Kenyan coastal communities fight obesity in children through sports

Beneficiaries of Diani Tigers during their training session in Kwale county. Courtesy Photo

Penina Mutheu, a coast resident, takes her seven-year-old to swimming and boxing classes every weekend and during school holidays to make her stay fit.

The daughter started last year after the mother realized her weight was becoming too much, noting that at the time, she had hit 50kg as soon as she turned seven. “At her school, they have no playing grounds; they always go for a neighbouring school every time they have physical education class,” she says.

For Penina, this was one of the reasons for weight gain, as her daughter spends most of the time at school. The private schools I visited in Mombasa and Kwale counties have limited or no space for learners to play. Most of them hire playing grounds from other schools during school tournaments.

Diana Heri, a sports nutritionist from Kwale County, says the lack of enough physical exercise for children could be one reason obesity is on the rise in the area. “Children have no control over what they eat, and that’s why parents need to be aware of what their children eat,” added Heri.

The prevalence of obesity among children is becoming a great concern to many parents in Kenya. Nationally, 5 percent of Kenyan children aged 0-59 months are overweight, with 5.5 percent being male and 3.8 percent being female, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

For Heri, obesity is defined as overweight beyond 24.9, the Body Mass Index (BMI) calculated by the height overweight. According to her, being overweight is a BMI greater than or equal to 25, while obesity is a BMI greater than or equal to 30.

Heri explains that most children who are declared obese are found to be grade one overweight between 30-39. A clinical officer at Kwale Hospital, Elizabeth Chomba, says that children aged 5-9 are at high risk of becoming obese if their BMI surpasses the average weight of 25 because they eat a lot of calorie foods.

The school-going children have become a worrying lot that are currently struggling with obesity at the tender age of 4-15. By region, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that coast region has the highest prevalence of obesity in Kenya, at 32.4 percent, after Nairobi and Central, with 47 percent and 47.8 percent, respectively.

For instance, an assessment of the prevalence of obesity among lower primary school children in Likoni Sub-County, Mombasa County, stands at 23 percent. This was determined by the physical activities children undertake in school, their eating habits, the school’s location, and the food and snacks they get in school.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says obesity among children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight in 2022, including 160 million who were living with obesity. Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) 2022 report indicates that 3 percent of children under five are overweight countrywide.

Meanwhile, more than one million Kenyan children aged between 5 and 19 will be obese by 2030, according to the 2022 World Obesity Atlas Report. According to the report, eight in every 100 Kenyan children become obese every year. Meanwhile, more than one million Kenyan children aged between 5 and 19 will be obese by 2030, according to the 2022 World Obesity Atlas Report.

In the same report on the preparedness for dealing with obesity-related illnesses like diabetes and hypertension, Kenya was ranked 143 out of 183 countries. Dickson Obura, a teacher in Migadini-change, says that in his teaching career, mainly in the blooming small private schools, it’s hard to find a school with adequate sports grounds for learners to participate fully in games.

“Even if they happen to play, there are still limitations because of space. This is a huge problem, especially in the coastal region.It limits learners from exploring their potential in sports.” Given that a child spends most of the time at school, Obura says it’s easier to add unnecessary weight, especially when their parents don’t pay much attention to their nutrition.

Community interventions

In response to the worrying obesity trends, Fit Fight Aerobics Centre in Changamwe, Mombasa County, works with adults and children between the ages of 5 and 18. They are put in different clubs and introduced to various sports activities.

Davis Okoth, the Center’s owner and fitness instructor, says Penina’s daughter came for boxing class when she was almost 50 kg, which was something to worry about because, according to health experts, the ideal weight for a seven-year-old is 22.45 kg. Okoth says that besides his daily routine as an adult instructor, he helps children, especially on weekends.

He explains that, together with a few other fitness enthusiasts, they have weekend sessions where they divide kids into different groups and engage them in sports they like or are passionate about; this is normally done from 3 to 5 pm.
Okoth started the program in 2019, and so far, he has been able to help more than 100 kids from the Changamwe region.

“We do this out of our love for sports, and our main goal is to help children stay healthy and fit.
For Okoth, obesity is rampant in the coastal region because most people living in the area eat a lot of carbohydrate-rich foods like wheat, fried potatoes, and rice.

