NAIROBI — Kayole Social Hall, located in Nairobi’s Eastland, a slum in Kenya's capital, normally hosts meetings and gatherings of locals. But on weekends, it becomes a training space for dozens of young athletes.
There, young boys and girls get together at least twice a week to work on their martial arts skills. Some previously were involved in criminal activities but have found a new pastime – Muay Thai, a combat sport that originated in East Asia. The sport has provided many with a new lease on life and a path away from crime.
Most, like Gabriel Aroka, are trying to change their lives.
“If it wasn’t for this sport, I really don’t know where I would have been right now, most probably dead...I was rolling with bad company. This sport takes a lot of my time, so I do not get to spend a lot of time with my friends and so my time has been valuable here than outside."
Aroka is talking about Muay Thai, a combat sport practiced in Thailand that uses stand-up striking and other clinching techniques to hold the opponent.
Many who have taken up the sport were once involved in criminal activities, according to coach Gilbert Miruka.
“They could be now smoking glue, some of them could have been doing weed, some evil things such as mugging, snatching. When you put your clothes on the line some of them might pick them and go sell it so that they can get money for the stuff," he said.
Miruka has been training Muay Thai fighters for 18 years - and some, like Aroka, have gone on to win local and international titles.
This year, Aroka became the East African champion in the welterweight category, under the International Federation of Muay Thai Associations.
“I can say that me being an inspiration, to another youth especially here in Kayole, it really means a lot because I believe if I can change, what about the others? And since I have people who follow me around asking me and wanting to know when is the next game, I feel good. I feel honored,” Aroka said.
Kayole is considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Nairobi. Unemployment, criminal activity and shootings by police are rampant.
Coach Miruka says crime and violence could be reduced if the government helped Muay Thai fighters to travel to Thailand for more training and competition.
“What I believe is that Muay Thai originated from Thailand but we Kenyans, we are the best. If given the support and every stuff, we can bring more title belts in Nairobi,” Miruka said.
In 2016, the International Olympic Committee recognized Muay Thai as a provisional Olympic sport. That means it could be a sport at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.
Aroka and other fighters in Kenya are training for that possibility.