Published: 12:21, June 24, 2024
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Promising young fencers in Kenyan slum poised for sport's positive effects

Club members train on streets in the Mathare area on June 9, 2024. (PHOTO / AFP)

A decade ago, life for Wanyoike in Mathare, one of the largest urban slums in Kenya, seemed worlds apart.

"I was in crime, I was a gangster," said Wanyoike, 27. He described how he was shot and lost two friends amid the violence that rattled the area.

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But a second chance at life came in the form of a fencing coach, who spotted Wanyoike while he was working out. The young man quickly became attracted to the novel sport.

A club member with fencing gear walks in the Mathare area on June 9, 2024. (PHOTO / AFP)

Wanyoike later won a scholarship to South Africa and qualified as a teacher. He returned to his hometown in Nairobi to set up the fencing club Tsavora Fencing Mtaani in 2021, determined to help young people.

"The only thing they could do was ... crime and drugs; for ladies, prostitution," Wanyoike said.

Fencing club members spar during a training session in the Mathare area of Nairobi on June 9, 2024. (PHOTO / AFP)

His story is one that Dixon Mumia can understand.

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"I was stealing things, I was not a nice boy," the 17-year-old said. "I decided that this was the place I was supposed to be. I found myself changing."

Commuters in a minibus watch fencing club members practice in the Mathare area on June 9, 2024. (PHOTO / AFP)

Still, it was not easy for him to turn to an unfamiliar sport.

"First, when my friends saw me, they laughed. They said that it is a waste of time, and this game's played by the richest people," Mumia said.

The average daily income in Mathare is about $2, according to EduKenya, an education charity operating in the slum, while annual fencing training and competing costs about $2,500, which is unaffordable for the community, according to Wanyoike.

Children observe Tsavora Fencing Mtaani club members during an outdoor training session in the Mathare area of Nairobi, Kenya, on June 9, 2024. (PHOTO / AFP) 

But Mumia is determined to make it work. "I was born here but I don't want to stay here," he said.

One of the fencing team's stars is Eline Marendes, whose past as a dancer shines through when she deftly wields her epee — even Wanyoike has a fight on his hands when he faces her.

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"At first I thought it was a very dangerous sport, because I thought we would hurt each other," she said.

Club members warm up for their training session at a community center in the Mathare area on June 9, 2024. (PHOTO / AFP)

Two years of training have changed her mind.

"I see myself as a very big fencer," said Marendes, 16, who grew up in Mathare. "Maybe in two years, I will be earning from fencing."

After the fencers warmed up in a community center — recent floods in Kenya destroyed their usual training grounds — they hit the streets, with curious onlookers and captivated children following their moves.

Club members discuss fencing techniques during a training session at a community center in the Mathare area on June 9, 2024. (PHOTO / AFP)

The boys tussled over a point until Wanyoike stepped in, as behind them packed matatu minibus taxis screeched past and touts screamed for business.

Marendes watched the chaos and smiled. "They are like children, but they are like my brothers," she said.