Estoile (2014) found that in precarious circumstances and times of crisis, summoning the assistance of friends is a common and agreeable means to reduce uncertainty. Similarly, in Kenya, a socially acceptable support system is accessible for individuals facing hardship and unpredictability: borrowing and lending money between friends and family.

Some athletes corrected me by saying that borrowing and lending money is not necessarily a cultural practice in Kenya. (I also realized that I was carelessly labeling a practice different from my own as "cultural.") In regards to the Kenyan athletes in Japan, lending money is a way for longer tenured and financially capable runners to protect younger and more recent migrants to Japan. Runners’ views often corroborate the rationale that borrowing and lending practices are not necessarily "cultural" in a reified sense of the term, but are born out of sympathy. One runner expressed that it comes to him naturally to want to help someone else. He recalled his childhood and remembered how much of a struggle it was for his own parents to put food on the table and pay for his schooling. He feels a burning desire to help others "be able to secure tomorrow." There is also a feeling of obligation to give to the people who have invested in their growth and development, like a coach in Kenya. Another runner explained why he felt the desire to give back to his coach stating that, "it is because he has used his resources to manufacture you into what you are now."

The majority of Kenyan runners in Japan eventually return to Kenya and it is deeply embarrassing to return with little to show for one’s time away in Japan. The one who migrates becomes a giver of gifts rather than a receiver, and therefore shifts into a source of support rather than a dependent. However, Kenyan runners who go overseas are often dependent on each other as well. Migration does not eliminate relationships but transforms them. One runner described the pressure of having to validate his journey to Japan by providing for others, indicating that a failure to do so would prove that, "I will remain the same. There will be no change between if I was staying in Kenya and coming here. So in every situation, you have to work very very hard to change the situation we are from." Therefore, borrowing money is in some ways a hedge to alleviating the pressure of the expectation that many others place on the individual who has gone abroad. A runner can feel vindicated from the potential shame that comes with being considered a failure. It is after all the lender who makes it possible for the borrower to make a return on the investments made by one’s family and community. Perhaps this is one major reason the lender is an important and "good friend."

Who Is a Good Friend? What Makes Someone a Best Friend?

During the downtime at competitions, Kenyan runners can discuss with their compatriots which younger Kenyan runners to help. A corporate runner may elect to help a high school or university runner proximate to where they are based in Japan. Trust is paramount when determining to whom one can lend. Runners are more likely to have a closer relationship and higher level of trust with other runners who live nearby and can meet with more frequently. Take, for example, two Kenyan runners on the same corporate team. One has been in Japan for three years, while another has been in Japan for only three months. Since they work together and know each other’s situation, they claim to have a greater sense of trust towards one another. In this particular case, the lender can avert the risks of not being re-paid or taken advantage of by borrowers.

Kenyans dominating in a popular road-relay race event, known as the Ekiden

However, the teammates explained that when runners are employed by different companies and meet one another only occasionally, it is impossible to know what the other person is thinking and may refrain from lending. How a person in need approaches someone else with a request is crucial. According to senior runners, a junior must show humility when speaking to those with greater seniority. A younger runner should not wait to be approached for help by an older runner. Rather, a runner in need should be honest about his or her struggles and the urgency to borrow. Both parties agree on a deadline, and the specifics of how the borrower will return the money. For example, a younger runner may return the money once he or she has graduated from university and turned professional by using savings from his or her base salary or from prize money won at races. The older runners do not necessarily expect the money to return immediately or directly to them if younger runners cannot keep their promise. Older runners are aware of the risk that not everyone can be successful, and are on the most part forgiving if younger runners do everything in their ability to eventually reciprocate. An older runner can also feel satisfied if the younger runner can help the succeeding batch of runners that migrate to Japan facing similar circumstances. These are acceptable scenarios presented by Kenyans in Japan describing how they can ask each other for money and in what situations they are likely to trust one another.

There are a number of ways for a runner to prove he or she is a "good friend." For example, when a person in need requests help for aiding a family member, the giver can remit money directly to that person. One Kenyan university runner has a younger friend who is a sophomore athlete at another university and needed assistance to pay for medical treatment his mother was undergoing back in Kenya. The older student used the money left over from his monthly stipend and wired it directly to his younger friend’s mother. Although the older runner claimed that he trusts his younger friend will eventually repay him, he sent the remittance directly to Kenya himself to ensure the money would be used strictly for the purpose of the request. He told his younger friend to pay him back with the savings remaining from the following month’s allowance money that he gets from his university. What is illustrated in this situation is the link between borrowing and remitting. It is not uncommon for many Kenyans in Japan to borrow money for the purpose of sending remittances. Families in Kenya often ask for money from migrant athletes and one athlete may not have enough money at a given time to deliver upon all the requests for remittances coming from Kenya. What remains unclear and needs further examination concerns the relationships of all three parties in this specific example. When the receiver is not the person who requested the money, how are the structures of obligation between the sender, receiver, and requester affected?

