Undergraduate Blog / Career Development

How Being Attacked By a Machete on a Run in Africa Leads to the Opening of a Children’s Hospital

I have never been to Kenya. I’ve flown over the country on my way to Tanzania, and I’ve seen Kenyan bush, but that really doesn’t count. When I was in Tanzania, I was told that leisure running was looked down upon, that engaging in ‘fun physical activity’ as an adult made it seem that you had nothing else to do. That being said, I ran exactly zero times over those months, but did engage in several soccer games. Just like Toby, the man who was attacked by a machete on a run in Tanzania, have struggled to put my running to good use.

Last week at Birds Nest, we had the pleasure of having a round table conversation with ultra marathoner and founder of Shoe4Africa, Toby Tanser. I know a lot of people say “so and so is one of a kind”, but Toby really has a story unmatched by anyone I know. You probably clicked on this article because you saw ‘machete’ in the title, and I’ll get to that part of the story in a bit.

This past March, Birds Nest traveled to Kenya to make a film about Toby and Shoe4Africa. Toby, British by birth, defined himself as being the ‘worlds unhealthiest person’ in his youth, smoking 40 cigarettes a day as he rode his motorcycle around. One day, something finally clicked as he saw his childhood friend running alongside top runners from Kenya and Ethiopia in the London Marathon. He then began to run on and off, unexpectedly winning Iceland’s 5k race and even more unlikely being sponsored by Nike shortly after.

Luck. Just by luck Toby booked a flight to train in Kenya with a fellow runner from Ireland. Just by luck his Irish friend cancelled days before the trip, and just by luck Toby’s luggage was lost after he arrived in Kenya alone. By another stroke of luck, Toby ran, literally, into the Kenyan National Running team on what he thought would be his first and last run in Kenya before he returned back to Europe. Toby ended up collecting his lost luggage, and spent quite some time in Kenya training along side some of the best Olympians in the world.

This is when Toby created Shoe4Africa, noticing that his Nike sponsorship gave him an asset that he could share with his fellow runners. He began sending his trainers and racing flats to his friends overseas, asking his fellow European and American runners to do the same.

In the winter of 1999, Toby traveled to Kenya to train again, bringing along his girlfriend for the first time. The two decided to spend New Years along the coast in Tanzania, with Toby running during the early morning hours as well as mid day. It was during his mid day run that he was attacked by two men carrying a club and a machete, with the two Tanzanian robbers slicing his head open as well as half of his hand. All for a pair of Nike running shoes.

Despite having the largest blood clot in his brain that the doctors at London’s finest hospital had ever seen, Toby makes out of the accident alive, but at first paralyzed. Again, by a stroke of luck he gains control over his body over the following year and begins to run again. The following year, Toby travels back to Kenya during the war, most Americans define this war through the Hutus and Tutsi.

In Kenya there were several tribes fighting one another, and Toby witnessed the murder of several women and children as a church was burned down that housed them all after their homes were destroyed by the same tribe. It was then and there that Toby knew he had to do something to bring everyone together, something that did not discriminate against sex or age or tribe. Through word of mouth someone asked him if he would be interested in building a children’s hospital in Kenya, and without thinking twice Toby agreed. The only problem, per se, was that Toby has no experience in anything and everything it would take to construct and manage such an enterprise.

After years of fundraising and building, the hospital was built for 6 million dollars, and has saved countless lives in Kenya. The health care system in Kenya is similar to that in Canada, but access to medicine and the willingness and education surrounding ‘westernized’ medicine is not understood by most. Many will go to the hospital when its too late , instead of checking in when symptoms first arise. Toby is currently working on raising the funds to construct a Cancer hospital in Kenya, and is organizing races throughout Kenya, Europe, and the States in order to do so.