Life in the ghetto can be tough and ruthless.
One has to devise all methods and means to survive the harsh conditions. Life can be even tougher for girls more so, those brought up a single parent.
That is the life that faced Kenya’s newest female boxing sensation Christine Ong’are while growing up in one of Kenya’s most densely populated areas in Nairobi.
That life toughened her as she adapted to the harsh reality. Anyone who dared cross her way found out the hard way that you do not mess around with this girl.
Draped in hooded jumper, she picks the writer and photographer on Kamunde Road approximately 400m off Outering Road in Kariobangi North, Nairobi.
Though the road and trenches look newly refurbished and smooth the drainage system is clogged with all sorts of debris, the water stagnant.
The pungent smell can almost blow away someone’s nostrils, a sign that the trenches haven’t been cleared for a while.
Nevertheless, the area is bustling with activity.
Men and women are busy preparing mandazis, chapatis, social distancing none of the worries, seemingly oblivious to the coronavirus pandemic that has brought the world to a near stand still.
The area is teeming with humanity, bustling with activities related to light industry sector.
It’s an area that has produced great boxers the likes of Nick “The King” Abaka, Nick “Kanyankole” Otieno, Steve Mwema, the late Ben Adoo, George “Foreman” Onyango and legendary boxing coach, the late Eddie Papa Musi.
Ong’are’s diminutive and sprightly figure takes us through an alley as we hop over the clogged trench, not unlike steeplechase runners on an Olympic track.
We make our way through some poorly lit staircases to the second floor of a building along Kamunde Road.
“It has been a busy stay for me here since I jetted back from the Tokyo Olympics qualifiers in Dakar. I have turned into an instant celebrity and that is why I had to cover my head while coming to pick you so as to avoid being recognised. Once they see me, everybody wants to come up to me to congratulate me, or just say hi,” said the accomplished flyweight boxer.
“It’s not a myth … girls are the most vulnerable growing up in such informal settlements. One has to adapt and stay tough. You count yourself lucky if you manage,” says the 27-year-old mother of one.
“I used to fight a lot especially with boys who thought they would find an easy target because of my small frame,” says the Commonwealth Games flyweight bronze medallist.
Ong’are, who last month qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, added: “I can’t remember any boy getting the better of me. I used to smash them all and in fact, some vulnerable girls sought my protection.”
She says that with grin. “Welcome to my humble abode. I have lived here with my mother and my son, who is now in Form Two for all those years.”
Ong’are’s mother, Rodah Agwenyi might have welcomed us warmly to their two-roomed house but it’s the glittering trophies and medals that her last born daughter has won in her boxing career that catch your eyes.
“I wish those greetings from people could turn into money. You feel like a poor millionaire but I thank God for this far,” said Ong’are, showing off one of the trophies she won as the best female boxer in 2019 and the bronze medal from the Africa qualifiers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
There is also the bronze medal she won at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and 2017 Africa Championships in Congo.
“I was an instant star after arriving from Dakar and I never thought the media could be that powerful. That is why I hide my face to avoid attention since everyone seems to know me and I can’t ignore them,” said Ong’are.
Well, it’s Ong’are’s unforgiving and ruthless approach against bullies in the sprawling Kariobangi estate, also know as “Bangu”, that caught the eyes of Alfred “Priest” Analo, director at Box Girls, a non-governmental organisation that empowers women.
Analo thought Ong’are could put her enormous strength and power into some good use.
First, Ong’are tried her luck in acrobatics but with positions full, Analo was fast to advise her to try out boxing after a not-so-good run at football as a striker of Valley Bridge Primary School in Kariobangi North and Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA).
“I have two last borns in this house — Ong’are and her son, who is now 15 years. Ong’are used to player soccer, which her son has embraced. She was that energetic girl when doing her things,” said Agwenyi. “But I didn’t approve of boxing since I was scared of what it would do to her. If she really wanted to play boy sports, anything but not boxing.”
Why would a mother dissuade her last born daughter from donning gloves?
“I hated boxing after my uncle seriously injured his European opponent at some competition, forcing him to quit boxing. My interest in the sport waned,” says Agwenyi.
However, Agwenyi said she opted to support her daughter in anything that would improve their life economically after many years of struggle in abject poverty.
“Sometimes I would move around with my kids after the landlord locked up the house because I had not paid rent on time. We never gave up,” said an emotional Agwenyi while holding Ong’are’s arms tightly.
Ong’are joined Analo at Box Girls in 2010, after dropping out of high school because of fees and an early pregnancy.
“She told me she had joined some community-based organisations dealing in women empowerment. Along the way, the hustle of paying rent eased after Ong’are intervened. If only someone came to my rescue and paid her school fees, she could have gone far in her education since she was a bright girl,” said the adoring mother.
Even though Ong’are joined Analo at Box Girls’ training at SOS in Buruburu area, she didn’t know what she really wanted and almost quit. “After I quit acrobatics to join boxing, I started regretting. I noticed attention was being given to established boxers more than me,” noted Ong’are. “I actually stopped going for training but continued with the outreach programmes.”
Lucky enough, she had struck some good rapport with female boxers Elizabeth Andiego and Everline Odera at Box Girls.
