Fight like a girl: the female boxers of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
|Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is a city that lives and breathes sport. Militia violence in the countryside and the corruption of the political system seem distant problems when ducking errant footballs and dodging boxers sparring in the roads of “Kin La Belle”.
It is a largely patriarchal country, with women responsible for domestic work and absent from most positions of power. DRC has also been riven by years of bloodshed, with widespread sexual assault with rape frequently used as an instrument of terrorism and war.
Miki Ndaya, 26“I started boxing where I was born in Mbuji, Mayi province. In 2010, I joined the national Congolese boxing team … when I was younger I was always playing with boys and preferred their games. I introduced myself to the small boxing club in my area and learned. I won some fights in the province, which led to me being recommended to the national team. I’m hoping they must have said that we’ve found the best fighter in the country. I was very surprised, my coach got the money for a ticket to Kinshasa for me. There wasn’t even a real ring for fights in my home province, terrible conditions. When the ticket came, I agreed to come here and start training.
Boxer Miki Ndaya at home with her five-year-old daughter, Princess
When I came to Kinshasa I was fighting well and I won a prize in my first year. That meant I was selected to fight in Cameroon. I won the prize there too!
I still don’t feel any different, I still take it easy. My priority is my daughter and making sure she is loved. I have a five-year-old called Princess. She loves seeing me train and comes to watch me spar. I can see it makes her happy because she screams and sings: “Mama, bomaye.” I feel like Muhammad Ali with that behind me. Sure, it helps against my adversary too.
(Bomaye translated from the local Lingala means “finish him, knock him down” and is notorious due to its widespread use when Muhammad Ali fought in Kinshasa in 1974)
Speaking of Ali, he is a huge inspiration. Kind of an unseen mentor. He’s a great boxer and I try to learn from his shaking legs and quick technique. Like him, I want to get to the next level and win. I don’t have a job, but I know if I focus I will be known all over the world. It hasn’t been easy – there are far too many difficulties. I’ve moved from far to be here, to train with the federation. It’s a struggle to feed my daughter; it’s a struggle to pay for transport to get to training and it’s hard to buy sports clothing and gear.
Miki Ndaya shows her boxing medals.
I may have won prizes but that doesn’t mean I win real money or get to be well-off. I don’t feel like a champion and maybe I don’t look like one either. My sport doesn’t feed me or pay to send my girl to school. Maybe when I’m famous.
Jorbelle Malewu, 23It’s strange, everyone thinks of Muhammad Ali in the Congo but what made me want to box was footage of Mike Tyson fighting. I loved him when I was younger and will definitely be as big as him. I fight with his style. If you watched me fight in the ring you’d think it was him, you wouldn’t know if it was Jorbelle or not! The big motivation for me is becoming a better person than I am today. I know with hard training that things will be better one day and I’ll be known all over the world.
Boxing is like my job, I don’t have another. I can’t be an employee to someone. I don’t have a job, but it’s not important to me as I am so focused on what I want to do in sport. I don’t have a husband or a child, my mother and grandmother are my family, there’s nothing to hold me back!
It doesn’t really matter who you are when you are being punched. I’ve been boxing since 2010 and have won provincial championships and the champion of Kinshasa competition twice – last year in 2016 and again this year. It’s the African championship in Brazzaville late June and I’m set on winning my category there. I want gold prizes, and the best get to travel to Germany for the international competition in December.
My wish is to find a sponsor or maybe some kind of management. I am the only middleweight girl in the country. When I’ve seen boxers from other countries while at competitions, its clear they get great training and I think they are well supported. Here in Congo we are not. Nice conditions for training mean better results. Our training conditions are not comfortable. I am a champion, but I feel very unaided: the state of our facilities and the money that funds us doesn’t reflect our potential and talent here.
Safi Nadege Lukambo, 21(Safi’s father interrupted our interview, claiming he should be paid for a foreign photographer being allowed to talk to her)
I’ve been boxing for five years. No one suggested it or encouraged me but I dreamed of doing it and found the strength. There are only 22 girls who box here, we have to work extra hard. Only eight of us will be selected for participation in the pan-African championships and big competitions. It’s difficult, but if you have the will you can do anything.
Nadege at home.
I won my first prize last year. That felt amazing and made me believe in myself. Although I was expecting more and the reward was purely symbolic. I think here in Congo we have a problem with priorities: doing the sport doesn’t feel professional, I can’t hope to do well, even if I win titles. I feel such passion for boxing and do it for the love of the sport, to have something that means the world to me. I know I have the potential to be known internationally.
But Kinshasa is hard place and I see a confusing future for myself. I don’t want to go on to coach. For now, I want to win some titles – as many as I can. But I will have to get married. That’s the future I have to have.
Marcella Sakobi, 22Boxing is my passion. I wish to become a world champion. I fell into it by accident. I was doing law studies and running for exercise, and I started going running with a boxing club. I saw I was testing them at running so I thought I’d go to their training as well.
Sakobi’s gloves are adjusted at training.
At first it was very hard, but the first boxing gala I went to watch inspired me and made me think it was possible for me to be as good. I had a great coach at the club but was the only girl so felt pressure. Coach Nkele showed me my potential and told me I could be great. Another coach saw me sparring with the boys and recommended me to the national federation.
Gloves at the DRC national boxing training area
I was really afraid when I climbed on stage for my first real fight because I had just four months of training. It was 2014 when I won a fight for the first time, I then won a champion of Kinshasa prize, which meant I had to beat three fighters from different communes in the city.
I know it’s possible now for me to aim higher and win some gold medals internationally. If I win an African prize then I will be respected and known … I’d like to fight outside Congo because honestly I think we look like amateurs. We don’t have the proper clothes to train, it’s not like other places where things are taken for granted. I have to train outside in the street. My coach is sacrificing his personal money to buy me gloves and punching bags. That money could go to his family but he has spent it on me because the government only funds football here. We are really poor in the city and that brings it home for me. I really don’t like training outside every morning with people watching.
Sakobi spars with Ndaya
People think female boxers here are wasting their time, that girls are only good for cooking, going to bed with and making children. I know I’m not wasting my time, my near future is in boxing. I have brains and skills – I don’t want a husband yet. Not everyone has the talent and drive I have.
Even so, I know it isn’t forever – when I won a Kinshasa prize I won $10. Such a small reward for so much work … boxing for money really isn’t a concept here. Eventually I will have to marry someone for support.
Tags: strong women,