“I stop and stare at the younger, my heart goes to them. They are tested with stress that they are under and nowadays things change. Everyone's ashamed of the youth because the truth looks strange and for me it's reversed. We left them a world that's cursed and it hurts …” Tupac Shakur raps in his song Ghetto Gospel.
Growing up in any informal settlement in Kenya is not easy. Kids are exposed to crime, drug abuse and other vices at a very tender age and breaking out of the poverty cycle is not easy. They really don’t enjoy their childhood and are forced by circumstances to "mature early" and take responsibilities. Elizabeth Rukwaro grew up in the same conditions and when she was posted to Thika as a sports officer in 2009, she witnessed first-hand as kids from the slums in Thika - Kiandutu, Ngamia, Madharau, Gachagi and Umoja - wasted away.
“I noticed some parents were even using the kids to sell drugs, fetch firewood for sale while others were left to fend for themselves and ended up becoming street kids. I grew up in similar conditions and this really touched my heart,” Rukwaro tells Nation Sport.
It is this that encouraged her to start the Thika Young Dragons Karate Academy in 2009. She holds a 3rd Dan black belt in Karate and understands the power of any sport in transforming the youth in the society.
“It was very difficult to convince most parents to release their kids to train with me in the beginning. I spoke to the head teacher at Kenyatta Primary School and he allowed me to use one class to train kids after classes. I started with just 10 kids but right now we get a minimum of 100 kids from different slums in Thika during the holidays," she says.
Just a year after forming the club, with the help of well-wishers, Rukwaro managed to take 15 kids to Burundi for the East and Central Africa Karate championship. After that the academy has grown in leaps and bounds and have become regulars in the International Funakoshi Shotokan Karate Championship.
The kids have competed in Britain, South Africa and most recently (February) in India where 13 kids impressed winning 34 gold medals and the overall team trophy.
However, it isn’t all rosy explains Rukwaro. "Fundraising for these opportunities is very hard. For instance, we slept in classrooms while other teams slept in good hotels while in India. We could not afford to pay for proper accommodation but despite all that we still did well. This proves there’s talent in the slums it just needs support and mentorship.”
“We also do not have enough gear and whatever we have is also worn out. Most parents cannot afford to buy and we depend on well-wishers. However I have seen tremendous improvement in the kids that we have in the programme and that keeps me going. Four kids from my first lot (2009) are now in university while others are about to clear high school. It is not really just about karate, we also ensure the kids develop academically. I fundraise for school fees for some of the most needy students.”
John Kariuki, the team manager echoes her sentiments: “We aim to develop the kids to become more independent in future and also try to show them that they can make a living through sports.”
'CHANGED MY LIFE'
Diana Luseto, 6, won 2 gold medals in India. She hails from Makongeni Slum in Thika and is a class 6 pupil at Kenyatta Primary School. She says Karate has changed her life.
“My parents were not receptive to the idea of me playing karate initially but I was determined to join the academy and I don’t regret the decision. I have learnt self-defence but most importantly my concentration levels are better now and I am performing better in class. Karate also helps me avoid vices in the slums such as drug abuse and getting into bad company. By the time I am done with training in the evening I am too tired to engage in anything else apart from my homework,” Luseto tells me with determination written all over her face.
“I would like to become a lawyer when I grow up but karate will still remain an integral part of my life. The biggest challenge we have is the lack of a public hall for training. I wish we had that because the class at school is small and also the room we use at the stadium over the weekends and during public holidays is dilapidated and small,” she adds.
Stella Mbindyo, a parent whose daughter, Rose Blessing Mukeli, is a member of the academy, was eagerly following a training session when we visited the kids at Thika Sub County Stadium. She is very proud of her daughter and lauds Rukwaro for "a good job."
“She (daughter) joined the academy in 2016 and has really changed. She is more obedient and works hard in school. I was very happy when she went to India and won a medal. I have never been in an airplane and never thought any of my kids would achieve such a feat – it is a dream come true for me and I know she is heading in the right direction. I can only thank the teacher (Rukwaro) for the good job she is doing for the kids from disadvantaged backgrounds in Thika.” Mbindyo told Nation Sport.
Rukwaro is currently in India where she took 13 kids from the academy for an Under 13 invitational tournament but it is the same script as she had to fundraise for the air tickets and funds for other logistics.
“Several individuals like Thika Town MP (Peter Wainaina) sponsored two kids with tickets while our local church (Jesus is the Answer Ministry) also supported some kids. It is not easy but we can’t give up on the kids when we get such life changing opportunities,” Rukwaro says.
American football great Vince Lombardi once said: “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.” As for Rukwaro and the kids, getting up every time they get knocked down isn't an option - it is the only way.