Zarika’s journey: Fists of hope

Volume 15, Issue 1  | 
Published 04/07/2018


This is Fatuma Zarika’s professional record: 30 fights. Twenty-two won, one drawn, seven lost. This is where the record was chalked up: Denmark (twice), Germany (twice), Australia (once), Czech Republic (once) and, of course, many times in Nairobi.

The problem with this record is that it speaks to the personality, not the person. It speaks to the lifestyle, not the life. It speaks to the visible image, not the unseen soul.

When you are let into the world to which it doesn’t speak, and you perceive the superficiality and utter fragility of this celebrity’s existence, there is first a feeling of profound sadness and empathy – and then haunting helplessness.

Together with her more famous friend, Conjestina Achieng, this daughter of a neglectful, polygamous father, who got her first child at 15, pioneered women’s professional boxing in Kenya.

Billie Kiremi, a former Kenya international boxer and now a judge and referee in the lumbering local professional circuit, thinks the Kenyan media became so enamoured to the charismatic ‘Conje’ that it forgot everyone else, Zarika included.

‘They just report the fights,’ he complains, ‘but they’ve never written the story of her pioneering career and skilled ring craft which makes her the champion that she is.’

And Stephen Muchoki, former world amateur boxing champion, agrees: ‘There is more to women’s boxing in Kenya than is reported. The media makes and it breaks. It should therefore delve deeper and see all the people involved.’

Conje has recently suffered mental illness and many Kenyans are still horrified at the voyeuristic treatment she got from some sections of the media.

She is on the mend, thanks to concerted efforts by fans and well-wishers.

Grinding poverty

Zarika was fleeing the grinding poverty of Riruta Satellite where she was born in 1985 when she came by Conjestina at Mathare North and she thought she could make her boxing dream come true.

Conje was only slightly older and very enthusiastic. She was well known in the hard neighbourhood and the two of them hit it off right from the day they met.

There wasn’t a doubt in Zarika’s mind that it is a boxer that she wanted to become. This was in contravention of the wishes of her intensely religious Ugandan mother, Aisha Musa, who wanted her to pursue something else, something else that Aisha herself didn’t know.

But Peter Kang’ethe, Zarika’s Kenyan father and himself a former boxer, seemed pleased with his daughter’s choice. He even at some point taught her some basics. That was before he started going missing on his family, and long before they had an acrimonious fall-out.

‘If it is the will of God, then so be it,’ said Aisha in despair, realizing that Zarika’s mind about a career in boxing was made up.

And it was. Zarika was tired of being a house help. She was tired of doing odd jobs here and there. She wanted focus. She had dropped out of school in Standard Eight because her father couldn’t pay the fees any more.

What is more, in the course of doing these odd jobs that she hoped would educate her younger brother, Musa Mohammed, and spare him her own fate, she had come by a man named Said Omar.

She was only 15, deprived and vulnerable. Omar fathered her two children in short order – and then gradually faded from the scene. Zarika was on her own. But she never lost hope; she kept her eyes over the horizon.

Leaving her children with her mother, she linked up with Conjestina in Mathare North – across the other side of Nairobi. And thus, the two faces of Kenya women’s boxing came to be.

They competitively fought twice; Zarika won once, and the other bout was drawn. These were non-title fights during the early days when the two girls were still introducing the phenomenon of women’s boxing to Kenyans.

Soon, they would plunge neck-deep into the world of promoters and sports politicians.

‘It is such a grievous misconception,’ Zarika says, ‘when Kenyans think we earn lots of money as professional boxers. There are two major problems. First, the industry is not developed and second, many promoters are crooks. They make their money on the back of your sweat, and throw crumbs at you – if at all.’

Still, it is a symbiotic relationship. There can be no professional boxing without the two.

Better days

Says Zarika: ‘During some of the years I was being managed by Caleb Kuya of Osaga Promotions, I could get by in life. There was enough to pay rent, my children’s school fees, debts accrued during the dry months and even, once when I fought a Bulgarian opponent, some balance to spare. I invested in a salon and beauty shop but it was bankrupted by the friend I had employed there to run it for me. I closed it when it started draining the little I had for myself.’
Title fights earned Zarika a take home pay of Sh50,000 and non-title ones Sh10,000. From each, she had to parcel out some 10 per cent for her coach which was a standard agreement. For title fights outside the country, she earned US dollars 1,500 (about Sh120,000).

These fights were few and far between and when the pay came, it found months of accumulated debt from almost all directions – rents, school fees, groceries – and it vanished almost as soon as it appeared, leaving another hole.

A fighter, like any other athlete, can only take on so many competitions at any given time, lest one suffers a burn-out. So the pay must be good enough to cover the training and recovery months.

On the other hand, if there aren’t enough fights, the cash will dry up and the result is catastrophic.

This is the delicate balance that Zarika says she has never been able to maintain ever since she donned a glove. In her case, there are always never enough fights and when they come, they don’t pay well enough.

It is a constant struggle to keep your head above the water – and often one takes it in.

She says: ‘I had my first serious disagreement with my father when he started demanding money of me in the belief that I made huge sums from competitions abroad,’ says Zarika. ‘I could never convince him that it was all meant for pressing personal needs, and that it was not even enough.’

Despite trying, we were unable to reach her father. He is the man who publicly took the side of the prosecution when his daughter was charged with being a Ugandan citizen a few years ago. He concurred.

Documents seized

‘For four years when my passport and identification card were seized,’ says Zarika, ‘I couldn’t travel and I couldn’t fight. I lost four years of my life. And then they returned my documents. Do you know how painful this is? Do you know that I will never be able to recover those four years that were lost to a false and malicious accusation?’

To this day, she can’t stand her father. There is abundant distress in her voice as she talks of the untold hardship that she went through as a result of that case.

