Shoe4Africa was founded in 1995 by Toby Tanser, an elite Icelandic runner now living in New York City. The organization began modestly, providing simple running shoes — often used — to the people of Africa. In the past 13 years, as Shoe4Africa has grown, so too has its mission. Now a regular presence in Kenya and other African nations, the charity has done a great deal to raise AIDS awareness and inspire thousands of people to follow in the footsteps of their continent’s tremendous distance runners and begin running themselves.
Toby Tanser runs Shoe4Africa with a small staff of volunteers and gets a lot of help from his best friend, the actor Anthony Edwards. As a member of the New York Road Runners Club board of directors, Tanser also directs charitable races in New York — his Hope & Possibility 5-miler is on June 22nd. After the New York City Marathon last November, he set up a U-Haul near the finish line to collect ethically-sourced shoes, and to his surprise, 10,000 people donated the very shoes they’d just worn for the past 26.2 miles.
In Shoe4Africa’s most ambitious project yet, Tanser is in the process of building a children’s hospital in Kenya, marking the first time in 13 years that he has asked for anything more than a pair of used running shoes for a donation.
In the coming months, we’ll provide regular updates on Shoe4Africa and commentary from Toby Tanser, Anthony Edwards, and others involved in these amazing humanitarian projects. But for now, let’s hear directly from Toby.
How did you first conceive of Shoe4Africa?
I was in Africa, training as a runner in 1995, and I saw through what I had as excess I could help. An offspin: A man once asked me for help, I helped him, he asked again, and again. I grew tired of him asking, and ignored him; he was asking for clothes, I had non to give. The next time I returned to Kenya I hear he’d died. In a ditch shivering from pneumonia. Memories like Nelson Otieno haunt me.
Why use running as a means to raise AIDS awareness?
It brings a taboo subject to a friendly setting. In Africa the concept of AIDS is 20 years behind ours. We can talk about something to the whole village, bring in the Kenyan Derek Jeters, a little theater, and make a huge impact on a whole area — drawing people to a health clinic has not worked for others so far. In a village of 4,000 our race attracted 2,900 runners/walkers and 3,000-spectators — you can make a big impact in rural Kenya.
Has Shoe4Africa’s mission expanded since it began 13 years ago, especially in light of the recent violence in Kenya?
We act according to the climate; this way we have had three peace races since the December/January violence. My “normal” event had to be canceled, so I thought, “Okay, what now then?” and Kenya needed peace.
What kind of reception have you had in the communities you’ve worked in, such as Libera?
We have a great reception. A long time ago people thought I had an angle, or a motive. Why are you helping us, what are you getting? Nowadays they have realized that Shoe4Africa is a unique org just doing good simply because it can. People over in Kenya believe Shoe4Africa is a huge corporation with offices. They don’t believe it’s as simple as it is.
In what ways have you seen Shoe4Africa directly affect people’s lives in Africa?
I have seen people being introduced to athletics through the program, and becoming world champs, commonwealth games champs, champs of big marathons. I have seen a 50-year-old grandmother “win” a fun run — it being her first opportunity to do something sporting since leaving school as a 14-year-old. I saw her grandson become inspired by his grandmum and become a national standard runner. I have seen a Kenya that threw stones at a 17-year-old world champ and tell her to go home and raise a family become a Kenya where groups of women of all shapes and sizes are running. I have seen 3,000 women running in AIDS awareness t shirts, reading literature in their mother tongue, as opposed to refusing to acknowledge the disease. And a few personal compelling individual stories that always make anything worthwhile doing.
From your observations, what does running do for a young boy or girl in an African village?
Empowerment. It makes them into a “I want, I can” person, and gives them better health… lest we forget that 45 years is the average life span of a Kenyan! I saw a runner who is faster than anyone you’ll see in the Central Park races be so so grateful for a running shoe, and saw that person clean the shoe with a toothbrush every day after a training run. “This is my first gift,” he said. “I want it to last forever…” A shoe that we’d have thrown away for being “useless.”
How can others get involved?
For 13 years I have never really asked for money, just shoes. My programs cost thousand to run — my total donations for the entire year probably pay only for a couple of projects that people don’t know we even run. For example, the garbage for the recent Kibera project in NYC cost $1,200 to clear up — that is more than my total income from contributions for 2008… So now I want your contributions of cash to make the hospital project a reality. Your $10, your $5 is a blanket, a lamp in the hospital.