Andiego made history when she became the first Kenyan female boxer to take part at the Olympics during the 2012 London Games. She had fought on a wild card.
“These two girls looked for me and urged me not to quit boxing. Andiego and Odera became my sparring partners and held the boxing pads for me. They told me no one should discourage me from pursuing my passion in boxing. That is how things changed for the better and here I am now.”
Ong’are recalls losing to Jane “Sonko Msoto” Atieno in her first bout back in 2011.
Ong’are featured in novices and intermediate events as her star rose.
Eager to improve her game and knowledge she established another base at Kariobangi Social Hall where she came in contact with the late, renowned boxing trainer Eddie Papa Musi.
He talent told and she didn’t take long before she made the Kenya team for the 2012 World Championships in China.
“I managed to beat Sonko Msoto for the first time to qualify for the world event, which was my first international assignment,” said Ong’are with a beam.
Her handlers, Andiego and Odero gave her some tactics that could end “Sonko Msoto’s” reign.
“She was a powerful hitter hence the trick was to device a style of hit-and-run and it worked well. I beat her for the first and never lost to her again until she hanged her gloves,” said Ong’are, who went to camp with head coach Maurice “Kawata” Maina.
Though the flight to Qinhuangdao, China was long, Ong’are was over the moon, that being her first time at the airport to fly to a distant land.
“It was in China where I realised that my boxing career had moved to a new level.”
“The environment was different from the local one that I was used to,” recalled Ong’are, who beat China’s light flyweight boxer Xu Shiqi in a practice game but lost to Vietnam flyweight Luu Thi Duyen in the round on 32.
“She had speed and was a ruthless hitter. It was tough and that is the only time I have come out of a fight with a black eye in my career thus far,” she recalls.
She qualified to represent Kenya in the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, losing in the preliminary round.
In 2016, Ong’are would meet one of Kenya’s finest boxing coaches Benjamin Musa, who then linked her up with Kentrack Boxing Club. The result. Her boxing soared.
Ong’are missed out on fighting at the 2016 Rio Olympics after losing in the Africa qualifiers in Nigeria. But she went on to win bronze at the 2017 Africa Championships in Congo Brazzaville.
However, for the first time in many years, Ong’are lost to Veronica Mbithe at the 2018 Commonwealth Games trials.
“I am not a person who complains a lot but I felt the decision was unfair but that didn’t both me. We were both called to the Team Kenya camp,” said Ong’are.
Mbithe opted to pursue a career in the military, and just like that, the opportunity presented itself to Ong’are to represent Kenya at the “Club Games”.
Ong’are would make history as the first Kenyan female boxer to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games.
She forced the referee to stop the contest to rescue Dulani Jayasinghe from Sri Lanka in the quarter-finals. But her seemingly grand march was stopped by Carly McNaul from Northern Ireland in the semi-finals, relegating her to a bronze medal.
“That quarter-final was one of my toughest bouts. I got to learn women can box well out there. Kenya must step up their act in as far as women’s boxing is concerned,” said Ong’are.
From the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, Ongare joined Kenya Police for the 2019 season that prove to be one of her best periods in boxing.
“I think the 2018 and 2019 seasons were the most competitive and I loved the local challenge. I was so delighted to be declared the best female boxer in 2019,” said Ong’are, adding that getting to spar with the likes of African Games silver medallist Shaffi Bakari at Kenya Police was inspiring and greatly improved her game.
“That is why I was able to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics,” said Ong’are as she remembered with nostalgia how Andiego, who received a wild card for the 2012 London Olympics, told her she would also one day qualify for the Olympics.
“Andiego really inspired me and what she predicted has come to pass. I believe boxing has changed my life this far and the future looks bright for me.”
Her dream is to step at the Olympics ring for the first then the rest of her future plans will roll out.
With the Olympic Games postponed from July this year to around the same period next year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ong’are will have to hold on to an Olympic dreams for that much longer.
“I can’t talk about turning professional since there is not much happening around,” noted Ong’are.
She confessed she used to enjoy Conjestina Achieng ‘s style of boxing.
“Conje (Achieng) was ruthless and fearless and it’s sad that she fell sick. I really admired her.”
The destined Olympiad challenges Boxing Federation of Kenya to develop and invest in women boxing. “This is an area that is likely to give Kenya medals at the Olympics in the near future than men,” she confidently predicts.
Ong’are advises aspiring female boxers to follow their heart and chase their boxing dream.
“It’s not easy but never ever give up on something you really love. Opportunities will always fall your way if you keep on prodding,” she said.
“I have known Ong’are since embracing boxing at Box Girls 10 years ago, having joined Andiego and Sonko Msoto,” says coach Musa, who has handled Ong’are on many occasions.
“What amazes me is her discipline. She is keen on details, a good listener and always ready to learn new things,” said Musa.
The coach advises Ong’are to concentrate on building her amateur career first before turning professional. “Let her make it to the Olympics and make her name there first. She can then turn professional but outside Kenya where there are more opportunities.”
He observed that Ong’are could surpass Fatuma Zarika’s and Judy Waguthii’s achievements.
Zarika is a former World Boxing Council (WBC) World super bantamweight champion while Waguthii is also a former WBC silver super lightweight champion.
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