A few years ago, he formed a foundation — he has raised more than $7,000 — to be used for a library to educate the tribe, particularly the women.
Punyua already seems to possess influence in the community, even at a young age. His stature in the village is derived partly from his education here. But, just as important, he is regarded as not having abandoned his roots. He is "a humble boy," said Stephen Punyua, the pastor of a small Christian church who is Kikanae Punyua's cousin. "He came from the normal life of the Maasai," the pastor said in halting English.
David Weeks, who taught Punyua at Glenelg Country Day School in his senior year and visited him in Kenya over the summer, said the Maasai "see him as an individual who has intellect but also the heart of the Maasai."
There is a seriousness to Punyua. It is evident when he says he doesn't run only for "fun," but for his country and his tribe.
Two years ago, somebody snapped a photo of Punyua on the day he left Kenya to return to America for his senior year of high school. Much of the village turned out to see him off.
The well-wishers are standing in front of a tall cornfield beneath a cloudy sky. The women — wearing traditional multicolored Maasai garb — are grouped together on one side. The men are all on the other side — except for Punyua, who is wearing khaki pants and a denim-colored jacket and standing in a row of women. He said he wanted to be pictured with the women as a demonstration of his support.
"When I looked at that picture of all those people standing with him, all I thought was, 'My God, he's the first kid to get out,'" said Whitty Bass, the pastor of St. John United Methodist-Presbyterian Church in Columbia and Punyua's surrogate father when he is in the United States. "And the pressure on him to succeed? I just feel for kids having that kind of pressure."
Arriving in America
When he first arrived in Maryland, Punyua had never run competitively. He was more of a soccer player.
But, eager to please, Punyua immediately surprised Bass, his American host, by logging eight miles with Wilde Lake varsity runners when his assignment had been to run for only a short distance.
"He did it in pretty raggedy shoes," said Bass, Wilde Lake's track coach. "And the next day, his ankles were the size of grapefruits."
Punyua quickly became one of the state's top high school distance runners, attracting Maryland recruiters.
But his transition to the United States did not always feel smooth. Early on, he would forget to carry house keys because he didn't need them back home. He arrived not knowing how to use a computer.
Just when he became settled and had bonded with Bass and his Wilde Lake friends, he had to leave.
His original visa, which permitted him to attend Howard County public schools, was good for only one year and he was forced to return to Kenya. Late in the summer before his senior year, he learned that a benefactor had agreed to pay his tuition — about $25,000 — to attend a private school, Glenelg Country Day, that would accept a type of visa he could secure. The identity of the benefactor remains a mystery. "I just would like to say thank you," Punyua said.
Punyua still has a room on the second floor of the home of Bass and his wife, Gretta Ferrell. There are running shoes stacked high in the closet and a tiny Kenyan flag on a dresser.
On some Sunday afternoons, Punyua will slip on headphones and sit in the living room, balancing his computer on his lap. Then he connects to his family in Kenya via Skype, often speaking to his father about reforming Maasai cultural practices.
"His conversations are very measured," Bass said. "He knows he is up against the leaders of the tribe and that the [genital mutilation] issue goes against their whole background."
A Maryland niche
As his college career began, Punyua was viewed by his coaches as one of the team's most promising young distance runners. Unlike many American distance runners, he is comfortable beginning races in the front of the pack.