“Do you take candy?” Haji asks me as we slog through the labyrinthine alleyways of Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum. The November storm is starting again. The downpour has already changed the colour of the houses today, from rust-orange to a sloppy sepia-brown, and the mud from the path cakes under our shoes as we jump from mound to soggy-slick mound. If the rain isn’t clinking on the tin roofs, it is washing the trash in the narrow inlets downhill, causing a frothy grey stream to form between the houses. Haji knows every foothold by heart. He is balanced and graceful as he navigates the identical and unnamed passages. It reminds me of the way he skips rope at the gym or the way he slips an uppercut and then pounds the heavy bag with that right hook of his.
When we get to the front door of his house, one of the few concrete buildings in this part of Kibera, he asks me again, “do you take candy?” Then he puts his thumb and index finger together, takes them to his lips, inhales, and laughs. When I shrug, he does too and when we take off our mud-sodden shoes, I’m close enough to see the Nubian scarification on the back of his shaved head. Three dark and raised lines on each side of his skull that make a “V” the size of a dollar. I remember when he told me that his father gave it to him when he was younger. “Meant to protect men in war.” He said.
This Nubian tradition may seem confrontational but Haji and his father couldn’t be more friendly. It is clear that Haji is a beloved member in his community. As he walks through the corridors of the slum the children yell his name and the parents welcome him gregariously. And for good reason, Haji and his father might be the only fair landlords in Kibera. This infamous nest of hovels is essentially a self-governed enclave of Nairobi and those who are able to wield power by force in the slums do so in plain sight. This might be one reason why Haji stands out as much as he does. He’s a hero in a barrel of villains.
Born into a Nubian family that settled this part of the slum (Makina) thirty years ago, Haji works as a receptionist at Kenyatta hospital when he isn’t fixing the houses he owns in the neighborhood. Even though Haji could join a professional boxing gym, he prefers to spar on behalf of Kenyatta hospital. In Kenya every boxer needs a sponsor to compete. The elite join the private gyms like the Dallas or Nakuru clubs, but the majority of boxers are sponsored by local organizations. Kenya Breweries, Police Armed Forces, National Guards, Prison Guards, Kimbo, and Posta and Railways (Nairobi post office), are some of the most popular bout sponsors. But Haji is the only fighter to represent a hospital in Nairobi.
He pulls a joint from his breast pocket and sparks it while he puts his gloves in his gym bag. Today is the first qualifier for the Kenyan National Boxing Team. It is a day that Haji has been training for his entire life and at thirty-years-old he will be the oldest competitor at the qualifier. As he smokes he tells me about how the first African to win a gold metal in boxing, Robert Muhammed Wangila, was from Kibera. “That was in 1988,” he says, “Wangila was a welterweight just like me. When he came back to Nairobi, after winning the gold, I had some sparing sessions with him. I was only twelve years old and I had just started to box. He was like Michael Jordan to me.” Two of Haji’s friends, Gad and Steven, who are also competing in the qualifier, arrive at the house. He offers them some candy and Steven takes a hit but Gad doesn’t and I ask them both why they smoke before matches. To which Haji tells me that he sees everything in slow motion when he takes candy, he says it helps him. I tell the three of them, much to their humor, that in America professional athletes get drug-tested and none of them can take candy, ever. The three of them almost say in unison, “this is Kenya my friend!” and then it’s time to leave. As we walk through Kibera, Haji takes us a different way than I remember. When we get to a clearing he points to a mural on the wall of Robert Muhammed Wangila and the three boxers have an almost religious moment of silence in front of the painting. Below I see that Wangila died in 1994.
The qualifier is in Eastleigh, the Somali district of Nairobi, and we need to take a matatu (Kenyan microbus) to get there. The matatu drives wildly while blaring Stella Mwangi, a popular African diva, and Haji and I sit up front next to the driver. When we need to change buses, Haji asks me if I’m hungry. He insists on buying me, Steve, and Gad, chicken burgers even though it means we may be late to the qualifier. Haji says it doesn’t matter if we are late and for some reason I believe him.