Yet she is in control of herself and even manages that forced smile that one makes to lighten the grim circumstances. Her verbal skills, as pronounced as those of her hands and feet in the ring, are in full flow, not pausing to think, not putting a word wrong.

That is, until she mentions her children – Sophia Zarika and Halima Zarika. She verbally stumbles as she talks about their expulsion from school on account of lack of fees. And then, the unexpected happens.

Her eyes, so clear and bright before, turn misty. Zarika loses her words and audibly gasps for breath. Her bosom heaves. Knowing the feelings that have produced this reaction, I try to think of something diversionary to say in order to give her a chance to compose herself.

But I am too late. Tears start rolling down her cheeks in an uncontrollable flow, as if the thought and mention of Sophia and Halima is the signal they had been waiting for.

Zarika fruitlessly attempts to stem the tears with her hands. But they just meander through her fingers and now the moment is emotionally wrenching. The interview comes to a stop and, for lack of anything better to say, I tell her that everything will be alright.

By grace, there are just a few people in the restaurant where we are sitting and she has her back to them. They are therefore not privy to this intense display of private pain in a public place.

How thankful I should be, I think, that in this faltering moment when she loses control of her emotions, she should still come out with her dignity intact.

It takes an eternity for the silence to break and she is not the same again when she resumes her story. The anger, so long suppressed in deference to this first meeting, comes forth now, controlled but overwhelming.

And the gasping of breath is now frequent.

‘Imagine your children being kicked out of school because you cannot pay their fees! Children of a so-called celeb! Everybody in their school knows me. Everybody believes that a famous person like me earns a lot of money. Fame! Fame! Of what use is fame if it can’t educate my children! Who needs fame? Imagine my children being unable to finish school like me! Oh, God! No, no, no! What can somebody do in this world without education?’

The tears flow relentlessly again. It is no longer an interview; am just listening through. Over and over, Zarika repeats the dread of her children following her fate, the same fate that befell their uncle, her brother Musa.

‘It is two years now since I fought,’ she sighs. And then, evaluating her life, she makes a statement loaded with so much self-pity that my instinctive reaction is to appeal to her to recall it: ‘Life has not been kind to me. However hard I try, it seems to want to deprive my children. Boxing has not been good to me.’

No future outside boxing

But when she sufficiently regains her composure, she says she doesn’t see a life for herself outside boxing because it is what she has known throughout her life. She toys with the idea that women could form their own boxing federation because they alone will understand each other.

‘Let me be sincere with you,’ she says. ‘There are some “woman things” that only another woman can understand. For example, there are certain feelings for a child only a mother can feel. If ever such a federation came about, I would like it led by a woman.’

We rise slowly and start for the exit. Zarika cannot stop talking about education for Sophia and Halima. She says for her – and for them – it is the only salvation and from somewhere in the world, she is sure that God will make it possible for them to reach university.

Aisha Musa died. Zarika has only the fondest memories of her poor mother, who had to accept her choices.

Musa Mohammed is a footballer. He plays in defence for Gor Mahia FC and Zarika is sporting a wristband of the club, showing all and sundry that as she supports him, she also supports his club.

Peter Kang’ethe came to Zarika’s aborted defence of her super-featherweight title defence at the Garden Square restaurant last September 29. He tried to ask her why she has ‘been lost’ and he barely got a ‘hi’ in return. Her feelings for him remain below freezing temperatures.

Now we have to separate. When we first met about three hours ago, I had looked into the face of a famous boxing star who had travelled the world because of her great talent. A ‘celeb’, as young Kenyans are wont to call her, who espouses the belief that image is everything.

Now as we separate, I am haunted by the sadness in her eyes and I am crushed by the vulnerability and fragility of this single mother who just wants the best for her little children.

Roy Gachuhi, a former Nation Media Group sports reporter, is a writer with The Content House


Big bout deal that never was

When Fatuma Zarika came for her appointment with me, she carried with her a contract.

It was the document that was to govern her fight with Uganda’s Hawa Daku in defence of her East Africa super featherweight title at Nairobi’s Garden Square restaurant on September 29.

Her bout was to be the top draw of the night. It would also mark her return to the ring after a two-year hiatus.

The contract, signed with promoter Njuguna Kabugu, was to give her Sh50,000, win or lose. Zarika was really looking forward to the fight and she had gone through the usual arduous training.

“We were to weigh in at 12pm,” she says. “But we didn’t until 4pm. Even then, there was no doctor although there should be one during the event. He came much later. We asked the organisers, ‘How can you be so disorganised?’ But they were just busy running around. As to what they were doing, we couldn’t tell.

Hunger sets in

“By 9 pm, no bouts had taken place and hunger was setting in. For a fight, you invest in high energy foods but the regime of taking meals is very restrictive – and very importantly so because serious injuries can happen. It was not until 11pm that everything was called off.

And let me tell you, when you sign a contract like this, you make financial commitments based on it. These are now the ones I am dealing with.”

The non-event was a complete shambles. Promoter Njuguna was saved from the irate crowd by plain-clothes policemen and private security personnel.

He was whisked away to Nairobi’s Central Police Station. But on going to the station, Zarika says the police, after considering the matter, said it was not in their remit. It was a civil matter and if anybody was aggrieved, they should proceed to consult their lawyers.

Warned promoters

Meanwhile, Kenya Professional Boxing Commission (KPBC), the body that regulates the sport and licenses promoters, was talking tough.

George Uthmani, an official, warned promoters against taking boxers for a ride. He demanded professionalism from KPBC’s licensees. That was just about it.

Today, Zarika, whose belt went missing in the chaos, is nursing her deep emotional wounds. She has no money – not a cent to sue for breach of contract. She has more debts after the non-event than before. And the belt is lost as well. But she soldiers on, somehow.

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