When Toby left Kenya, after a near seven-month stay running and living with the Kenyans, back between 1995 and 1996, he did so by giving his last pair of dusty running shoes away at the airport to a needy taxi driver who wanted to start running in an attempt to change his life.
Ironically five years earlier Toby had sat smoking what would be his last packet of cigarettes (a 40-per day bad habit) and had been galvanized to start running by seeing an acquaintance representing his country, running a marathon. Toby had started running, entered a race in Iceland and received sponsorship and support to begin; he never needed to buy shoes and seeing this taxi driver he realized that the ‘driver’ could have been him in another world.
The country of Kenya had changed Toby in many ways and made him look at life in a completely new light. A vortex of experiences had happened and completely changed his limited perceptions on Africa. Living for a couple of weeks in East Africa’s largest slum, living with the Kenyan athletes by the Ngong Hills (close to where Out of Africa is based), then living up in the heart of the Great Rift Valley… living as a local, never as a tourist Toby garnered a virtual lifetime of memories from the Kind souls of Kenya. Getting lost on Christmas day whilst trekking on foot over the Masai Mara (Toby has never been on a formal safari), not being rescued by a group of wealthy tourists yet receiving assistance from penniless rural tribesfolk who sacrificed their last posession to help Tobyburned deeply into his soul.
Racing, against the Kenyans, the national TV station tried to film Toby on the start of a championship race. Toby realized the only reason was he was being filmed was he was kitted out, head to toe, in the latest matching sportsgear. A plan was hatched to empty his cupboards back in Sweden, where he lived, and send all his bundles of running gear to Africa to help his competitors who were far more talented than he was, and far more deserving for assistance. It was something that was easily done.
However, after giving his shoes on the last day to the taxi driver, the journey home, getting arrested as a (shoeless) vagrant in the Paris, France, airport, then arriving back at Arlanda airport Sweden to find the country covered in snow was at first seen as a hurdle to a barefooted traveler.
Luck changed: A lady stopped to offer him a ride into Stockholm, and drove Toby to his apartment in Boson, Lidingo. In turn she would also walk away barefoot from this meeting, through the snow, wishing for her shoes to go to Africa to someone who needed them more than her. And then something kind’ve started…
- Get Shoes to the people who need them to help them start running and begin empowering their lives
- Get shoes to stop the Hookworm virus as people walk/stand barefoot in infected areas
- Get shoes to hold community events enticing the village to come together where health messages are then told.
All was going well but then we saw so many other problems. We tried to ignore these issues and keep focused, like good business practice would suggest (“Make everything about the shoe, have the shoe in every sentence. A clear message garners the most fund raising dollars…”)
But Shoe4Africa was never about a corporate message, it was started by the pure desire to want to help, to do our best to help. As our time in Africa increased, so did the scope of what we believed we could achieve. Sorry that we are a little bit scattered in our messaging but I promise you, we really are achieving more this way! Our mission changed, and molded the charity into Health & Education…. the shoe, that had been the beginning, became the symbolic step forward.
Arriving back in Sweden, standing in the snow waiting for a cab, a random lady picked Toby and took him back to Stockholm. Herself giving her shoes to Toby when she left him, “I want you to give these to someone who needs them (more than I) when you return to Africa.”
The charity idea was formed. Giving shoes brought people. A health component was added, Promoting AIDS awareness when Toby discovered almost 50% of a team he was supporting was HIV positive. The message of prevention and de-stigmatizing was better reached in a play field than in a hospital. Toby’s elite runner friends helped validify the message at events.
Then on a trip back to Africa Toby was attacked, by two men with a machete and a baseball bat, and left for dead by the Indian Ocean. Barely able to see and incredibly weak Toby had to jog two miles to safety. Covered in blood, and carrying the machete he’d wrestled from one of the attackers, nobody came forth to help. A journey of two weeks ensued (with many more adventures in Stone Town, Zanzibar) before Toby finally got to England and received acute medical care and brain surgery.
Losing a shoe in the fight the charity now got a name; Shoe4Africa. With an acute eye for the marginalized people Toby started hosting women’s only events; in a village of 4,000 people he hosted an event that had less than ten women in a mixed running race the year before; Toby got almost 3,000 ladies to run/walk!
During Kenya’s worst political violence (the clashes of 2007/8) Toby was living in Iten, Kenya. When a church was burned down with around 50 women and children captured inside he was 18-miles up the road. He went to a funeral a couple of weeks later when the only body part remaining was a foot from a charred body from another horrendous event. Discovering there was no children’s public hospital in East Africa was a landmark moment; a country needed healing, he remembered his own brush with medical help where an air ticket to England had undoubtedly saved his life…
So it began, first holding peace marches with Olympic athletes and school children in Kenya, then building public schools (four now full operating), in part to prove to people that Shoe4Africa could actually build… and the long journey to beg for money to build this hospital, for the children.
“When I was eleven, I fell out of the back of a theater, high up on a ladder behind the cyclorama. I was rushed to hospital and spent two months lying in traction, with a TV at the end of my bed and three meals a day; all free – it felt like I was living in a hotel as we did not have a TV at home.” Public health is a must for children. 90% of Kenya is living on a dollar a day – why support private? You are then only helping those who need no help.”
On December 31st 2012 the job started with contracts being signed. On July 7th, 2013 construction started and two years later we completed East & Central Africa’s first public children’s hospital. We opened the doors on August 12th 2015.
In the first year we treated around 35,000 patients, and in year two we treated over 116,000!
The bottom line: If we had stuck with “It is all about the Shoe” we would have never have built East & Central Africa’s only public children’s hospital! Or the schools we have constructed, or the Dairy College… and yes we continue to help with the Shoes too.
In December 2021, the story was documented in a new book, Running with Destiny with 100% of the author royalties going to Shoe4Africa. See more here