In Nairobi slums, girl boxers learn how to fight for themselves

BY Victoria Fleischer  June 4, 2014 at 5:03 PM EST
Warm up exercises in the Kariobangi community centre. Boxgirls will train together with professional male boxers from Kariobangi Slum. Photo by Mia Collis.

Warm up exercises in the Kariobangi community centre. Boxgirls will train together with professional male boxers from Kariobangi Slum. Photo by Mia Collis.

Kenyan photographer Mia Collis‘ first impression of Boxgirls, a Nairobi program that teaches young girls to box, was one of a “cacophony of sound.” Inside a tiny office in the heart of the dense Kariobangi slum, Boxgirls founder Alfred Analo and Collis fought to hear each other’s words over rock music and traffic noise from outside.

“We had to shout at each other to hear each other … I couldn’t hear a thing,” Collis told Art Beat. But, Collis continued to learn about the organization from Analo, more commonly known as “Priest.”

Alfred Analo

Alfred “Priest” Analo — a women rights activist and boxing coach — is the founder of Boxgirls, an organization Kenya established in 2007. The organization started because of rapid increase in rape cases registered in the Eastlands, especially in the slums. Photo by Mia Collis

“Quite often in the slums, everybody has a nickname and his is aptly called Priest. I think it’s because he’s a preacher of boxing and people really respect the guy.”

Collis spoke with Priest in an office with four or five computers that the participating girls use to learn computer literacy. The office also offers girls access to counseling and sanitary towels, and the opportunity to participate in a small feeding program for those who can’t afford to buy food. The athletic component — the boxing — takes place in a different building.

Boxgirls have a match at the Eastleigh Ring in Nairobi. Boxing gloves are very expensive to buy, therefore older ones will be used until they too tattered for another fight. Photo by Mia Collis

Boxgirls hosts a competitive match at the Eastleigh Ring in Nairobi. Boxing gloves are very expensive to buy, therefore older ones will be used until they too tattered for another fight. Photo by Mia Collis

“The boxing studio is a rundown center in the middle of this huge dustbowl of a field, which is where a lot of male boxers train. Once (the male boxers) finish, Priest brings the girls in and they take over the studio, which is a couple of very decrepit old punch bags in the middle of a room and they have maybe about a couple of pairs of gloves, which the girls share between them because there’s not enough to go around.”

And thus begins the warm-up, an hour and half of running around the field, repetitions of push-ups and jumping jacks all before they start boxing.

“It’s just the most intense warm up. For me, it would lay me down for about 3 days,” said Collis.

Sonko, rigorously trains everyday.  Boxing has made her a confident and self-assured role model to the younger community. Photo by Mia Collis

Sonko, rigorously trains everyday. Boxing has made her a confident and self assured role model to the younger community. Photo by Mia Collis

All in all, the girls work out for three hours each day, sparring with each other or Priest when they don’t have access to a bag. After they finish, a group of girls designated as peer mentors helps teach life skills and confidence building.

“Quite often the fight is outside the ring … it’s at home. They have a really tough time generally explaining to their families that they want to do something that is traditionally a boy’s thing. They should be going to hairdressing college or having babies and finding food for the home, but boxing is insane,” explained Collis.

Sonko looks out through the window of her 1 bedroom home that she shares with her 2 sisters. The stereotypical ‘role’ expected of a girl or woman in Kenya is to cook, clean and bear children. When Sonko first asked her parents if she could box, they refused angrily, and sent her to a hairdressing college instead. Sonko, secretly went to train at Boxgirls. Photo by Mia Collis.

Sonko looks out through the window of her 1 bedroom home that she shares with her 2 sisters. The stereotypical ‘role’ expected of a girl or woman in Kenya is to cook, clean and bear children. When Sonko first asked her parents if she could box, they refused angrily, and sent her to a hairdressing college instead. Sonko, secretly went to train at Boxgirls. Photo by Mia Collis.

“Most of (the girls) come with such low self-esteem and they leave with high self-esteem because they’ve got these peers and mentors and they’ve got this very physical sport which is, chemically I suppose, changing things within their brain … When new girls come in, you can see the confidence in them just change.”

