The sharp slap of pounding leather gloves attracts the attention of a few passers-by who peek through the barred windows of a community center in a sprawling, impoverished Nairobi suburb.
Inside the rundown building in Kariobangi-North, it is mostly women and girls, all training under the watchful eye of boxing coach Alfred Analo Anjere — founder of BoxGirls Kenya.
In 14 years, more than 3,000 women and girls have taken up boxing at the center, where a faded picture of the cartoon character Asterix wielding boxing gloves adorns a wall.
All started out for the same reason — wanting to defend themselves in their gritty neighborhoods, which are harsh worlds ruled by poverty and the survival of the fittest.
“One day, when I was going jogging, a man came out of nowhere and slapped me, so I wanted to go back to the gym, get the skills and get revenge,” said Sarah Achieng, a 34-year-old who turned pro.
For most at BoxGirls Kenya, the contact sport is a leisure activity, but some have made it their life, becoming professional pugilists. Some have even made it to the Olympics — such as Elizabeth Andiego, who took part in the 2012 London Games, and Christine Ongare, who is to compete at the Tokyo Games.
Anjere, nicknamed “Priest,” said that he does not want boxing to be about revenge.
“Boxing is intended to be a tool... the means to empower girls, for them to have a voice,” Anjere said.
A native of Kariobangi, he knows the problems encountered by women living in the deprived areas of Nairobi, including physical abuse, mental abuse and rape. Often, girls are forced to drop out of school because of poverty, pregnancy or early marriage.
Women are also vulnerable because they are often not economically independent, he said.
After witnessing Kenya’s bloody post-election violence in 2007, when women and girls were often targeted, he created BoxGirls Kenya.
Anjere advocates a “holistic” vision of boxing, saying that women can take from the sport the skills they need in daily life — developing confidence, self-esteem, resilience, and learning the “importance of setting goals and striving to achieve them.”
“Growing up in these neighborhoods with no self-defense is a bit challenging,” said Emily Juma, 22, an up-and-coming talent. “A lot of people ... view girls as sex objects.”
Sarah Achieng agreed, but said that what they learn at BoxGirls is more than just self-defense.
“Boxing also promotes leadership, self-discipline,” as well as self-knowledge and learning to stand by your decisions, Achieng said.
BoxGirls Kenya conducts workshops on entrepreneurship, rights, sexuality, reproduction and child protection to raise awareness among young women and men — 225 of this year’s 967 active members are boys.
The goal is to challenge stereotypes and “change mentalities,” Anjere said.
At the community center in the spring, 22-year-old Sophia Omari Amat could finally train in front of her six-year-old sister, but for a long time, she had to box in secret.
She said that she discovered the sport at the age of 12, but her father refused to let her practice it.
“He told me: ‘You are Muslim, I won’t allow you,’” she said, adding that her mother covered for her when she went off to box.
“Whenever the club had an event and maybe my mother wasn’t around, I’d lie to my father, pretending to see a sick friend,” she added.
Omari Amat’s perseverance finally convinced her father, who she said has become “proud” of his daughter.
“It’s a hard sport. I’m not going to lie, but as long as you keep on ... it’s going through your veins, and you keep on loving it more and more,” Omari Amat said.
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