Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

Bob Phillips Articles / Profile

Lule: The First African Half-Miler of Note

The first East African half-miler of note. 

A fierce opponent of Idi Amin 


There is some reliable statistical evidence of the first stirrings of organised athletics in East Africa in the 1930s. This is provided by retrospective lists published in editions of the  “African Athletics” annuals produced by Yves Pinaud and Walter Abmayr between 1986 and 1990, which included the following performances:

1 mile – 4:42.6 Evanson Wachira (Kenya), Nairobi, 30 October 1937

3 miles – 15:21.8 Lugonvu (Uganda), unknown date in 1937

1 mile – 4:36.8 John Kangi (Kenya), Nairobi, 22 October 1938

1 mile – 4:31.0 Zabalon (Kenya), Kampala, 29 October 1938

880 yards – 1:59.3 Lule (Uganda), Fort Hare, Alice, South Africa, unknown date in 1939

Some of these names recur in the government’s weekly official publication, “Kenya Gazette” in later years without there being any certainty that they are connected – with one exception, which my recent research has revealed. The first East African to break two minutes for the half-mile has a close link to the most famous figures in the continent’s recent history: Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Kenneth Kaunda and more contentiouly Robert Mugabe. Also a student at the same Fort Hare University College, in Eastern Cape, South Africa, as these four was Yusuf Kironde Lule, and he was later to become interim president of Uganda and had led the liberation force opposition to the tyrannical Idi Amin. 

Lule had also attended Edinburgh University and he would spend his last years living in exile in London, dying at Hammersmith Hospital on 21 January 1985 at the age of 72. It is not stated in Lule’s internet biography as to when he was at university in Edinburgh, but as he would have been at least 29 years old (born 10 April 1910) when he ran his sub-two-minute half-mile and had been at Fort Hare since 1936 it would seem that he was studying in Scotland earlier in the 1930s. If so, there is no trace of any other athletics achievements there.  

Yves Pinaud wrote a thoughtful article which was one of the contributions to the massive tome published by the IAAF to celebrate its centenary in 2012. Monsieur Pinaud’s subject was “The Stunning Rise of Africa”, but there was nothing remotely emotive about what he said of athletics in Kenya and Uganda in the 1930s. In fact, he mentioned no athlete at all from those countries, and maybe that’s not surprising, but in historical respective the performances of the Kenyan miler with the biblical name, Zabalon, in 1938 and the Ugandan student, Lule,  the following year look rather more significant, though still, of course, not of international standard. For comparison, in the USA there were 19 milers under 4:18 in 1938 and 25 half-milers under 1:54 in 1939.  A student at London University named John Kagwa ran a respectable 50.3 for 440 yards in England in 1937, and his name and a photograph of him suggests that he was most likely either Kenyan or Ugandan. 

In a striking act of inter-racial co-operation a “Ugandan Native (African) Athletics Association” had been formed in 1925 in the capital city, Kampala, with among the co-founders a locally-based army officer, Major Lawrence, about whom nothing further is known, and a future Government minister and Mayor of Kampala, Serwano Kulubya. The first honorary secretary was no less than a former Olympic athlete and a member of a renowned family. Sidney Abrahams, elder brother of Harold Abrahams, had competed in the 1906 and 1912 Games long jump before talking up a Colonial Service legal career, and he had been appointed Attorney General of Uganda. As this was also in 1925 and the first Uganda Championships were held that same year, the future Sir Sidney Abrahams moved fast on arrival in the encouragement of the sport of his youth. Another co-founder was coincidentally also an ex-long jumper, Dr H.R. Neilson, who had competed for Scotland against Ireland some 20 years previously and who was now Uganda’s Director of Sanitation. They may well have received support from Uganda’s newly-appointed Governor and Commander-in-Chief, Sir Williams Gowers, who had been a highly proficient cricketer and tennis player at Rugby School and Trinity College, Cambridge. 

How interesting it would be to learn something of the results of those Championships from the 1920s onwards and of a match between Uganda and Kenya which took place in 1934!   

In the absence of much statistical evidence from those years, there is nevertheless a most evocative tale to tantalise us of boundless native natural ability by Ernest Hemingway in his book, “Green Hills of Africa”, published in 1934, which related his hunting exploits in Kenya:

“They started to run beside the car, smiling and laughing and showing how easily they could run. and then as the going was better up the smooth valley of a stream it became a contest, and one after another dropped out of the running, waving and smiling as they left, until there were only two still running with us, the finest runners of the lot, who kept pace easily with the car as they moved long- legged, smoothly, loosely, and with pride. They were running, too, at the pace of a fast miler, and carrying their spears as well”.

During research for a key book which he was to write about the development of Kenyan athletics, the Welsh-born expert on the links between sport and geography, John Bale; of Keele University; uncovered a series of performances in the Nandi district of Kenya during the years 1946-to-1949 which are a clearer indication of the raw potential at large. A runner known only as Leting was credited with three miles in 15:15.0 in 1946 and then the sensational times of 13:13.7 and 13:15.4 in the next two years, both of which were, of course, far inside Gunder H?gg’s existing World record of 13:32.4 from 1942. For that reason they are naturally regarded as having been under-distance, but it is intriguing that the same error in measurement or lap-counting was apparently made in successive years. 

Then, too, what are we to make of a six miles in 30:12.0 by another Kenyan named Kimiyo in 1949 which was equivalent to a time in the fastest 30 in the World for 10,000 metres that year?  All of those faster than 31:12 for 10,000 metres were Europeans, led, of course, by Emil Zátopek, except for two Americans; Curtis Stone (30:38.4) and Fred Wilt (31:05.7). Kimiyo does not appear in approved ranking-lists, but that may be simply because no one with statistical awareness then had ever heard of that achievement. In 1952 there was a verified three-mile time of 15:03.4 by a Kenyan or Ugandan soldier named Kipsong achieved in the Malayan AAA Championships in Ipoh. 

In their book, published in 1996, John Bale and his co-author, Joe Sang, readily admit that “we are certainly not in a position to say precisely who introduced track & field athletics to Kenya, nor in which year”, but they then make a very good job of drawing the various strands together. Thus we find that those responsible for laying the foundations of what is now a highly significant contributor to Kenya’s national economy unexpectedly start with an American woman philanthropist, Ann Jeanes; who was born in 1822 and died in 1907, having given away more than seven million dollars of her personal fortune. Some of this found its way via the Carnegie Corporation to the establishment of vocational schools in Kenya, Nyasaland (now Malawi), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). 

These were named “Jeanes Schools” in her honour, and we know from a surviving report written by a British civil servant, T.L. Davis, in 1935, that athletics figured among the activities, though in a subsidiary role to such subjects as agriculture and health. The first appointed Colony Sports Officer in Kenya, Archie Evans, taught at one of the Jeanes schools from 1947 to 1949 and was manager of the Kenyan athletes who made their debut at the 1954 Commonwealth Games and those who were sent to all major international Games until 1960. 

What an entrancing thought it is to wonder what would have happened if one of those untutored warriors so admired by Ernest Hemingway had been persuaded to race against the great milers of the 1930s, Jack Lovelock, Glenn Cunningham or Sydney Wooderson. Presumably, the spears would have been left at the track-side.

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