At an indoor gym in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, Abdul Kalil Mambo threw relentless punches and kicks on a punching bag during a kickboxing training season.
Mambo is part of a growing crop of youth in South Sudan who have embraced martial arts to cope with emotional, physical and mental stress caused by war, idleness and poverty.
The 36-year-old, who switched from Taekwondo to kickboxing in 2017, said he has gained more physical and mental strength since joining martial arts.
“Before I joined this club, I used to like fighting, but at least after joining kickboxing, this is where I demonstrate my skill. So I don’t go out fighting any more,” Mambo said.
“It has modelled my character in such a way that I have become a humble person.”
South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, gained independence from Sudan in 2011; but barely two years later, the country descended into a brutal civil war that has killed tens of thousands of people, displaced over 4 million others and polarized communities along ethnic lines.
Despite the signing of a new peace agreement last September, South Sudan still faces many problems, and sports remain largely undeveloped and underfunded by the state.
Apart from fitness, Mambo said, martial arts have brought unity among South Sudanese youth torn apart by more than five years of civil unrest.
“This center comprises people from different backgrounds. It acts as a center for unifying various tribal groups as you can see,” he said. “We have different people, from different cultures regardless of their backgrounds and nationalities.”
“Our aim is to climb the ladder and go beyond Africa. We are hopeful that we will achieve that,” Mambo said.
Kennedy Christopher, a 28-year-old boxer, said people at the club form “one big family of brothers.”
“We are all South Sudanese representing one big family and a country,” he said. “We don’t have tribalism in our club.”
Johanna John Fidel, 22, said kickboxing and martial arts will enable the youth to shun idleness and do something better for themselves and their country.
“I agree that sports can unite the people of South Sudan and it will bring peace in my country,” Fidel said. “The bad things will disappear because we don’t have any bad feelings toward each other. Our fight is only in the ring and when we go out, we meet as brothers and sisters,” Fidel said.
Poru Okelo, a professional kickboxing coach and promoter, has been the driving force behind the growth of kickboxing in South Sudan.
The efforts of Okelo, who introduced kickboxing into South Sudan in 2010, have paid off. The number of young kick-boxers seeking to represent the young nation in the global martial arts arena has kept rising.
Okelo said martial arts have played an integral role in mending broken ties and forging unity among South Sudanese youth who fought each other in the past.
“When they come here, I tell them to leave whatever they have. I tell them we are not here to revenge on anybody. We are here to train. We are here to be physically fit, to do the best of our life,” Okelo said.
“The first thing is to take the anger out of their mind, not to be street-fighters,” he said. “I tell them sport is to build a nation, not destroy a nation. This is the first thing I tell them.”
“Through sports, they can create more jobs, create opportunities for young people. It is always very crucial to do different things and get the young people off the streets,” Okelo said.