Inside the mat room at Eastside Catholic School, Hamisi Kondo is ready to attack.
His compact frame seizes with anticipation as the referee prepares he and his opponent for the match, his eyes never breaking the gaze of the youngster opposite him.
The shrill of the whistle has barely ceased to echo when Hamisi takes control, out-grappling and then overpowering his opponent, taking him to the mat and securing a first round pin.
As the room explodes with cheers from parents and teammates, Hamisi shakes hands with a forlorn and defeated opponent and the opposing coach before returning to watch the remaining matches, barely cracking a smile.
On the other side of the room, a woman claps her hands and grins heartily. Amy Canady is thinking not only of the win, but a journey of a lifetime that made it possible.
There may not be a place in the world that offers a more stark contrast to Sammamish than Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
The largest city in the the East African country, with nearly 4.5 million residents, bears little resemblance to the sprawling suburbs and neatly kept storefronts on the Plateau.
But for Hamisi Kondo, after an arduous journey marked by perseverance, both are home.
Amy and Dennis Canady have lived on the Eastside for many years, and been involved in competitive jump rope for decades longer.
A former Miss Washington runner-up in her youth, Amy was also a World Champion jump roper before becoming a coach in the late 1980s, also serving as a board member for the national and international governing bodies for the sport. She took over Hot Dog USA, the same Kirkland-based team she was an original member of, in 1992 and has remained dedicated to its presence.
Not only did the Canadys’ expertise make them the area’s jump rope ambassadors, it made them the first choice of a college graduate named Mike Fry looking to take the sport to places it had never been.
Fry, an Ohio native and competitive jump roper since age 11, had won gold medals at the World Championships and competed around the world by the time he finished his Bachelor’s. But he also knew to find a future in the sport, he had to find a niche.
“I felt like I could either let my interest die out, or do something with it,” Fry said. “I’ve known I wanted to do something to pay it forward.”
With a Fellowship he was awarded in 2009, Fry set out to find a country where he could bring competitive jump rope as an outlet and opportunity, where there may otherwise be few.
An older sister who had taught in Africa got the ball rolling, and led Fry to Tanzania.
The mission was simple: give kids a chance to find their talent and provide a means for expressing that talent.
He travelled to communities throughout east Africa, spending time in centers for street children and orphans and hearing their stories and sharing his gift. For nine months he journeyed to places where resources can be scarce and poverty the norm, interacting through a sport he sees as simply an opportunity, even with some of his own doubts.
“What have I gotten myself into,” Fry said he wondered to himself weeks after arriving. “It was so far out of my comfort zone, but it ended up being amazing.”
Before leaving the United States Fry sent out around 100 emails to schools, youth centers and other organizations, hoping to gauge interest and make inroads to those in need.
One of the responses led him to the Dogodogo Centre in Dar es Salaam, and a boy named Hamisi.
Even with little idea of the spectrum of the operation or the continent set as its stage, the Canadys agreed to take a trip to Tanzania to join Fry in hosting a two-day championship and accompanying camp in competitive jump rope.
“We hopped on a plane not having any idea what he was doing,” Dennis said. “They were the hardest working kids we had ever seen.”
The dedication of the kids to learning techniques and building stamina immediately struck the Canadys, and they found one boy in particular to have an undeniable connection with them.
His name was Hamisi.
“Hamisi was one of the first children we met,” Dennis said. “He was clearly special in a variety of ways.”
Special is a word Fry also used to describe the youngster he met on his first trip to the Dogodogo Centre, a boy whose excitable nature was undeterred by his malnourished frame.
“He picked up a rope and did a handstand right away,” Fry said. “That just doesn’t happen.”
As the two worked together that first time, it was apparent the type of hidden and untapped potential Fry was seeking lied right before him in Hamisi. Pushups with the jump rope in hand, repeating skills on the first try he was shown, and connecting intricate and difficult combination, were just a few of Hamisi’s tricks, and unknowingly set him on the path to a life far away from the Dogodogo Centre and streets of Dar es Salaam.
Fry continued to take a special interest in Hamisi, eventually persuading him to spend more time exploring the depths of his talent as a jump roper. The results were sudden and staggering.
“It finally stuck with him that he was good at it, and enjoying it,” Fry said. “I have a video of him trying one trick 40 times before he got it. That is just the kind of kid he is.”
As his talent grew, so did his relationship with the Canadys.
The boy by the river
The timing of that bond seemed destined to take the place of another.
When he was around six years old (a lack of centralized birth records in the country makes knowing Hamisi’s exact age impossible), Hamisi watched as his sister and both parents succumbed to tuberculosis, leaving him with only his grandparents.
But his closest remaining family and new de facto guardians were too old, and in no state to work to support the family.
So at an age when more fortunate kids are trading snacks on the school bus and playing kickball at recess, Hamisi provided that support, however humble, and through the only means he knew.
“Hamisi would go to the river, dig sand, sit it on the bank to let it dry, then fill five-galloon buckets and carry it to construction workers,” Dennis said. “Then, he would sell it to them so they could build.”