“Kids love such foods; you find that a parent will not pay much attention to the impact of such a diet.As much as we involve them in exercises, we also educate them on avoiding such foods and tell them to pass the same information to their siblings and parents.”

However, he clarifies that since sports and nutrition go hand in hand, as fitness coaches, they find it fundamental to share what they believe has been scientifically proven to fight obesity as far as information on nutrition is concerned. He adds that this package is also free of charge.Just like Fit Fight Center in Mombasa County, a Community-Based Organization (CBO) known as Kwale Sports Excellence in Kwale County is also engaging children and young people in sports activities like football, athletics, martial arts, and taekwondo, among others, to curb the menace.

The eight-month-old community-based organization has over ten children who benefit directly from the sports program, implemented in collaboration with other like-minded partners. The objective is to fight obesity and other related health conditions like juvenile diabetes, breathing difficulty,and lack of sleep that come with physical inactivity.

“We are working with Diani Tigers to train and guide children who engage in sports on healthy nutrition,”says Riale Mwazani,founder and chairman of Kwale Sports Excellence. The organization focuses on talent development by incorporating a diet plan for sports enthusiasts and the beneficiaries’ caregivers under a nutritionist’s guidance.

In addition, the CBO partners with Diani Tigers Studio, a non-governmental organization that ensures girls and other young people have equal opportunities. The organization comprises a girls’ football team that seeks to nurture the talents of underprivileged children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The team consists of 25 girls under 18 years old. The Diani Tigers, registered in 2020,is overwhelmed by the many children it supports, making it hard to reach out to others who might need the same help. In addition, it offers classes on Afro dance, gymnastics, soft workouts, self-defense courses, flexibility, and stretching.

Mwanahalima Swaleh, now 17, was recruited by Diani Tigers through her friend, who was playing on the girls’ football team three years ago. By then, Swaleh weighed 78 kilograms at the age of 14.

Swaleh during the interview at her playing ground. Courtesy Photo

“Since joining the team in 2021, I have been able to shed 34 kilograms; this is a huge motivation for me because I have managed to reverse the obese condition I had before,”says Swaleh. She attributes the drastic weight loss to training hard at the Diani Seacrest ground in Msambweni Sub-County, Kwale County, and heeding advice from her coach.

Maingu Jaji, a certified coach with four years of experience under Confederation of African Football (CAF) level D, identified Swaleh among the girls who have recovered from obesity. Jaji, who trains the Diani Tigers football team, says the girls undergo intense physical fitness, which includes running and stretching to improve their mobility.

Swaleh, determined to lose weight, says it was difficult for her to do house chores because of her condition.
“I was very heavy and could not do anything because of fatigue, and that’s why I had to join the team,” says Swaleh. Her grandmother, Mwanakombo Abdallah, commended the Diani Tigers training program for helping many children fight obesity.

Abdallah says the program has shaped and transformed her granddaughter, who now considers a healthy diet.
“I urge parents to ensure that our children eat cholesterol-free indigenous foods like greens, vegetables, and potatoes,” says Abdallah.

Saidi Jafari, Swaleh’s uncle, says that the program has helped his niece, and they have also embraced a culture of healthy eating habits and exercise. Jafari says that the program has made Swaleh active due to frequent exercises, and as a family, they have adopted the idea of working out by cultivating on their farm.

Another beneficiary, Irene Joseph, who weighed 60 kg, joined the football team last year to develop her football talent and lose weight. She lost 21 kilograms from her original 60 kg, which helped her avoid obesity. “I was used to consuming a lot of sugary foods; my mother, who was against the idea of me playing football, was impressed after noticing my weight loss journey, something that made her change our eating habit from unhealthy to healthy,” says Joseph.

Irene Joseph has so far shed off 21kgs from 61kgs. Courtesy Photo

Diana Heri, who works for the Kwale Sports Excellence CBO, runs a program to sensitize parents to the importance of a well-balanced diet with zero fats for their children. The program, which has been running for more than seven months, has so far reached over 50 parents who are advised on what their children should eat.

“Children should avoid taking a lot of sugary and junky foods like sweets and chips and instead take a healthy diet like greens, blended juice and groundnuts,” says Heri. Heri warns that lack of a balanced diet and physical activity causes obesity in children, which can lead to health complications like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension if it’s not managed.

