LONDON Six Maasai warriors from Tanzania will run in traditional red robes at the London Marathon to bring attention to their drought-stricken country.
The men adorned in beads and carrying shields will be among the professionals and amateurs competing on Sunday. They will run to raise money to dig wells for safe drinking water in their village.
A 40-year drought, including a 10-month spell without any rain last year, parched the nomadic people's land and led to the death of many of the warriors' elders, children and cattle.
A discussion during an English language class led to a conversation about the London Marathon. They realized they could raise the $39,400 needed to drill each well for their Eluai village.
"They asked, 'What is a marathon?"' said Paul Martin, a worker with the Greenforce aid agency that has worked with the Maasai for three years. "I explained to them that many people run every year in the London Marathon to raise money for various causes and charities.
"They found it quite incredible that you can generate funds just by running because this is something they do every day, anyway."
The six lean, leggy warriors Isaya, Kesika, Lengamai, Ninna, Nguvu and Taico entered the marathon to raise money through sponsorship for their village of about 1,000. Geological surveys of the area found tributaries underground that can be tapped to provide water.
The race shouldn't be too much of a challenge for the men of the Maasai, who number between 500,000 and 1 million and live across an area of east Africa straddling Kenya and Tanzania.
The Eluai villagers roam about 18.6 miles from home each day with their cattle and run between houses, which can be as far as 6 miles apart.
These trips, including those of children running to school, are proving increasingly dangerous because of the drought. Along with the danger of dehydration and exposure, wild animals searching for water have attacked and killed villagers.
The warriors had never visited a major city, but flew to London, where they will race in shoes fashioned from car tires.
On Friday, Isaya said the change in environment is a challenge. The London temperatures in the low 50s contrast with the high 80s back home.
"We are feeling that we need more sugar because it is very cold," Isaya said. "But if we are singing or running, no problem."
Race director Dave Bedford said that the warriors were proving so popular that three people approached him in a pub on Thursday night and gave him $296.
"The fact that they have heard what you are doing and that they understand how magnificent it is, is a great sign," Bedford said.
The Maasai will be carrying their shields and sticks, as they do while traveling across their homeland, and have been granted a special dispensation by Bedford to run without numbered vests.
Five professional Kenyan runners are competing to claim a fifth consecutive men's title for their country on Sunday, including defending champion Martin Lel, whose personal best is 2 hours, 6 minutes, 41 seconds.
Many charity runners in costume can take more than five hours to complete the race, but the Maasai should eclipse that without too much trouble.
"We are not thinking of records, only to raise money to help our people and culture," Isaya said. "We'll be singing and dancing, so we are hoping to finish maybe in four hours."