Carrying water from the village’s only centralized source to those who could not undertake the task alone was another way to earn a bite to eat, or small amount of money. But with no one left to support him, Hamisi Kondo ended up on the streets.
In need of schooling, shelter and other basic needs, Hamisi landed in a shelter for the city’s estimated 3,000-5,000 “street children.” Neither Hamisi, nor those who run the Dogodogo Centre could have known how that would alter his life forever.
People and pets
The Canadys decided on their way back to the United States after that first trip they also wanted to start a project that could bring jump rope to other parts of the world, and made a pact to host an international competition in Washington D.C. the following year. They found and sponsored kids from Tanzania and Kenya, also inviting jump ropers from around the world to compete in the event.
“Hamisi was one of those kids,” Dennis said. “In his first time, he won the novice world championship in his age category.”
Their bond now crystalized further, The Canadys invited Hamisi to stay with them for a week in what was the first of many trips together. At some point during their journeys to Africa and with Hamisi to the United States, a more permanent arrangement became an obvious ends.
“We started entertaining the idea of maybe adopting, something like that,” Dennis said. “We brought it up with him and he seemed interested.”
That solution was quickly revealed impractical, due the logistics and politics involved. But the Canadys soon found an equally palatable option in Eastside Catholic.
The couple explained Hamisi’s circumstances, and were able to get him enrolled in the school. That allowed them to secure a visa, which allowed Hamisi to enter the United States with them as the sponsors and guardians.
So in 2013, with a limited formal education and virtually no knowledge of the English language, Hamisi came to Sammamish to stay.
Immediately, the hard working nature that defined survival in his former home came to the surface in entirely new ways. A host of new cultural norms, a Catholic school with a student body that hardly reflected his own experiences and rigorous academic standards provided obstacles, but were ultimately no match for a young man determined to overcome.
“He is very bright, but he is also one of the hardest working people I have ever met,” Dennis said. “When he wants something, he is very determined and nothing will stop him. Those attributes are serving him well.”
Hamisi learned English in roughly six weeks and is now nearly fluent. His Humanities teacher, Arlene Naganawa, said his perspective has been refreshing for his peers and enlightening even for staff members.
“It is very inspiring,” she said. “For the kids, it is kind of eye-opening. His resilience, he has told me things he witnessed that were horrific.”
His adjustment to the United States and an American school has been mostly smooth. Dennis said the main confusions come from story-based learning, when contextual elements like household pets don’t make sense in the context of his life back in Dar es Salaam.
“The first thing for him was, why would you have a pet,” Dennis said. “There is no such thing as a pet where he comes from. Dogs are competition for food. We spend more time explaining the context than actually doing the math.”
As his academic profile has grown, so too has the possibility Hamisi’s fortune in athletics could be nearly as promising.
Along with the jump rope national and international titles, he found team sports like basketball and soccer came naturally. When he hit the wrestling mat, middle school coach Larry Roybal said the results were staggering.
“He was a natural athlete,” Roybal said. “He really excelled.”
Other coaches, opponents and EC’s high school wrestlers took an immediate interest in Hamisi, and Roybal said 2013 state champion Matt Iwicki spent time working on the finer elements and techniques of the sport.
As it has in so many other areas of his life, Hamisi’s hard work paid off when he took third at the Triangle League postseason wrestling tournament for Eastside Catholic.
Roybal said that could be the tip of the figurative iceberg on the mat.
“My opinion is, if Hamisi continues in the program and does stuff outside the program, he will be Eastside Catholic’s third state champion,” he said. “He has that ability. He is quick, strong, and you can teach him just about anything.”
Learning to adapt is not something Hamisi takes lightly.
He insists on hours-long sessions at Hot Dog USA, determined to get new tricks and routines perfected despite the urging of the Canadys.
“Our other athletes show up for their hour, and they’re done,” Dennis said. “Hamisi stays for six hours, and that is him, not us. We would rather be somewhere else.”
That work ethic was born of a time when he struggled with issues far more pressing than a new skill with the jump rope, or technique on the mat, and has carried over to the classroom for Hamisi as well.
“I work very hard,” he said. “I told them (teachers) I wanted the same work the other kids do.”
Hamisi and the Canadys must take trips back to Tanzania, to verify his academic progress and more importantly for the people of Dar es Salaam, provide a tangible example of their potential.
On his return trip after winning the junior world championship in Washington D.C., Hamisi was hailed as a hero. His face was on every newspaper and television station, and his stardom even granted him an audience with the country’s president.
“He is kind of a national hero,” Dennis said. “As he was leaving the airport, there were employees stopping him and talking to him.”
Amy Canady said while Hamisi’s journey to the United States has been a winding one, the outlook for his future seems set on a true course. He knows the status of his Visa, and by extension his presence in the United States, is inexorably tied to his schoolwork.
That fact, along with his own unquenchable thirst for knowledge, has provided plenty of motivation for Hamisi and the Canadys believe, will someday soon land him at a university.
“He is the most determined kid we’ve ever seen,” she said. “It’s beyond amazing.”