When we do arrive we are ten minutes late but the qualifier hasn’t begun yet. The ring has been erected in the gymnasium of an old and dilapidated church, which seems odd because Eastleigh, having mostly Somali inhabitants, is predominantly Muslim. The different clubs warm up together and it becomes apparent that the Police Armed Forces have the most contenders. When I look at the brackets, the police actually have a fighter in every bout but one. It also becomes apparent that there are no Somalis in the contest. There are however, a couple of drunk Somalis that are near the ropes drinking shanga, which is a type of moonshine brewed in the slums that has caused people to go blind. Haji tells me that shanga is not candy and that it will “make you a slave. No one fights well on shanga.” He says. Both Steve and Gad are eliminated in the first rounds which is disconcerting. But Haji has a bye for the first two rounds because his opponents fail to show up. He goes outside every so often and takes candy and jumps rope and looks very determined throughout the afternoon.
As the sun starts to go down we find out that Haji will only have to fight once and it will be the last bout of the night. His opponent is David Wamala, a member of the Police Armed Forces, and a towering figure with great reaching arms. We watched Wamala knock out his previous opponent in the first round, his opponent who was fighting for a respected private gym from a safe area of Nairobi---which seemed not the easiest feat.
I also noticed that in every fight the Police were using blue headgear and gloves that seemed better fitting and all around newer than their opponent’s red gear. In several instances the red fighter’s headgear seemed loose-fitting and would obstruct the view of the fighter at inopportune moments. Haji would certainly have to work around this equipment handicap.
The next fight ends and Haji is called up to the ring. He puts on the red gear and when he stands next to David Wamala, it is not only their height difference that is visible but also their weight. Haji looks as though he is 20 pounds lighter than Wamala. It’s troubling how stacked the odds seem against Haji. His age, weight, height, and gear is all trumped by his opponent’s.
As they touch gloves and the bell rings Haji immediately curls his torso and moves around Wamala quickly. He is much faster than any of the boxers we have seen so far and it becomes apparent that Haji is very well trained. He works Wamala’s body and every so often goes for his face, which he almost has to jump to reach. Their tactics are much different. While Wamala loads up and tries to fire down, going for big hits from a distance, Haji circles and sends a lineup of furious blows to the torso. He throws many more punches than Wamala and his hit rate is much greater.
Despite my initial concerns, after the first round it seems as though Haji is boxing well, almost certainly leading at this point. The next round follows the same pattern and Wamala is starting to bend over at the waist like a tree that is half sawn. Olympic style boxing is much different than the Mike Tyson or Lenox Lewis bouts at Madison Square Garden. While those matches go 12 rounds and the contest is more about stamina and defense, the fights that are happening in the Eastleigh church are only three rounds and the contestants come out of the corners looking for knockouts.
In the final round Haji, looking as spry as he did when they first touched gloves, finally knocks down Wamala. The massive policeman tips and hits the mat as if almost in slow motion and Haji stands there silently, not wanting to gloat. The referee comes over and waves his arms saying that it was a trip and the judges should not count it as a knockdown. The crowd that has gathered from Kibera boos the referee and starts chanting the name of their slum defender. With thirty seconds left in the last round Haji continues the attack, landing double the amount of punches as Wamala but getting smashed several times in the face by his crushing right hand. When the match ends and the decision goes to the judges, the crowd cheers. There is no doubt that Haji won the contest.
Until the referee holds up Wamala’s hand and declares him the victor.
The Kibera crowd is silent as the crew of Police Armed Forces in the corner heckle the fans in the church. Everyone is stunned. I go to the judges and demand to see the scorecard but they refuse to show it to me. And then I realize that they were never keeping track. The scorecard was blank. Haji had lost with a 2 to 1 decision in a fight that wasn’t even recorded, because it didn’t need to be. It was already determined that the crowd favorite for the slums would never have won.
I look at Haji who doesn’t look as dejected as I would have expected. He takes off his cloves and climbs out of the ring quietly. Anthony Mandani, a scouting coach at the qualifier, who I was introduced to briefly when we first arrived, leans over to me. “The referees and the judges are all ex-service. They would never let their boys lose.” I look at the four of them now talking by the ringside. Pitiful.
When Haji is done unwrapping his hands he comes over to me. “I knew I couldn’t win unless I knocked him out. It was the only way. But I’m better at points.” He says as if he knew the outcome of the fight before he stepped in the ring. “The knockout, that isn’t my game. You know Wangila won his gold medal with a knockout. It was against a Frenchman. That was the only way he could win his match too.” It seems confusing that the Kenyan government wouldn’t want their best boxers to go to the Olympics, I say. “Yes but if the police lose. It makes the people think that the government is weak.” He says heading to the church’s doorway. “The government never wants the people to think that they can win…”