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Fencing offers teens hope in impoverished Nairobi slum

Tsavora Fencing Mtaani Club members head to training in Nairobi's Mathare informal settlement (LUIS TATO)
Tsavora Fencing Mtaani Club members head to training in Nairobi's Mathare informal settlement (LUIS TATO)

Along the muddy tracks of a sprawling slum in Kenya's capital Nairobi, scores of teenagers learn how to fence each weekend under Mburu Wanyoike, whose initiative offers hope in a place bedevilled by crime and lack of opportunity.

Several hundred thousand people live in closely packed poverty in Mathare, many born there like 27-year-old Wanyoike, who a decade ago was on a very different path.

"I was in crime, I was a gangster," he said bluntly, describing how he was shot and lost two friends, before getting a second chance.

Spotted by a fencing coach while working out, he quickly became hooked on a sport that he had never heard of before.

Later, Wanyoike won a scholarship to South Africa and qualified as a teacher before returning to found Tsavora Fencing Mtaani in 2021, determined to help young people.

"The only thing they can do is... crime, doing drugs, for the ladies do prostitution," he said.

His story is one that Dixon Mumia, tracing a path up a narrow dirt track dressed in the traditional all-white fencing ensemble, can understand.

"I was stealing things, I was not a nice boy," said the 17-year-old.

"My coach came to my house, and he told my father to let me do this because when I am with this thing I change my life," he said.

"I decided that this was the place I was supposed to be. I found myself changing," he said.

Still, it was not easy.

"First, when my friends see, they laugh. They say that it is a waste of time, this game is played by the richest people," Mumia said.

The average daily income in Mathare is around $2, according to an education charity working in the slum, EduKenya.

According to Wanyoike, annual fencing training and competing costs around $2,500 which is unaffordable for the community -- even with his efforts to fundraise.

Still, Mumia is determined to make it out: "I was born here, but I don't want to stay here."

- 'My brothers' -

One of the group's stars is softly spoken Eline Marendes, whose past as a dancer comes into focus when she picks up her epee -– even Wanyoike has a fight on his hands.

Rattling rapiers, the pair parry back-and-forth, the group cheering when the 16-year-old Marendes elegantly scores.

"At first I thought it was a very dangerous sport, because I thought we would hurt each other," she said.

Two years of training have changed her mind.

"I see myself as a very big fencer," said Marendes, who grew up in Mathare. "Maybe in two years, I will be earning from fencing."

After warming up in a community centre -- recent floods in Kenya destroyed their usual training grounds -- they hit the streets, with curious onlookers and captivated children following the clashes.

The boys tussle over a point until Wanyoike steps in, as behind them packed matatu minibus taxis screech past and touts scream for business.

Marendes watches the chaos and smiles. "They are like children, but they are like my brothers."

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