Nairobi, Kenya – In a darkened hall deep inside a slum in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, the air is filled with the scent of sweat, Olympic dreams and the thwack of flesh connecting with flesh.
Kenya is known for its running talent, yet among the 99 medals awarded to Kenyan athletes since the country first started participating in the Olympics, one other category stands out: boxing.
The country’s only boxing gold medallist, Robert Wangila, one of seven Kenyan Olympic boxing medalists, triumphed in 1988. He got his start at a Nairobi railway workers’ social hall which sits in the middle of inner-city slum called Muthurwa. It is now home to one of Kenya’s poorest boxing clubs.
The hall, which is not even connected to an electrical supply, hosts the 200-member Dallas Boys. Between them, they own only four sets of boxing gloves, one punching bag and some homemade skipping ropes.
Despite that, the club has produced a host of national talent including two of the three 2016 Kenyan boxing Olympians – Peter Mungai Warui and Benson Gicharu Njangiru.
In its mission to produce world-class athletes, the club actively works to redirect some of the country’s estimated 250,000-300,000 street children away from Nairobi’s infamously dangerous inner city and into the ring.
“For these slum kids it’s a pathway where they can get something,” head coach Charles Mukula explains.
About 30 of the team members come from the streets. Five have school fees paid by the club through community grants, while others have been placed in a free primary education programme. When times are good, many get to travel outside Nairobi for tournaments.
“In streets or slums people like to fight a lot, even the youth … In the street, people fight with pangas [machetes] and they use bottles and knives. But in boxing there are rules, it’s a fair game. It’s like a place of justice,” says the coach.
Mukula says the Muthurwa gym has transformed lives.
“Most of them, when they come they’re taking drugs or drinking. When they box, their lives are changed completely. They get exposed in so many ways.”
Robinson Ngira, 17, cleans up inside the Muthurwa gym before training [Humphrey Odero/Al Jazeera]
‘Boxing has been a lifeline’
Youth unemployment in the country of 44 million is a regional-high 17.3 percent and while formal work is difficult enough to come by for the country’s masses, a stable job isn’t much more than a pipe dream for a street kid.
However, in its 10-year history coach Mukula says he has ushered seven street kids through the club and into paid boxers at different government departments which have their own athletic teams that compete in national leagues. Dozens more have found success through the club in other spheres.
Robinson Ngira, 17, began boxing at eight, loves mathematics and dreams of becoming an engineer; once he has an Olympic gold under his boxing belt.
He also spent five years living on the street from the age of 10. “I left home because there was no money, I had to go borrow money, 20 Kenyan shillings (20 cents) from people in cars,” the quietly-spoken, broad-shouldered teen explains in Kiswahili.
“There were problems at home and in the streets I used to get money. That’s why I loved staying in the street.”
But the streets entailed a life of violence, crime and drugs – sniffing glue and smoking “bhang”, or cannabis.
Ngira moved around the country with a group of kids, travelling from Nairobi to other cities once they had outstayed their welcome. “We felt like we were parentless and a misfortune,” he remembers.
Returning home wasn’t an option; as the eldest child of five, Ngira says he felt a responsibility to take care of himself.
One day he met Mukula who eventually convinced him to return home, to school – and to the Dallas Boys.
Ngira is thankful to the coach whom he describes as a father, and says boxing has been a lifeline. But he feels for those left behind and hopes more of his street family will follow his lead.
“The unity we had on the streets was more about drugs and how we could survive by stealing. The unity inside Dallas is nice because we work together and try to get the Dallas Boys name to grow,” Ngira says.
Robinson Ngira works out on the Dallas Boys boxing club’s only punching bag [Humphrey Odero/Al Jazeera]
The club is not exclusive to boys, despite its name. About 20 girls also train at the club. Veronica Mbithe is the most active among them.
The 20-year-old, who fended off six rape attempts before she hit 12, began boxing for self-defence at the age of 18.
But it took guts for the once-timid woman to join a club dominated by men.
“I came and peeked through the window and saw people training. It became a habit. I used to come, peek through the window and go home. I never saw any girls in there but one day I decided to talk to the coach,” she tells.
It took her three months to muster the courage to ask Mukula if she could join.
“I went home and talked to my mum and she refused. She said I cannot do boxing, I’m a girl, boxing is not good.”
Mbithe ignored this and trained with the boys every day, telling her mum she was visiting a friend and stashing her training gear. After two months, in April 2014, she confessed her first match was scheduled.
‘[Mum] was like ‘What match?’. I told her ‘Boxing’ – she screamed,” Mbithe laughs.
Veronica Mbithe, 20, warming up inside the Muthurwa gym that houses the Dallas Boys club [Humphrey Odero/Al Jazeera]
Her first bout resulted in a knock out – which didn’t help her cause with her mother – but from then on she was open about her pursuit and has become more confident.
“I’m naturally shy. When I meet with someone I’m always quiet, I don’t talk to them, so boys used to disturb me,” she explains. “After I started training the boys at home started fearing me, they all started respecting me.”
Less than a year after Mbithe took up boxing she made the Kenyan women’s team for a tournament in South Korea by beating the same girl who knocked her out in her first match.
“[But] a few days before we travelled, we were told the government has no money and we will not be going to represent the country.”
While she was “heartbroken”, this did not deter her from the sport.
Mbithe has a beautician’s certificate and works part-time in her mother’s salon but has been unable to find full-time work; she would love to make a living through boxing, but admits this is unlikely.
“I have hopes one day it will happen. But in Kenya girls do not have that much interest in boxing like boys,” Mbithe says.
Mbithe’s sights are set on the 2020 Olympics and she will continue to train with the Dallas Boys.
Veronica Mbithe works in her mother’s salon before training [Humphrey Odero/Al Jazeera]
Nicky Ombati is another Olympic hopeful and has been training at the club since 2006. The 28-year-old began boxing at the age of 10.
The former Kenyan boxing representative, who has competed at the Pan-African Games and was an Olympic and Commonwealth Games selection finalist, grew up in Muthurwa on stories of boxing champions such as Wangila.
“All of the kids in our hood used to box. It was boxing and [playing] football but at that time boxing was the deal, the number one. We had a lot of champions around,” he tells.
Ombati nearly quit when he was 22, during what should have been the prime of his boxing career.
The self-described hustler lives “hand-to-mouth” making about 750 shillings ($7.50) a week picking up odd jobs like making Kenyan doughnuts, called mandazi, and washing cars.
He says things were much worse before. “I was quite depressed … I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have any money, I didn’t even have something to hustle about. Then I met this man called Mr Alcohol and I had fun with him. I became a drunkard and it took a lot of my time and health.”
Ombati spent about four years drinking diluted ethanol – or “second generation” liquor – every day, when Mukula, the coach finally found him and returned him to the gym.
It’s been two years and Ombati is finally back to peak form. He accepts that, while he is aiming to make the 2020 Olympic team, his alcoholism dealt his career a blow. Part of his rehabilitation is sharing his boxing “wealth” with younger boxers and encouraging them to avoid the pitfalls of Muthurwa – and keep the Dallas Boys name alive.
“I got back my health and came back to my essence. At first I was really focused on getting a job but then I came to realise it’s not about the money, it’s about how you deal with the community … I always tell the kids, ‘You’ll do it’. When I see them making it I really feel good,” Ombati says.
Nicky Ombati makes local Kenyan doughnuts called ‘mandazi’. Finding formal work in Kenya is a struggle for many of the country’s youth [Humphrey Odero/Al Jazeera]