In the waning hours of the day, children trickle into a school compound located at the heart of Nairobi’s Kibra slums. Within minutes of arrival, the children are propelling themselves upward with a jump rope in hand.
For these children, jump rope serves as an ideal tool to reinforce their self-worth and divert their attention from vices that plague their community.
“I wanted to learn jump rope because I admired how players jumped skillfully. I joined while in elementary school and since joining the sport, it has raised my self-esteem and I can now talk to people more confidently,” said 15-year-old Channel Akinyi.
The youngster makes a 19-kilometer trip most weekends to join her peers to sharpen their skills under the instruction of their coaches.
Together with the rest of the team consisting of pre-teens and teens, the jumpers constitute the Jump Rope Association of Kenya (JRAK), a youth-based non-profit operating in the sprawling slum of Kibra.
The association leverages physical literacy to impact discipline, integrity, and a wide set of life skills to young jumpers largely drawn from low economic households.
The sport was first introduced to the children of Kibra in 2010 by an expatriate.
David Omollo, now a coach, was among the earliest jumpers to strike a chord with the sport.
“I was taught by one of the best teachers and within no time I became very good at it. We went for the first regional competition the same year I encountered the sport. We competed against Tanzania and did well,” said Omollo.
Their impressive performance against Tanzania buoyed the team consisting of around 30 children. They began enlisting for more competitions and posting outstanding results.
Soon the sport gained traction and charmed participants from Kibra and its environs onto jumping grounds.
Jump rope as a sport is obscure to the majority of Kenyans who hold it to be just a fitness activity. While this remains to be true, skipping the rope has gradually and convincingly claimed its viability as a competitive sport in the sporting fraternity.
Internationally, the team has competed in the United States and Norway. In 2018, during the World Jump Rope Championship in, the team came in position 3 in the novice category.
They also competed in the International Jump Rope Championship in 2020 and 2021.
“Since the inception of JRAK, we have reached beyond 1,000 children and have spread to at least three counties. This sport has been crucial to children who are predisposed to negative influences because of living in the slums,” said Isaac Ochieng, a trainer.
“Aside from teaching them the techniques of jumping the rope, we carve time to mentor and listen to them,” he added.
Ochieng, who was introduced to the sport in a similar fashion as Omollo, said JRAK determines a competing squad by holding a qualifying tournament.
“Anybody can play this sport. All it requires is consistency and willingness to learn. For some, it takes longer while others a short time. Most children catch on in months,” he said.
According to Ochieng, the sport has a range of techniques and routines. They include single rope freestyle, double dutch, Chinese wheel, and triple under, among many others.
Judges access participants’ speed power, execution of creative techniques, together with other nuanced elements, to determine winners.
Stephen Odhiambo, 18, looks worn out from all the jumping, rotating, and hopping, but his spirit appears to be putting up a spirited fight as he lurches in and out of a double dutch swing.
“I used to think skipping rope was only for girls, but I realized that even boys can do it. This sport has enabled me to make friends and avoid bad company,” he said.
Odhiambo is among the most advanced skippers. He lives in Kibra and has been involved in jump rope since grade two.
Without a stable source of funding, the association finds itself straining to raise funds to attend competitions and secure proper pieces of equipment.
“We are only able to attend competitions through donations… even our kits are donations from partners such as the elite Makini School,” said Ochieng.
The school, based in upmarket Nairobi, has been the association’s biggest supporter, he said.
“If the government can offer us support, that would ensure the longevity of the sport,” Ochieng said.
As it prepares for the September Jump Rope Continental competitions in South Africa, the team hopes to get more help. Enditem