Spartan life shaped Kenyan’s American way
Okwaro Raura, 21 years old and flying for the first time in his life, touched down in San Diego at about 11 p.m. on Jan. 17, 1996. The trip from Nairobi, Kenya, to Amsterdam to Detroit to San Diego lasted 28 hours.
“This is where I’m going to start my life,” he said, having researched the area’s weather and cost of living.
He knew no one. His belongings were stuffed inside one suitcase and a bag slung over his shoulder. He carried $600 in traveler’s checks and a dream.
“This is your chance to be the best you can be,” he said.
Sixteen years later, Raura, 37, is buying a two-bedroom home in Oceanside. He ran track and cross country at Cal State San Marcos, earned U.S. citizenship 18 months ago, graduated college with a business degree and works in business operations for a hair extensions company.
“He was a very dedicated, hard-working athlete and it carried over into other aspects of his life,” said longtime American mile record holder Steve Scott, who coached Raura at Cal State San Marcos.
“The story speaks for itself. That somebody can come over here, not knowing a soul … I know I could never do that.”
On Sunday, competing in the half marathon portion of the Carlsbad Marathon & Half, Raura hopes to break his personal best of 1 hour, 8 minutes.
There were challenges when Raura moved to the North County. At first he paid $15 a night to sleep on a stranger’s couch. He bounced from roommate to roommate. For a while he slept in an oversized closet.
For transportation, Raura initially relied on the bus. Then he bought a bike. He waited nearly three years before buying a car, paying $550 for a Ford Escort.
“It was really old and beat up,” Raura said.
Living an austere lifestyle was not new for the Kenyan. In Africa, he grew up the second oldest of nine children. The family split its time between the big city, Nairobi, and rural life, five hours away by car in Gwassi.
When times were good, Raura’s father worked in accounting for an Italian oil company and the family resided in Nairobi. The apartment included electricity and running water. It was a five-mile walk to school.
“Our walk to school was much more a social event,” he said. “We had friends we’d meet along the way. We’d share stories. Before you knew it, we wera at school.”
When the oil business suffered and Raura father’s would be laid off, the family moved to Gwassi. There was no electricity or running water in the countryside. The family raised cattle, goats and sheep.
When school was not in session, mornings were often spent on fishing boats in nearby Lake Victoria. Afternoons were passed herding animals.
“When you are in tough conditions, sometimes you may not know it until you check out somebody next to you,” Raura said. “We are a product of our environment and working hard shaped my life, as a runner, too.”