Unsung heroes – a kick start

| December 14, 2012 - 11.22UTC

With the Sports Personality of the Year Awards fast approaching, Carol Gachiengo meets one of sport’s unheralded heroes: the kickboxer turned inspirational coach, Salim Juma Engonga

If you encourage a child who loves decorating dolls’ houses, you may help create a designer of the future. Encourage the kid who scores a goal in every soccer game and – who knows? Maybe he could be a big football star. As for a child who loves to lead – encourage her, and the sky’s the limit.

This is the philosophy of Salim Juma Engonga, a former professional kickboxer who now dedicates his time to teaching orphaned children the power of sport – not so that they can be champions, necessarily, but to give them the confidence to hold their heads high.

He learned this attitude the hard way: as a young boy he was starved of encouragement to develop his own talents. At that time he had two passions – playing and drawing – and both constantly landed him in hot soup with his father. “Kucheza na kuchora (playing and drawing) – that’s all you’re good for! That’s what he’d say,” says Salim, recalling how he was punished whenever his dad found him “wasting time” on these things. Fortunately, these punishments did not ‘cure’ him of his passions. “I still love to play,” he smiles.

Growing up in Jericho was not easy, and he hated school. But when Salim reached Class 5, a teacher came along who made a lifelong impression. Mr Kimani encouraged the young boy’s interest in science and made him feel confident in his abilities. It was the sort of role model Salim himself would prove to become.

Today Salim is a successful and sought-after personal fitness trainer who runs a studio in Karen. But he dedicates two afternoons each week to teaching kickboxing to orphaned children at Hanne Howard Fund Lenana, a children’s home in Karen that supports about 130 orphaned and vulnerable children, ranging in age from two to 20.

“I have great respect for children,” Salim says.  “Each one has a gift. God gives everyone a talent – and no one can take that away,” he says. “But our education system has failed the children by focusing only on academic subjects and ignoring individual talents.”

The kids he teaches have had a tough life, and have perhaps not excelled at other, more team-orientated sports. Through kickboxing, Salim is determined to offer the children something vital – self-esteem. “Kickboxing opens up a child’s soul,” he says. He teaches it not as a contact sport but as an individual pursuit, in which the challenge is not to compete with others but to improve on their own achievements. Getting better week on week – maybe kicking that bit higher – gives each child a huge sense of personal pride, he believes.

“The kids did not even have the confidence to speak,” he recalls of his first day at the children’s home. “Now they constantly ask questions, they laugh and play, they believe in themselves.” By giving the kids a series of small challenges and rewards, Salim has instilled confidence; he has shown them that they are important, and that they are loved.

Salim also keeps the children on their toes – literally and figuratively – by ensuring his sessions stay fresh. “Some days we don’t do kickboxing,” he says. “I will walk in and say: today I want to see who can sing the best, or who can score the most goals in a game of football, or who can decorate a dolls’ house the best. Suddenly, a new talent is discovered.”

So it’s no wonder that a smile constantly lights up Salim’s face – he has had a genuine and lasting impact on these children. Thanks to him, there’s no telling what they could achieve in the future. But however they turn out, you can bet that they will remember their inspirational teacher, Mr Salim.

Quick Facts:     
Philosophy: When you love what you do, you will excel.
Hero: Jesus – because of his example of humility, and treating others as we would like to be treated.
Favourite pastimes: Playing with my four kids, aged 17, 13, 12 and 8; painting pictures of birds.
Enjoy watching: Comedies and action movies – my all-time favourites are Bruce Almighty and Apocalypto.
I’d like to be at: Watamu at the coast, or my home village, Salide, in Western Province.

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