In Kenya, a photographer documents the changed lives of one group grounded by COVID-19: Athletes

The loss of sporting events and international travel has curtailed the ambitions – and income – of elite sportspeople in Kenya. But despite the loss of their dreams, resilience remains.

James “Onyi Yule Mbaya” Onyango trains in his gym in Kariobangi, Nairobi. Onyango was the World Boxing Foundation (WBF) welterweight champion in 2017; he has since invested his time in running a local gym that allows him to earn a living and to give back to the community. COVID-19 has prevented boxers from competing, and according to photographer Louis Nderi, not having an upcoming fight also deprives them of the “drive and the morale to get up and train in the morning.” 

Photograph by Louis Nderi
Photographs By Louis Nderi
Published 25 Feb 2021, 12:35 GMT, Updated 3 Jun 2021, 12:08 BST

AROUND the world most people have been forced to change their lives to adapt to the restrictions imposed by COVID-19. Many have had to rethink their means of income, with the travel and hospitality industries hit particularly hard by a world told to stay at home, and avoid crowds. And for one section of society, these two restrictions in particular have combined to force a change to which some are scrambling to adjust: athletes. And in some countries, the change has been total.   

Photographer Louis Nderi, a National Geographic Explorer born in Kenya and raised in Eswatini, has documented the changing lives of a group of elite athletes in and around Nairobi as part of a project around Kenyan identity. His images reveal a group of people exemplary for upholding a national tradition of sporting achievement around the world – as well as critical community outreach and training – being forced to confront an immediate future without it. 

(Related: In this sprawling city within a city, fighting coronavirus requires solidarity.)

Kenyan athletes have a long history on the international stage. Competitors from the East Africa country hold 23 of the 95 world records for male and female outdoor events kept by World Athletics; the next closest is the USA, with 15. Yet for all the fanfare, for many of the individuals the ability to work as professional athletes are hampered by economic challenges, systemic gender inequality – and now the government's approach to supporting a source of national pride during a global pandemic.

It's a reckoning, Nderi says, that not only should be prompting Kenya to consider its attitude towards its cherished ambassadors, but will record the reality of life of these athletes through the new hardship prompted by COVID-19. Some are managing just fine with auxiliary careers; some are being forced to train in makeshift facilities, and are struggling on every level.   

Of his project, he says: “The main goal is to create an opportunity for Kenyans to be in charge of their own narrative. To open a discussion on what it means to be a Kenyan today. What does it look like? What does it feel like? All through the eyes of these sportsmen and women.”

Nderi spoke to National Geographic UK about his work.

What makes the situation for athletes in Kenya particularly challenging?

The athletes shown in these images represent the situation at large – which is a lack of opportunities due to cancellation of major sporting events. Their major source of income was completely cut off. These athletes have dedicated a large portion of their lives flying Kenya’s banner; they are Kenya’s best brand ambassadors. The pandemic was an opportunity for the country to give back to the people who have given so much. The government’s response to the athletes overall is underwhelming to say the least.

Michelle Sinaida is a member of the Kenya Lionesses, the national women's team for rugby. In her first international game against Uganda, she scored the game's winning try. Despite the team's performance winning them a slot at the 2021 Olympics, financial corruption and lack of support for women's rugby players in Kenya makes it difficult for athletes like Sinaida to compete at the level required by the international stage – even before COVID-19. "Everyone just wants to have a piece of what is not theirs," she says. “You find that at the end of the day, the people who suffer are the people at the bottom who should be receiving what has been released.”

Photograph by Louis Nderi

Kenneth “Valdez” Ochieng is one of Kenya's most decorated boxers. Since returning to Kenya from Denmark in 2014 he has worked as a coach using, Nderi says, “his expert knowledge to connect with his community and to inspire the next generation of gifted pugilists.” He runs a gym in his neighbourhood of Komarock, Nairobi.

Photograph by Louis Nderi

Christine Nafula is a professional footballer who plays for the Vihiga Queens, the Harambee Starlets – Kenya's National Women’s Team – and Dalhem IF, a Division 2 club in Sweden. After a successful first season with the latter, she returned to Kenya to prepare for her second when the pandemic hit. “It just stopped everything. As a footballer I realised, this year you are no longer going to play, because we played only one match and after the first match, the league was done. We currently don’t know if the situation will be contained and if things will go back to normal…so sometimes you sit there and wonder what you are training for.”

Photograph by Louis Nderi

As a photographer, why did you want to cover this subject? 

I think initially by instinct. In another life I may have been a rugby player or boxer. The connection to sports is a personal one. I wanted to find a way of engaging with them that was meaningful. I suppose I was motivated to show in pictures what hasn’t been seen before, but I later settled on making pictures that were authentic and honest to the situation that all these athletes were experiencing – as COVID-19 is something we are all experiencing collectively.

(Read: photographs show the world's essential workers on the front lines.)

What was the attitude towards COVID-19 amongst the people you photographed? 

COVID-19 took a backseat to putting food on the table and paying the bills. Most of the athletes don’t live in the urban areas, so the attitude was more like “COVID is only in Nairobi” (referring to the suburbs) not where most of the athletes live, which is on the outskirts/lower income areas of the city or country.

