Just surviving in the squalor of Nairobi’s Kibera slum seems like enough of a struggle, but Kevin Onyango, the rising star of Thai boxing in Kenya, intends to fight his way out of there.
Kevin, who aims to become world champion, starts every day in the same way. At dawn, boxing gloves on hands, he leaves the tiny room he rents at the back of a mud-hut tailor’s shop and makes his way up a filthy dirt track to the small room above a public shower block where he trains twice a day.
A quick warm-up and the training session starts: uppercuts, hooks, low kicks, high kicks ... the blows thud on the leather punchbags that his opponent holds at arm’s length.
Muay thai, also called Thai kick-boxing, is known as the art or the science of eight limbs, because it involves eight points of contact — hands, shins, elbows and knees — as opposed to two points — the fists — in boxing and four points — the hands and feet — in some other martial arts.
Dripping with sweat, Kevin, 18, gives himself a few seconds between rounds in which to catch his breath.
Down below a handful of drug addicts are starting their day. The smell of cannabis wafts upstairs.
“My aim is to get out of Kibera. I don’t want to spend my life here. If I get good money then I’ll get out of Kibera. I want to be world champion and I’m sure I’ll get there,” Kevin said.
Kevin has lived in Kibera since the death of his parents eight years ago. Taken in by his uncle, he started out by making charcoal stoves, sleeping on the dirt floor of the hut and barely making enough money to feed himself.
He started Thai boxing just three years ago through a humanitarian project funded by the Danish embassy.
“Fight for a child” financed Thai boxing classes for about 30 children from Kibera at a gym with a good reputation, the Colosseum.
Kevin discovered muay thai with Andre Leenheer, a Dutch former professional boxer and chief promoter of the sport in Kenya.
“Thai boxing is a school of life. These abandoned children not only learn to defend themselves, they get to learn discipline, effort, trust ... and then they give back to their community,” Leenheer said.
The “Fight for a child” project is currently on hold for lack of financing, but Kevin is still doing Thai boxing.
“When Kevin [first] came here he didn’t use to say anything, he didn’t talk to anyone. He was always looking down. If you see him now he’s on top of the world,” said Leenheer, who supervises Kevin’s training sessions.
“Kevin has a natural talent for sure. If he sticks with me a bit longer he’s going to go for the top for sure,” Leenheer went on. “If you have the discipline to be a fighter you can also bring that into your normal life also. In your job, in your relationship, whatever you face in the world you’ve been there before.”
Leenheer, who settled in Kenya in 1999, has taken 10 of his recruits to international level, including Douglas Mutua, who ranked eighth in the world.
With generous sponsorship from a private individual — an expatriate fan of martial arts — Kevin is about to set off for Thailand, first to attend a training camp and then to fight professionally.
He also hopes to go to the Netherlands, one of the European countries most advanced in the field of Thai boxing.
“The aim is to take part in K-1,” Leenheer said, referring to the most famous kick-boxing events that brings together all the sport’s champions.