Collis describes that change as total empowerment. They get physically stronger, they find a community, and they gain an emotional toolkit for fighting for themselves. Plus, many of their mentors are champion boxers who came out of the same program.

“Boxgirls produced Kenya’s first woman Olympian, which is amazing. The current feather-weight champion came out of Boxgirls and these younger girls really look up to these women,” said Collis. “The relationship between the younger girls towards these older role models is massive. I think they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. If they really are very good, they can be that. They can do that too.”

Tabitha Njeri and Jane Atieno ‘Sonko’ chat after a training session.  Many of the younger girls look up to Sonko as their role model. Her confidence and success in the ring make her one of the most popular leaders and mentors at Boxgirls. Photo by Mia Collis

Tabitha Njeri and Jane Atieno ‘Sonko’ chat after a training session. Many of the younger girls look up to Sonko as their role model. Her confidence and success in the ring make her one of the most popular leaders and mentors at Boxgirls. Photo by Mia Collis

Not all the girls want to be boxing champions. One of the girls, a current peer leader and life skills trainer, told Collis that she wants to be a psychiatrist. Either way, they are learning skills they don’t have the opportunity to learn elsewhere.

“I suppose one of the most fundamental things is the gender roles within their slum and how they are defying what women should be doing. That’s very empowering … Gender-based violence is so massive in Kenya, and in the world, and these girls certainly are born with the lower hand.They have a fight since birth. Generally what most women do is cower down and go with it and these ones are really amazing women. They are fighting back at it.”

You can scroll through more of Mia Collis’ photographs of Boxgirls below:

Sonko and her younger sister Diana make the 7 mile daily journey home after training. They walk through some of the most dangerous and desolate parts of the Eastlands slum area. Photo by Mia Collis

Sonko and her younger sister Diana make the seven-mile journey home after training. They walk through some of the most dangerous and desolate parts of the Eastlands slum area. Photo by Mia Collis

Priest gives a ‘Life Skills’ class after a training session in the community centre in Kariobangi. The silent story of torture and rape the women undergo, particularly in the slum areas, is a heavy matter he has heartedly sought to tackle. Photo by Mia Collis

Priest gives a ‘Life Skills’ class after a training session in the community centre in Kariobangi. The silent story of torture and rape the women undergo, particularly in the slum areas, is a heavy matter he has heartedly sought to tackle. Photo by Mia Collis

Sonko is very popular amongst the younger girls. “In the future, I’d like to be the one many people are talking about when they hear the word mentor or leader” (Jane Atieno ‘Sonko’). Photo by Mia Collis

Sonko is very popular amongst the younger girls. “In the future, I’d like to be the one many people are talking about when they hear the word mentor or leader” (Jane Atieno ‘Sonko’). Photo by Mia Collis

Boxgirls warm up in a field outside the community centre in Kariobangi slum. Photo by Mia Collis

Boxgirls warm up in a field outside the community centre in Kariobangi slum. Photo by Mia Collis

Participants prepare to spar at the Kariobangi Community Centre where Boxgirls train. Photo by Mia Collis

Participants prepare to spar at the Kariobangi Community Centre where Boxgirls train. Photo by Mia Collis

Sarah fights another professional boxer. Both are Box Girl graduates. Sarah is currently the feather-weight professional female boxing champion in East Africa. Photo by Mia Collis

Sarah fights another professional boxer. Both are Boxgirl graduates. Sarah is currently the feather-weight professional female boxing champion in East Africa. Photo by Mia Collis

At 13, Tabitha Njeri will lead the ‘Life Skills’ classes after training has finished. Amongst many things, ‘Life Skills’ involve confidence building, sexual health education and gender role debates. Priest, her boxing teacher, mentor and trainer spars in the background. Photo by Mia Collis

At 13, Tabitha Njeri will lead the ‘Life Skills’ classes after training has finished. Amongst many things, ‘Life Skills’ involve confidence building, sexual health education and gender role debates. Priest, her boxing teacher, mentor and trainer spars in the background. Photo by Mia Collis