by John Seale
|Clinton in 2020 beginning the Ndoto Gym|
Last week, five boxers representing Ndoto traveled to Nairobi and competed in a nationwide novice tournament. If that's surprising to you, you aren't alone. Though we've talked about sports for a long time at Ndoto, boxing has been an underrated piece of our wide-ranging ministry.
|The first weights were a mix of recycled parts like bike handles and water jugs|
Sports ministry has been part of Ndoto since at least 2012, but primarily with soccer and occasionally basketball (I can't forget the nasty skinned knee I got years back on the gravel court outside our office). In the early days of the pandemic in 2020, Ndoto hired a young man named Clinton Okoth, who was a burly athlete studying criminology through Ndoto, to provide campus security while our staff was infrequently at the office. For leisure, he used spare construction materials to create homemade free weights for strength training. As outdoor activities were allowed, a few people from the community began to visit to use the equipment. With bits of plastic, metal, concrete, and wood, an outdoor gym was being born.
Clinton, who is Ndoto Community Church pastor Michael Omondi's brother, has a passion for sports ministry as an early intervention and mentorship opportunity for young people. As the pandemic dragged on but restrictions on gatherings eased, he began to dream of formalizing a Sports Academy to include the Ndoto-sponsored community soccer team and the fledgling gym. Michael and Clinton's interest in boxing led to a third component, and today Clinton overseas Ndoto Boxing & Gym and the Ndoto Sports Academy.
|The first Ndoto Gym structure|
When the Ndoto chicken and egg business closed after not finding a path to sustainable profitability, Clinton asked for and received permission to renovate the former chicken coops into the first gym. When the Ndoto Academy rebuilt that part of our campus into classrooms, Ndoto put up a semi-permanent structure on a new piece of land that we had bought to establish a real gym for exercise, training, and other community events.
As other young men grew interested in boxing, Ndoto found a coach who lived in the rural area outside Kisumu who was willing to train the young men regularly. Charles Onyango is a 48 year old boxing coach that Michael had met at another Kisumu gym. He is a determined, God-fearing man who now attends Ndoto Community Church each Friday for prayers and fellowship after boxing. The young men each pitch in 20 to 50 shillings per day (less than 50 cents) so that he can get transportation back home.
Before this month, Ndoto Boxing had participated in three friendly competitions, with as many as 10 boxers, including some young ladies. They regularly won their fights and earned respect throughout the county in novice boxing. Two boxers even traveled to Uganda for a tournament.
|Outside the ring, Calvin is straight-laced and gentle as a Sunday School teacher|
In addition to Clinton and Michael, Ndoto Boxing boasts another Ndoto family member: Calvin Otieno. Calvo, as we call him, has been a sponsored student since 2020, though he's been part of the ministry much longer. He's the firstborn in his family and stays with his mother in Obunga. He joined Ndoto to pursue a college certificate in Information and Communication Technology. He is one of our Sunday School teachers and could be mistaken for a staff member because he spends so much time volunteering in the office. Many of the high-quality photos that can be seen on Ndoto's social media are his handiwork. In 2022, Ndoto took the rare step of allowing Calvo to "upgrade" his program from a certificate to an Associate's Degree in ICT. We usually expect students to finish with the program we admit them to, but Calvo has been a treasured part of our team with great potential. On top of that, he's a great orthodox-stance (right handed) boxer!
|Rodney is 24 years old and lives in a nearby slum|
Rodney is a talented boxer in our gym who fights with a southpaw (left handed) stance. Rodney finished high school in 2021 and is looking for what his next step is going to be, though he loves boxing enough to dream of going professional. After joining our gym, Rodney began to attend Ndoto Community Church every Sunday. He says that he's learned a lot about how he associates with his peers. When you participate in sports, you have to be willing to be taught and to learn. He says that if he weren't boxing at Ndoto, he'd be getting in trouble at home, using drugs and getting in street fights. At Ndoto, he has learned discipline and better behavior.
This brings us to February 2023, when Clinton, Michael, Calvin, Rodney, and a fifth boxer, Bethwell, traveled to Nairobi to participate in the National Novice Championship, sponsored by the Boxing Federation of Kenya. This tournament is the first step for boxers who want to join Kenyan boxing leagues and play for team Kenya, including at the Olympics, where Kenyan boxers have brought home 7 medals since 1968. To get there, each weight class has to start at the beginning.
