At the Kariobangi Amateur Boxing Club, in a suburb of Nairobi, a group of 20 girls gather to train on a Saturday afternoon. A few boys linger outside, some barely tall enough to peep through the windows, and watch as the girls stretch, warm up and practice their jabs.
The girls, who range in age from 7 to 16, are members of Box Girls, a Kenyan organization that teaches boxing to girls from marginalized communities and provides workshops on life skills such as decision-making, confidence, and leadership.
Box Girls was founded by Alfred Analo, a boxing coach commonly known as Priest, in 2008 during a tumultuous time in Kenya. The fallout of the 2007 election resulted in violence in pockets of the country, including 900 reported cases of sexual violence, with estimates of tens of thousands of unreported assaults. With women and girls at risk, particularly in informal settlements, Priest realized that teaching them boxing as a form of self-defense could help.
About a decade ago, Sarah Ndisi, 31, was jogging on the road when a man slapped her. She froze, unable to respond. Soon after she decided to take up boxing. “I’m very thankful for the man who slapped me because through him, I’m the champion that I am,” she says. “That slap changed my life.”
Today, Sarah is a professional boxer and senior coach with Box Girls. “When I began, my motive was revenge, but things changed. I became a role model. You see, these girls look up to me. I’m a champion and they see me go to foreign lands. It makes me a change agent in my community. The girls think, ‘If Sarah can do it and she’s from the ghetto, I can too.’”
A group of boys in Korogocho peek through the windows to watch the girls practice boxing. Many girls face stigma for participating in the sport, although they say attitudes in their communities are changing.
Emily Juma, 20, is a star coach with Box Girls. A decade after she began boxing, she now works for the organization, undergoing training at the gym on weekday mornings with senior coaches and spending her afternoons at schools in informal settlements across Nairobi training girls how to box.
Sarah says she’s confident Emily’s training will pay off with a championship win. She would know. Sarah is a boxing champion, having won titles in Russia, South Africa and Kenya. “Emily is one of the upcoming boxing champions,” she says. “She’s a go-getter. She’s very strong despite coming from Korogocho slum. That’s something that never takes her dream away.”
Emily and her fellow coaches look on as girls practice their boxing. “If it wasn’t for boxing, my life would be a mess,” Emily says. By age 10, she was partying with friends, caving into peer pressure, and making poor decisions. When she joined Box Girls, she learned how to assert herself and developed the confidence to ditch the bad influences. She credits boxing for helping her get on the right path and says it has impacted every aspect of her life.
Lessons learned in boxing mirror life, Emily explains. “The jab is the fast punch in boxing. It’s used in keeping away bad company in real life situations … So we say we jab arranged marriages, we jab abuse, we jab [harmful] friends,” she says.
When Emily started boxing 10 years ago, she says people would make snide comments that one day she’d be the type of woman to beat her husband. She says now there’s more acceptance that girls can box, too. Emily says training young girls in this sport helps challenge stereotypes in her community. “It’s my dream to see most of girls taking up leadership and also doing the things that people [think] a lady is not supposed to be doing.”
“If you come from this kind of community, you really struggle because you feel down,” Emily says about living in an informal settlement. For years, she felt self-conscious, comparing herself to others. She’d see people wearing clothes she couldn’t afford and would meet kids who went to better schools and it made her feel like she didn’t deserve to be in certain spaces. Emily says boxing has increased her sense of self-worth and that she knows she deserves a good life.
“I thought everything was about ghetto life. You are raised in the ghetto, you get married in the same place, then you die the same place,” she says. Over the years, Emily has learned that she can take an active role in shaping her fate. “I’ve come to realize that where you come from, it can never dictate your future. It’s all about you and the passion you have in ‘making it’ or being successful in life.”