The same lender has developed a solid friendship with a Kenyan freshman runner on his own team. The freshman runner expressed that his family has already been asking him for money despite being in Japan for only three months. When the freshman contemplated how to reassess his friendship if he were to borrow money from his older teammate, the senior was beaming with a great smile and interrupted, "He would think of me as a best friend!" Multiple understandings emerge in his proclamation. First, the senior knew that he held the upper hand over his teammate in the power balance that exists between potential lender and receiver. He was aware that it was only a matter of time that his younger teammate would seek his help. Perhaps, the freshman had already borrowed from his teammate and I was not privy to that information. Second, he anticipated a further shift in this balance once an eventual transaction between the two of them takes place. Third, he made it point to let his younger teammate know in front of a visiting anthropologist while dampening his tone with a chuckle that the indebtedness his younger teammate must feel towards him is not to be forgotten. The senior relished his role in being able to set the boundaries of their relationship and felt a sense of pride that he could be generous in helping a young friend. However, there are moments when runners struggle in deciding whether or not it is prudent to share their resources.

Strategic Avoidance: "How to Say No"

According to my interlocutors, each individual has to consider to whom to give, how much to give, and when to give. It is crucial for athletes to have the ability to say "no" to certain requests from other athletes or to people requesting remittances back in Kenya. Some classic avoidance strategies are for athletes to change their phone number or give an incorrect number to potential money seekers. According to many interlocutors, it is quite difficult to say "no" directly to someone in Kenya, and even more so to other Kenyans living much closer in Japan. Some phrases athletes use to decline a request are, "Let me think about it" or "Give me time." Both phrases do not necessarily imply that one actually intends to give money at a later date, but can be used to soften a rejection. This can eventually be followed with, "I’m sorry, I don’t have money right now" or "I am bankrupt, so maybe next time."

One perceived advantage athletes claim to have of being in Japan is that it is far from Kenya. Family or friends in Kenya have to make an international call to reach an athlete, which is costly. Another factor working in favor of the athlete is the six-hour time difference between Japan and Kenya. An athlete can pretend they were asleep or unavailable when the phone rang. These avoidance strategies are not unique to migrants in other contexts as highlighted earlier by what Gershon describes as "strategic ignorance." Since families also employ their own strategies of "not knowing," the great distance between Kenya and Japan may be disadvantageous for athletes in Japan. Families in Kenya can pretend that they are unaware what their relatives are facing in Japan defending their actions of making incessant requests. They also know that athletes put their social standing back in Kenya at risk if they are uncooperative by refusing to lend. Therefore, athletes continuously look for ways to protect themselves when the demands from family or friends are overwhelming. Athletes can also pacify family and friends making requests by conceding a smaller sum of money than requested. Finally, for some athletes, being straightforward may be the last resort. One athlete bluntly told his parents that he had only been in Japan for a month and a half, and needed time to adjust to life before sending money.

Misinformed and Self-Interested Coaches: Who are Athletes’ Real Friends?

One retired Japanese coach who serves as a mentor to his former runners often reminds them about the risks of borrowing and lending money. He cautions runners to avoid revealing to their families and friends how much money they have in order to resist the temptation of giving in too soon or giving away too much. The same coach also advised some of his runners to move their spouse and children to Japan. Deborah James (2014) found that people in South Africa often attempt to educate debtors with a neoliberal approach encouraging them to be frugal and simplify their expenditures by focusing on building a stable nuclear family rather than dividing their resources among a vast network of extended family and friends. Guided by a barometer of neoliberal values, this coach judges borrowing and lending money as dysfunctional and irresponsible behavior that needs to be repaired, or at least curtailed. (I confess that I am guilty for initially passing similar judgment instead of realizing that borrowing and lending is an indispensable practice in the daily lives of Kenyan athletes in Japan.) Nowadays, Japanese coaches are increasingly becoming aware that Kenyan athletes are prone to borrowing and lending money and mistakenly, or perhaps intentionally, overlook the significance of what borrowing, lending, and sending remittances mean to the runners. Companies are experimenting with methods in what they claim to be in the interests of protecting athletes from themselves. Of course, the actions corporations take are not only paternalistic, but are also motivated by self-interested coaches and executives to protect their job security should the financial management practices of the Kenyan runners they hire create unforeseen difficulties for the company.

One corporate team coach who is Japanese revealed to me that he creates two separate bank accounts for the foreign athletes employed at his company. A portion of a runner’s monthly salary goes into each account. One account is readily accessible to the athletes, who can withdraw from it at any time. The other serves as their nest-egg savings. The athletes can access their savings that is held in escrow once they have paid all local and national taxes in Japan, met all the terms agreed upon and stipulated in their contract, and have returned to Kenya. Slightly defensively, the coach explained that runners from Kenya do not come to Japan to make money, but to earn a living for themselves. He attempted to institute a mechanism guided by neoliberal values that encourage individual accountability. He was fully aware that runners bear the responsibility of providing for many relatives and friends back in Kenya. Yet, his decision to introduce this type of policy hinders his own athletes from doing what they are in Japan to actually accomplish. With the money Kenyan runners earn in Japan, they can become respectable adults by participating regularly in lending, borrowing, and remittance practices inherent in reciprocal exchange that is a core feature of life in Kenya. Apparently, helping the runners achieve their objectives are not on the list of priorities of the people in Japan who are ultimately responsible for supporting Kenyan runners during their stay in Japan. After all, running is a business, not only for the athletes, but also for the people that employ them.

