JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN —
Winnie Natasha has played sports for as long as she can remember.
The 21-year-old law student participated in girls’ football and basketball leagues when she was growing up in Khartoum, and today is one of just two girls among some 300 members of a kick-boxing club in Juba, where her family returned to live three years ago.
She joined the kickboxing club six months ago after seeing an ad for it on television. When she went along for her first training session, she ended up being the only girl among dozens of men and boys practising kicks and throwing targeted punches.
But she kept on going to the club in spite of her minority status and strong objections from her family and friends.
"My parents, my friends say, ‘Are you serious? You want kickboxing? What is the problem? You're a girl!’ And I say, ‘Kickboxing is not a problem. It is just a sport,'" Natasha said.
We want more girls to join us as kickboxers for South Sudan.
The South Sudan Kickboxing Association is, in fact, more than just a sport: it was founded in 2008 by Puro Okelo Obe, who wanted to use kickboxing to overcome the tribal differences that continue to wrack South Sudan and often escalate into violence.
Obe never expected women to participate, but when Natasha and 27-year-old Adut Bol began attending training sessions, he welcomed them with open arms. His behavior toward the girls was in sharp contrast to that of most people in South Sudan, who think it's wrong for girls to participate in any sport, let alone kickboxing.
"Our people are thinking once you practice sport, you lose so many things," he said.
"You lose respect. They think you are going to be violent, that a girl will probably not be a good girl."
Part of what drives Natasha as she trains is the desire to show that these stereotypes are not true. She also wants to encourage more women to participate in the sport.
"I hope we can be good ambassadors of kickboxing and I wish for South Sudan to grow in kickboxing," she said.
"We are only two in kickboxing and that is not good, so we want to encourage more girls to join us as kickboxers for South Sudan."
She's about to succeed in that mission: Josephine Samuel, 20, was so impressed after seeing Natasha and Bol kickbox in club tournaments in Juba that she and three of her friends started to come along and watch training sessions.
Now, Samuel and her friends are ready to join in and try the rough-and-tumble sport themselves and Samuel has a dream of becoming "like Natasha and Bol" and getting good enough at kickboxing to be able to travel abroad, to places like Uganda and Ethiopia to compete, she said.