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Photo by Lexi Spaulding

Kenya's Roller Skaters Are Racing Against Everything

Patrick Redford

Patrick Redford

In Kenya's poorest province, the Kisumu Roller Skating Club is training kids as in-line skaters. For Kisumu's kids, it's a way to escape, in more ways than one.

Photo by Lexi Spaulding

Roll through downtown Kisumu, Kenya on a Sunday—past the industrial fortresses, through the groups of lounging men blasting reggae or Luo songs, just off the north shore of Lake Victoria, onto the main drag—and you'll see Barclays. Unless you're schlepping in from the rich part of town, you can't miss the big white bank buidling at the mouth of the city's downtown, which is normally alive with chattering salesmen and piki-piki drivers. But on Sundays, the Kisumu Roller Skating Club takes over.

The Barclays parking lot is the most visible, centrally-located, patch of paved ground in Kisumu where you are not at risk of getting flattened by traffic. This matters because most of the Kisumu Roller Skating Club (KRC) are children. The KRC is at once a social club, a competitive sports organization, and a youth outreach program. Most of all, according to the club's coach and founder Chris Obuong, it's supposed to be fun. A seven-year-old kid named Leon puts on a pair of skates and rips through an obstacle course. The older kids chase him, but he eludes them easily until a sudden rain storm ends the practice.

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Roller Skating is, as you'd expect, not a prominent sport in Kenya. Most kids play soccer, and the country's greatest successes on the international stage have all been in running. The closest thing the country's had to a famous skater is Philip Boit, who went to three Winter Olympics as a cross country skier, and even then the only commonality between skiing and skating is the whole objects-on-feet thing and Boit was a former middle-distance runner. That said, more people around the world and in East Africa are taking up skating, and the sport is growing among kids. Inline skating was one of the sports up for consideration to be added to the 2016 Olympics, but fell just short; advocates will try again for Tokyo 2020.

The Associated Press recently ran a trend piece about skating's growth in Kenya, which they attribute to the growth of the middle class. For all the encouraging statistics, here, most of their reporting and data comes from Nairobi. Kisumu is far smaller, culturally different, and much further from the country's richer eastern half. And yet, despite the headwinds they face, Obuong wants to send skaters from the club to full-time skating academies—and maybe, some day, the Olympics.

The whole world on rollerblades. — Photo by Lexi Spaulding

Obuong founded the club in 2000, when he was 15. Since then, membership has swelled to more than 40 kids, between the ages of four and 18. Two of the newest members, Obuong tells me, are "street boys" whom he is letting live with him for a while. When they can save enough money, the KRC travels around the country to compete in a few races every year. Right now, they're training for their biggest race of the year, which kicks off in Mombasa in a few months. Because it's a school break, the club is practicing during the week at a park not too far from the Barclays.

The kids take turns skating in tightly-bunched echelons around a small track at a park near the Barclays. Obuong has taught them how to skate in sync with each other, and re-form into a unified line after scurrying around corners. After group work, the skaters take turns racing each other in individual time trials. When they cross the finish line, Obuong has them pull off faux celebrations, or cross the line while doing a trick. As a ten-year-old named Brandon tries to skid in backwards only to fall down giggling, Obuong tells me, "I learned these moves myself from watching YouTube. You see what they do; fall a lot and then learn." Skating takes guts as much as grace, and, if you want to improve, falling is part of the game. Emphasizing the fun is the coaching staff's way of taking the edge off of their skaters' fear of falling. Old tutorial videos from foreign countries may be the only formal training that Obuong and his staff have, but they know what they're doing.

The club makes money by seeking out donations on Sundays as well as working parties and functions around town. Some Sundays, they play RollBall (essentially, a frictionless hybrid of handball and basketball on roller skates), which always brings a crowd. The high-end, carbon fiber-laced skates that elite skaters race in cost about $300 a pop, and for all their hustling, the KRC only has two pairs between them. During practices and at races, the skaters pass them around and everyone else chooses from whatever's left. The rest of their equipment is a grab bag of helmets from a series of different sports, ill-matching pads, and skates of all qualities. The club has enough gear for everyone to skate, but not necessarily enough for everyone to race.

Stunting on them (the skates). — Photo by Lexi Spaulding.

At their last race, the club fared better than a rival club from Nairobi with better equipment. But to keep pace, the KRC will need to outfit more members and buy more racing skates. This is only one of the series of economic challenges Obuong and the club face. Look around the neighborhood where the Kisumu Roller Skating Club practices and you'll start to recognize the proliferation of half-finished hotels or malls or warehouses. Looming above their main practice track is the ironically-named Palace Hotel. Kisumu is a growing city, but there are lost projects everywhere. These are the economic realities of Kenya, which has a per capita income under $2,000; Kisumu lies in Nyanza Province, which is the poorest in the country.Obuong's goal is to make the club a lasting institution, to resist the economic tides that push against the club's progress.

One of the club's best skaters is a 10-year-old named Leon. He travels three hours every day during his school holidays to Kisumu from Nakuru to skate with the club. Leon is a swimmer back home, but he prefers skating for its flair and speed. During time trials, he rips around the corners and gets the second-fastest time, but nearly falls trying to pull off an audacious one-foot victory salute. He's one of the few skaters who'll travel to every meet and get to wear the racing skates. This also makes him one of the few who has a chance to make it to an academy.

According to Obuong, two Kenyans (both from Nairobi) have been accepted to full-time inline skating academies in France and South Africa in the last two years. If Leon or any of the other rising stars at the club make it, it would go a long way towards solidifying the KRC's footing. For all the fun skating is, it can't touch the opportunity or cultural clout of soccer, so the club struggles with recruiting. To attract better athletes, the KRC needs to have a success story.

Getting in-line. — Photo by Lexi Spaulding

Leon is fast, as are plenty of his teammates, but the academy dream is still far away. That's the thing about trying to establish solid footing for what's essentially a startup: it's always about more than what you can do, or make; how fast you are is secondary. Obuong wants the KRC to escape from whatever economic orbit has grounded the Palace Hotel and give his skaters a chance to represent Kenya and Kisumu on an international stage. Think about all the hurdles the club faces at once, and the idea of progress seems daunting. But nobody on the ground seems overwhelmed by the distance between the Barclays parking lot and the Olympic games. They're just skating.

The fastest skater at the club for his age is probably the younger Leon, who was out-skating older kids at the first KRC practice. He's never lost a race, but he isn't skating today. Leon might be the closest thing the club has to a prodigy, but there isn't any pressure on him to Carry the Club To Glory or whatever. During time trials, he clocks times on an older boy's phone, and screams out the times with manic glee. Leon might be a future star or a future Olympian. Right now, he's just a kid, having fun.