NAIROBI (Reuters) – Vanessa Wanjera packs a punch. The 14-year-old Kenyan took up boxing two years ago but she already has big dreams.
“I want to be a champion, instead of staying in the slums,” Wanjera told Reuters.
Wanjera is one of a group of children who train at the Mathare North Boxing Club in Nairobi, where head coach Bernard Muiruri hopes the programme will help keep kids out of trouble.
While government restrictions are in place on public gatherings and people’s movement, the gym has measures in place to conform to social distancing and hygiene guidelines.
It limits the number of visitors allowed on the premises at any one time, is cleaned three times a day and gives out hand sanitiser to people who do not bring it.
“We have adhered to all COVID-19 regulations set by the government,” Muiruri said. “The training keeps the children busy, ensuring they don’t engage in evils found in the slums. Also staying fit is a way of fighting the virus.”
Since the club opened its doors in 1985, it has trained several professional boxers and Kenyan champions, including John Kimani, the assistant coach.
“Here at Mathare North Boxing Club we don’t charge. What we do is give back to the community,” Kimani said.
Andrew Odhiambo, 18, epitomises that spirit. A boxer since he was 8 years old, he wants to share what he has learned with other young people in his community.
“I want to help my peers,” said Odhiambo. “I train because I want to be somebody. I want to make Mathare proud of me.”
More children in the neighbourhood are training at the gym than usual and it has become a crucial outlet for local kids forced to stay at home because schools remain shut due to the coronavirus pandemic.
And boxing is not the only lesson they learn.
“We tell them there is life outside boxing,” said Kimani. “They don’t just come here for boxing, we give them lessons in life.”