In fly weight (up to 112 lbs), Calvin made it to the semi-finals. In bantam weight (up to 119 lbs), Bethwell competed up to the semi-finals as well. In the light welter weight (up to 140 lbs) category, Rodney was defeated in a tough quarterfinals match. In the super heavy weight class (over 200 lbs), Michael was a semifinalist as well. Ndoto's victor was Clinton, who advanced to the finals in heavy weight (up to 200 lbs), where he lost on points. As a finalist, Clinton advances to the next tournament, the National Intermediates, in March.
|Some of the Kisumu boxers, including Clinton and David with their certificates|
|Calvin in the ring preparing to fight|
In a gesture of generosity to our community, Ndoto sponsored the meals and accommodations for the other two boxers from Kisumu County, Samson and David, as their gyms don't have many resources. David, competing in the light heavy category (up to 176 lbs), also reached the finals and will compete at Intermediates. Competing in this tournament was a dream come true for so many youth from slum communities, and out of 14 teams in the tournament, Kisumu placed 4th. With new recognition in the national boxing scene, Clinton dreams of raising $4,000 to buy the first professional boxing ring in the city for our gym.
|Michael watching a fight with longtime friend of the ministry JV|
One person who found this a dream come true was Michael Omondi, our pastor, ministry leader, and husband of Ndoto founder and executive Allison Schlack. In addition to being the team manager for all of the Kisumu County boxers, when they got inside Umoja 1 Boxing Hall in Nairobi, Michael's vocation as a pastor was discovered and he was given the stage to pray. Of the opportunity, Michael wrote, "In this ring is a place where people fight, with fists real hard, although the greatest battle is one happening in the hearts and minds of the fighters, the one people don't see. That is where connecting youths in sports with the person of Jesus Christ is key. When all is said and done He was and will be called King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the one who truly fights our battles. He can fight for you too."
Boxing isn't exactly a friendly sport that thrills Michael's wife, but after recognizing that he didn't have a future in professional boxing due to his age, entering this tournament was the culmination of a lifetime of development. Michael testified to why he stepped into the ring and we can't say it any better than he did:
|"When I was growing up, a lot of things were done to me, and so much happened to me which built low self-esteem, low self-worth, and an 'I am worthless' sort of mentality. I did not have a great male role model in my life, hence as a young boy no one would help me overcome being afraid to do things which were hard. I allowed a lot of my actions to be led by the fear inside of me. I did not make bold decisions about anything. If I did, it took so long. Ask my wife how long it took me before I asked her to marry me. The fear was cemented by the trauma of my childhood, when I was told, 'You are weak, not strong, and won't be able to face life's hardships.' I thought, I am afraid and will always be afraid.|
"Then I found boxing. I spent so much of my time shadow boxing instead of fighting. Even in the sport that I loved into my adulthood, fear followed me, and I heard my own voice tell me, 'You see, you are always afraid and scared. You can't do this. It is hard. You are not meant for hard things. Stay away from that ring and you will be safe.' Yet I decided that because I brought my younger brother into this game, I am not going to send him to fight alone and I am going to lead by example. We both stepped into the ring and punched men our same sizes to the floor. For me, I did not knock the guys out, I knocked my fear out. Now anytime someone tells me I can't or won't be able to do something, I work hard at it until I master it and will never let fear rule my life again.
"I got into the ring last weekend both as a fighter and a pastor, fought two rounds, and lost to the guy who would finally win the whole thing. That loss was my own making, as I personally was out of gas and left the fight and he was given victory. He stayed in the fight longer than I could, but I left that ring a winner, because I am glad I went inside the ring and fought. It's something I was always afraid of doing, and now I am glad I did, with no regrets. When fear comes, we just face it and call it by name, and in Jesus' name we go through it rather than run, hide, or pretend it's not there. Courage is not the absence of fear, but doing something you are afraid to do even in the presence of fear."
Video: Clips of Michael Omondi (red in first scene), Clinton Okoth (red in second scene), and Michael praying.
If you were moved by this testimony, Ndoto is accepting donations toward upgrades and equipment at Ndoto Boxing & Gym. Just click at the top of this page and indicate where you want your donation to go.
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