At the Mathare North Boxing Club in Nairobi you won't find seasoned professionals being trained to fight in the ring. Instead the club has a youth programme that aims to give local children and teenagers an outlet, and a way to stay off the streets. With all grade schools in Kenya closed until January 2021, kids in the dangerous slum of Mathare have few places to go. Alternative programmes, such as this boxing club, are even more essential.

Mathare is the second biggest slum in Nairobi, located in the northeast of the city. Around 500,000 people live there. Gang violence is prevalent, and youth can be pressured into joining organised crime. The Mathare North Boxing Club which is free of cost for everyone tries to offer an alternative. Their mission is to create an inclusive space for people in the community.

 Kids spar together at Mathare North Boxing Club. Youth member Kennedy shared this video with the Observers team.

The Covid-19 pandemic altered life in Nairobi, as well as daily operations at the Mathare North Boxing Club. The Kenyan government closed schools on March 15, 2020, and they are not set to reopen for six more months.

“There is no school, so there is nowhere [else] to go”

Although the pandemic forced the boxing gym to factor in fresh health protocols, the commitment to the community’s youth remains intact. Charles Macharia Mwangi, 28, is a leader of the youth programme at Mathare North. He told the Observers team how the pandemic has transformed the gym.
Some kids and youth stopped coming. Also there was a time we had to close the gym. Now we are slowly returning. Covid changed everything, but we still manage to keep the kids busy. There is no school, so there is nowhere [else] to go, as this is also a slum.

In Kenya, the pandemic’s spread continues. In recent weeks, Kenya’s Health Ministry recorded the highest numbers of positive cases of Covid-19 yet. The nation currently has 11,673 confirmed cases and 217 recorded deaths. Despite the increase, Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, began to loosen lockdown restrictions last week.
"We are not planning to have more kids at the moment"
 
To protect its members, gym leadership at Mathare North Boxing made the decision to postpone most of the training sessions. For the programmes that are allowed to operate at the gym, staff implemented social distancing and sanitary protocols, as well as restricting the number of users per day. Even without boxing training, the club offers a space for kids to hang out, Mwangi said.
The normal training is not fully back because of the number of the kids and youth who come to the facility. But if the number is small, sometimes, we may use the hall.

It is a community facility, so whether we train or not, kids still come here to play. Sometimes we are unable to control the number so we advise them to stay at home.

Mwangi estimates that about 35 children are currently engaged in the boxing programme. With the safety measures in place, the club is nearly at its limit.
 
We are not planning to have more kids at the moment. We are trying to find out how we can deal with the ones that were already at the gym. And how we can have safe measures to train at this time of the pandemic with the advice of the government and the boxing federation.


Mentors for the youngest
 
The  training restrictions require a lot of self motivation to keep fit. Everyone is expected to train on his or her own. Members organise group runs and other outdoor activities. Kennedy Ochwila, 22, is a member of the boxing club who now mentors for the younger students.
Kennedy shared this photo of a Sunday group run with the Observers team. 

To his younger peers, Kennedy is a mentor. Even now when he is in college, Kennedy takes the time to return to the boxing club. As an older member, he offers guidance.
 
"Staying out of trouble, how to respect other people, avoiding drugs and bad gangs."
 
The youth programme also hosts community service projects, counseling, and peer mentoring, Kennedy told the Observers team.
We also have mentorship programs just for the gym. Here we are taught life outside boxing.

Even before the pandemic, the youth programme was designed to offer kids an alternative to hanging out on the streets. For Charles, the importance of the gym goes beyond learning the art of boxing.
We also try as much as we can to educate the kids.

We don't have specific programmes we talk about because we do not have qualified teachers. At the gym we do things for ourselves. We only talk about life. And how to behave, how to live with others in our community. Staying out of trouble, how to respect other people, avoiding drugs and bad gangs.

So for me I think it's not all about boxing, but we also learn a lot. Boxing is part of the game.

Charles shared this photo of a young student boxing with a coach.
 

Article by Sophie Stuber (@sophiestube)