Edith Mwanaharusi, a parent to an eight-year-old Khadija Meja, says her child joined a dancing club, another activity under Diani Tigers Studio that saw her improve, especially in mobility and flexibility. A choreographer, Alan Wesonga, who also works at Diani Tiger Studio, says that in addition to his work at the studio, he is mentoring young talents free of charge in dancing, and Khadija is one of the beneficiaries.

He explains that since this is not part of his work at Diani Tiger Studios, on weekends, he works with a few kids in Diani who show interest in dancing and that the activities mostly happen at the beach since he is not in a position to rent or higher dancing hall at the moment.

The mother of the eight-year-old says that previously, her child was heavy, and it would take time for her to manage her movement. This is different now, as she is flexible. “The main goal is to stay fit (keep off from gaining unnecessary weight) as well as nurture their talents.”

“Most of these kids are school-going children, and the only time they fully engage in such sports is during the weekends, especially in the mornings when the sun is not too much,” says Wesonga. She emphasizes the need for parents to guide their children on what they eat and monitor them during their free time at home.

She further warns that obesity can cause death due to breathing problems, heart diseases, juvenile diabetes, and hypertension. “Physical activities can not only prevent obesity but also help reverse the condition among the affected victims,” she adds.

Kwale County Health Minister Francis Gwama urged parents to increase the nutrition status of their children who suffer from malnutrition and obesity. The minister further emphasized the need for schools to consider installing recreational facilities for children to exercise frequently.

“For school-going children, let’s have playing grounds so that they can have adequate exercises, which can improve their nutrition status and health,” said Gwama. Kwale County Education Director Ahmed Abdi says it’s fundamental for private school owners to consider the requirements and procedures of setting up a school as per the ministry rules and regulations.

He adds that with the rising cases of obesity among children, “as a country, we can only fight or contain the situation by engaging children in active sports, whether at home or school.” Elizabeth Chomba, a clinical officer at Kwale Hospital, advises parents also to embrace the culture of taking their children for regular medical check-ups once a year.

Noting that, in addition to sports, this also reduces the risks associated with obesity, which can affect a child’s performance in school due to brain damage and lack of sleep. “Obesity results in child drop out because of poor performance caused by lack of enough glucose and oxygen that can damage the brain,” explained Chomba.

Diana Heri, a sports nutritionist links obesity to both lack of a balanced diet and physical activity. Courtesy Photo


The Kwale CBO lacks fitness equipment, which poses a significant challenge to this initiative. According to Coach Jaji, they require equipment like agility ladders, hurdles, speed rings, and space makers, among others, for essential fitness and aerobics, which they can’t afford.

Diani Tigers football team manager Kadir Muja says the team depends on donor funding from an Australian mining firm, Base Titanium,to run the program. Diani Tigers uses the funds to pay a maintenance fee of Kshs.1500 for the sports ground and a training hall hosting their offices for Kshs.18,000 monthly.

The organization brings together children aged 4-18 for free weekly sports activities like football and taekwondo between 2 pm and 5 pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday from 7 am to 10 am. However, Muja says that the company’s support is not enough since the mine’s life is almost over, and the minerals will be depleted at the end of this year.

“Base is exiting, and we are afraid we will no longer get the money to cater to our needs,” says Muja, who noted that the CBO also depends on contributions from its clients, primarily schools. The Diani Tigers team doesn’t have a training ground; for this reason, they are forced to hire their beneficiaries to train weekly after school.

According to him, it’s difficult to help or accommodate a large number of those who need help, which means they are forced to exclude other kids who are willing to join the organization to fight obesity through sports. Muja says they can’t hold events, organize tournaments, or have access to standard training equipment because the ground is owned by the South Coast Pirates rugby team.

For Okoth, at times, the number of parents reaching out for help is overwhelming, which he says means that quite a good number of children need help as far as obesity is concerned. “Because of time and lack of enough space to accommodate as many kids as possible, we are forced to leave other children who need the same help outside,” he says.

He notes that as much as they try to keep children physically fit, parents must also educate them on the importance of good nutrition and involving their children in any sport. “We don’t have that capacity to invite parents, and even if we had, we would be lacking health experts to guide them on proper nutrition, which is a huge setback when fighting obesity in young people,” he explains.

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