Ken Valdez Ochieng and his neighbours say a prayer before a training session. Louis Nderi: “Every morning from Monday to Friday, Ken wakes up at 5am for his one-hour jog and then proceeds to train his neighbours at his home gym in Komarock Estate at 7am sharp. What comes to mind when I think of Valdez and the neighbours is the strong sense of community. COVID comes after. Not because they don’t care about the dangers of the virus, but because community is what keeps them going. Community is the social fabric we cling to when nothing else remains.” 

Photograph by Louis Nderi

Louis Nderi: “At the age of seven, Ann Aluoch developed a keen interest in football and would tag along with her older brothers to play. She excelled in the sport and at sixteen would join the Harambee Starlets – Kenya's national women's team – as a junior. In total she played for ten years on the national team both as a player and a captain, and is today the assistant coach. She is also the co-ordinator for the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) where she runs the talent academy within her local community in Komarock, Nairobi. “We (female players) don’t take football as a career in this nation because it doesn’t pay,” she says. Quitting “at the age of twenty-eight when I had a daughter, I had to find something chose coaching because sometimes it pays. It is somehow like a career, because sports (in Kenya) is growing, and I can go to the male teams and coach them.”” 

Photograph by Louis Nderi

Many of the subjects of your work have presumably been forced to make a living by other means... 

All the athletes had to revert to an alternative means [of income] or massively scale down in some way. Ken “Valdez” Ochieng, one of Kenya’s most respected boxing coaches, would coach hundreds of boxers in different gyms around the city. Currently he is limited to training his neighbours at his home gym. Michelle Sinaida, who plays for the Kenya Lionesses (National Women’s Rugby Team), now focusses more on her day job working for a logistics firm, giving up her rugby life entirely until the pandemic eases up. Christine Nafula, who had an international football career playing for Dalhem IF in Sweden, is now knitting mats and carpets full time. The lifestyle changes have been all quite dramatic.

(Read: the calming power of nature during a pandemic.)

Rugby player Michelle Sinaida trains on the rooftop of her home in Nairobi. The sport has a high incidence of injury; Sinaida says that recovery – both psychologically and physically – has little support in women's sport in Kenya. “I have had to go out of my way and do it personally. It is more mental than it is physical. There is no psychological guidance. At the end of the day you will come back home to your family and they will want a hundred percent from you, but they don’t realise that you have already lost so much of yourself that you don’t have any more to give.”

  

Photograph by Louis Nderi

Ken Valdez Ochieng gives his neighbours a fitness training session, Komarock Estate, Nairobi. Louis Nderi: “The training sessions are lively and for that one hour you are there, nothing else matters. This is what I assume the neighbours must be feeling because they are so engrossed in the training that they don’t seem to notice me or my camera anymore.”

 

Photograph by Louis Nderi

Some of Ochieng's accolades and mementos from his boxing career hang in his home. The bulk of his achievements were made when he left the country in 1985 and emigrated to Denmark; he returned to Kenya in 2014.

Photograph by Louis Nderi

What is the importance of sport and athleticism in the fabric of Kenyan identity? 

Since independence, Kenyan athletes have always been symbols of national pride and heritage. Kenya’s sporting history is a vibrant one that the younger athletes look back on for inspiration. I think our athletes, like the runners for example, are very proud that their contributions, in the hearts and minds of many Kenyans, will be immortalised forever. Athletes in Kenya are icons, and symbols of a brighter future. However many of these athletes, especially the female athletes, feel jaded by a government and organisations that do not pay the women as much the men. Corporates in Kenya also do not sponsor the Women’s Premier Leagues.

The attitude of these women athletes towards sport is that it is just a “passion” and it is something that cannot be pursued professionally. The majority of the athletes are appreciated for their entertainment value but are rarely given the opportunity to fully realise their potential. The reality of course is that not everybody can make it to the Olympics or the world stage, but you don’t necessarily have to get there to make a good living as an athlete.

As well as the practical aspects of making a living, there is also the sense that some of these athletes are suffering the death of their dream, identity even. Do you agree?

I think to an extent due to the lifestyle changes, a lot of athletes are going through hardship. Despite this, what surprised me was just how positive most of the athletes are. There is cameraderie and a strong sense of community among the athletes which has made them resilient even in the toughest of times. It is important to acknowledge that since the pandemic started in March [last year], the government has been sending one-off payments to some athletes such as the football players in the national men’s and women’s teams. There is still however a lot of work to be done to create a sustainable solution for Kenyan sportspersons for the foreseeable future. A lot of athletes would mention the need for adequate facilities and resources to train during the COVID period.

Was there a sense of hope?

It was interesting for me to see where the real strength of these athletes comes from. The consistent thread that ties them together is family. Whether that means colleagues at work, friends at the gym, or spending time with children and loved ones. When the athletes are with family, COVID-19 ceased to matter, their careers didn’t matter, their living situations did not matter. Community is the social fabric that we cling to when nothing else remains.

Louis Nderi is an award-winning photographer from Kenya, and a National Geographic Explorer

This work was supported by the National Geographic Society’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists.

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