NAIROBI, Kenya _ When she first picked up a jump-rope, at age 11, Beryl Atieno was just another young girl in Kibera, Nairobi's notorious slum. Her horizon didn't extend far past its mud-slick streets and jagged patchwork of rusting rooftops.
Since then, she has appeared in her sky blue uniform in Kenyan newspapers and on television. A couple of years ago, she traveled to the coastal city of Mombasa, where for the first time she saw the sea.
"At school, we had been learning about the Indian Ocean, and had been told that it was salty," she says. She discovered for herself that it actually is.
Now the 14-year-old is standing on the tarmac at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, looking up at the colossal wing of a 747. "Wow," she says, sucking in her breath. "It's so big."
Soon, the jet will take Beryl and several of her closest friends from Kibera to the other side of the world.
All because of a jump-rope.
On a vacant volleyball court with views of Nairobi's modest skyline, Beryl and the rest of Kenya's first _ and only _ competitive jump-roping team picked up pink-and-white checkered ropes and started skipping.
First they each jumped as fast as they could, counting their hops, for 30 seconds. Then they did it again, this time for three minutes. As one group practiced double Dutch, taking turns in the middle, Beryl worked on her own through a series of tricks, doing splits, push-ups and even a cartwheel, all while bringing the rope over her head in swift, steady intervals. The only sounds were heavy breathing and plastic whipping the concrete.
The team was preparing for the World Jump Rope Championship, an annual competition being held last week and this week in Orlando, Fla. More than 500 athletes from 15 countries are doing battle in several categories, some measuring speed, others judged on technique and style.
The team's coach, a skinny 23-year-old from Kibera named Innocent Nyangori, brought his jumpers to the stadium so they could get used to skipping on the kind of hard surface they would be jumping on in Florida.
In Kibera, they skip on dirt.
Competitive jumping was introduced to Kibera four years ago by an American named Michael Fry.
Fry, who has competed in six world championships and won several gold medals, is what might be called a jump-rope missionary. He believes strongly in its health benefits as well as its potential for social change. The sport is an especially good fit for people who don't have much money, he says, teaching focus and teamwork with no more overhead than a piece of rope.
In 2009, while in his last year at Oberlin College, Fry founded an organization called One World One Rope, aimed at spreading the sport across East Africa. A year later, he was introduced to Carolina for Kibera, a nonprofit that runs youth sports programs and provides other services in the slum. He asked Nyangori, who was working for the organization as a soccer referee, to be his first coach.
Together they toured schools. Fry, now 28, would begin each session with a demonstration of technique and then hand ropes to the kids and let them try. He took note of those who were fastest and most enthusiastic and asked them to practice with him after school.
Beryl was one of the first to say yes.
Tall for her age, with high cheekbones and hair shaved close to her head, Beryl has a quiet, intense demeanor. When she speaks, it is softly and thoughtfully.
She had never jumped rope before and was awe-struck by Fry's fancy footwork, especially his execution of a trick called the "mamba," where the jumper lets one side of the rope go, spins it, and then catches it, jumping all the while. She asked Fry whether he could teach her. After a month of practicing, she was doing the mamba herself.
At first, her family didn't understand why she was spending her afternoons jumping up and down with an American.
"I was not interested," says her mother, Grace Anyango. "She did not have time to help me cook or wash dishes."
Anyango, 40, who moved to Kibera from rural Kenya in 1990, braids hair at a beauty salon. She has a rocky relationship with her husband, a mechanic who has children with another woman and isn't always around.
Beryl lives with her mother and two siblings in a rented one-room shack. Until a few years ago, they had no electricity.
One of the largest urban slums in Africa, Kibera is a dense warren of lean-tos cobbled together with scrap wood and sheets of tin. Its narrow roads are lined with people selling small buckets of charcoal to burn for fuel and groups of unemployed men, lounging and listening to music. Long neglected by the government, the neighborhood receives many of its basic services from international aid groups.
Beryl defends Kibera, which is within sight of some of Nairobi's most desirable neighborhoods, with their well-tended gardens and elaborate security gates.
"The people in the estates say it is so risky, but for us it is just home," she says.
But she is also aware of its pitfalls. In 2007, when Kenya erupted in postelection ethnic clashes, Kibera was the center of the violence. Beryl remembers being kept inside during those weeks, and her father showing up at their door, bleeding.
Traveling with the jumping team has opened her eyes to other ways of living. Someday, she says, "I would love to live in a much better place, and maybe get my parents out."
Fry and Nyangori knew their project wouldn't succeed unless they got the families of their jumpers on board, so one afternoon a few years ago, Nyangori invited them to a showcase.
Refreshments were served and the youngsters showed off what they had learned. Then Nyangori played some DVDs of international jumping competitions. Through jump-roping, he said, their kids could have opportunities to travel.
Slowly, his efforts began to build momentum. In 2010, Fry organized an East Africa jump-rope competition for the teams he had formed across Kenya and Tanzania. The first year, three dozen jumpers competed; this year nearly 100 did.
Beryl holds the women's East African record for most jumps in 30 seconds (86). She is proud of that, but has her eyes on the world record of 102 jumps in 30 seconds, which is held by a Belgian woman.
Through the team, she has forged a world within Kibera that is also separate from it. In a neighborhood where soccer is king, in part because it is viewed as one of the only ways out for young men, the couple of dozen kids who jump after school constitute an underground community.
Beryl has become best friends with a teammate, Christine Juma. The girls like to talk about their future.
Beryl, who became a devotee of the nightly television news after her family got electricity, wants to go to college and become a journalist. Christine, 16, dreams of becoming Kenya's chief justice.
All the medals Beryl has won over the last couple of years now hang in her house, along with framed pictures of her family. With a smile she says, "They are the first things I see when I walk in the door."
On the night the team members leave for America, their families come to see them off.
In the chaos outside the departures terminal, Beryl's mother stands under a fluorescent light in a long floral print dress.
"She is so happy," Anyango says. "And I am so happy for her."
Before she gives her daughter a goodbye hug, she dispenses advice: Work hard, and return with many medals.
Then the team, dressed in green, red and black tracksuits _ the colors of Kenya's flag _ walks inside.
For Beryl, everything is new: the machine that reads her passport, the scale that weighs her bag, the rigors of security. After passing through immigration, she steps onto an escalator for the first time. Its movement surprises her, and she trips. For a moment she stands at the bottom of the staircase, afraid to step back on. With Christine's encouragement, she tries again. At the top, they laugh.
They buy a Kenyan flag in a curio shop _ with plans to display it in Florida _ and make final phone calls to their family members, who are still standing outside, just in case something goes wrong.
And then they board the plane and go up in the air.
(c)2014 Los Angeles Times
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services