The coach presented a hypothetical worst-case scenario in which his own runners returned to Kenya with nothing to show for their time in Japan, potentially compounded by not being able to pay the current fiscal year’s taxes, which all residents in Japan have to pay the following calendar year. Clearly, the coach was really anxious about his athletes being able to perform the latter, rather than the former. If a runner does not have any income the following year, without ample savings there would be no means for runners to make mandatory payments, hence prompting the need to borrow money. More importantly, in Japan, all workers, Japanese nationals or foreigners alike, are required to have legal guarantors sign-off on employment contracts. In the case of Kenyan athletes, upper-level executives in the companies that employ them are their legal guarantors since it is highly unlikely that a runner would already have established a connection with a Japanese national willing to take on such a tremendous legal responsibility before even setting foot in Japan. If a Kenyan athlete left Japan unable to pay his or her taxes, the burden would then fall on one’s guarantor to make the payments on his or her behalf. Coaches undoubtedly prioritize their own job security rather than acting consistent with their "on the surface" claims of considering the future well-being of their athletes as their primary concern.

The practice instituted by various corporations of controlling runners’ savings accounts is an encroachment on athletes’ rights to manage their own money. Nowadays, some companies explicitly stipulate this system of payment in athletes’ contracts. A few coaches told me that runners were reluctant to agree at first, but relented when they realized the consequences of having to find employment elsewhere—if that is even possible. Runners clearly have limited agency in negotiating the particulars that determine how much leeway they have in their daily lives under the hypervigilance their companies exercise over them. As a result, runners from Kenya are caught in the precarious circumstance of having to navigate two very divergent value systems — one that is neoliberal and individualistic (Japan) and the other communal (Kenya) — that have contradicting expectations and exceptions on how people are supposed to behave. In "Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection," Anna Tsing (2005) finds that the landscape in the forests of the central Meratus Mountains of Indonesia falls into conceptual gaps between categories that developers, conservationists, and the government use to understand them. Tsing defines gaps as, "conceptual spaces and real places into which powerful demarcations do not travel well." Against a similar backdrop, one of the ultimate challenges Kenyan runners in Japan face is how to reconcile the differences in perspective that the people surrounding them in both Kenya and Japan have towards managing personal wealth and what it means to be a responsible adult. The antithetical views held by both sides expose a gap that with better understanding can bring a new perspective on how the lives of migrant athletes are constrained in some areas, and empowered in others.

"Thanks for Being Such a Good Friend!"

Perhaps the deep appreciation the young man I spoke with alongside the track at the autumn meet had for his senior friend goes well beyond receiving a loan to help his family out. The older runner enabled him to make a return on the "investment" his family has placed in their hopes that their son will be able to ease their livelihood anxieties back in Kenya. The young man was able to behave and feel like a grown man as a result of borrowing money, which equipped him with the means to fulfill the expectations and ideals of what constitutes being a proper adult in Kenya. He was able to deliver in his expected role as a migrant athlete to gather money for his family’s benefit. The Maussian ideal encompassed in gift economies requires being connected to others by giving, accepting, and returning. The young student-athlete felt that to borrow and become indebted to his older friend was a prudent strategy for individual self-actualization while fulfilling communal obligations.

One runner explained that in order to prove to others back in Kenya that he is "someone who is favored by God" because of the fortunate opportunity he had to go abroad, it is imperative that he is able to give back profusely. Every Kenyan runner I have met thus far identifies as Christian, and at times construes their practice of reciprocity as a Christian act. Mauss found that North American chiefs could preserve their rank both domestically and internationally by sharing the wealth they have with others. By doing so, a chief could prove that he was privileged with good fortune, while maintaining authority over his community and family. One is considered very fortunate in Kenya to have the chance to go abroad and seek the "good life," part of which means to deliver on expectations from family and friends who depend on them. By fulfilling one’s expected role as a migrant worker, a Kenyan runner can —borrowing from the morally charged language of reciprocity — be considered a "good person" and achieve a sense of self-actualization.

I can now understand to a degree what my young friend meant by his words, "a very kind man and very good friend." When I returned home that night, I checked my Facebook newsfeed and sure enough one of the recent updates was a post of a brief electronic "thank you card" tagged with the name of his older friend to whom he expressed his deep gratitude about earlier that day. The card was accompanied with a simple jingle typical of E-cards, which the young man had uploaded for his online social network to see. More than the card itself, what stood out for me was the caption, which expressed the same sentiments I heard in our conversation earlier that day: "Hey (name of senior runner), I made you a video to say thanks for being such a good friend!"

To Top