Uganda's women step into the ring

The lady boxers in Uganda love to ask me questions. Do you have a boyfriend? Is it true that white men take care of their babies? Can you give me money for drip for my baby? Drip, I quickly learn, is slang for an IV drip to treat malaria. And I am frequently dishing out shillings for it.

It is the spring of 2010, and I have traveled solo to Kampala, Uganda, on maxed-out credit cards in search of inspiring female athletes. While I expected to find women who excelled at sports such as running and soccer, I never thought there would be women living in the city's poorest slums training for perhaps the world's most brutal sport.

"Life is very hard for women here in Uganda," says my guide, George Kizito. "That is why they are attracted to the sport."

A former fighter and aspiring promoter, Kizito likes to take my notebook and write down the names of the country's most legendary fighters. Then he sets my pen aside and we go over them like we are studying for a midterm. My favorite story is of Kassim "The Dream" Ouma, a child soldier who traded in his gun for the ring and, in 2004, won the International Boxing Federation junior middleweight world title.

I tell Kizito that I want to meet women boxers. "No problem," he said. Uganda has those, as well. "Here the women box with the men," Kizito said, proudly, "and since Ugandan men are great boxers, it means the women can be too."

Most of the 20-plus women who box in the city are single mothers, Kizito said. And even though their matches are seldom promoted, a pro fight -- which can net between 25 and 50 U.S. dollars -- is lucrative for these women; most work as seamstresses, hairdressers and even nightclub bouncers for roughly $3 a day.

Intrigued, I arrange to follow Kizito through the some of the roughest neighborhoods in Kampala. If there is a dark-horse story with a powerful punch, I want to see it firsthand.

Roots of a fighting spirit

I first meet 16-year-old Barbra Nakalema from the Mengo Social Club, and I am instantly encouraged that she might have the kind of fighting spirit that George had promised to show me. "I want to be a world champion someday," she said, and my eyes light up. Maybe Nakalema will be my validation for this risky trip to Africa. At 5-foot-1 and 132 pounds, Nakalema fits into one of three weight categories (light welter) allotted for women's boxing at the Olympics in London next year. Her coach, Michael Kizzo, says she has the talent to grace the world's greatest athletic stage. "Barbra has the character, the heart and natural fighting instincts. She just needs the grooming and skill set," he said. Even with her thin boxing résumé -- three wins, three losses -- Kizzo thinks Nakalema could develop the finesse of an Olympic boxer in as little as two years.

Throughout her childhood, Nakalema's father fought for the Ugandan army. "If you are the daughter or wife of a soldier, they treat you like a soldier. They will cane you. They were very rough with Barbra," Kizzo said, adding that life in the army barracks conditioned her for the ring. Nakalema's father was often absent, and she would have to fend for herself. Her mother approached Kizzo. "She told me, 'My daughter is very tough, maybe she could do well boxing.'"

When I learn that Nakalema will compete in a friendly spar at the Kampala Boxing Club (KBC) -- the most popular gym in town and the only one with an actual sparring ring -- I am anxious to see her in action. I wonder if she really does have the fighting prowess of a future champion or if Michael has overestimated her potential.

Kizito and I head to the KBC, located in southwest Kampala near the taxi park. Inside the gym, the air is stagnate and sticky, and I have to adjust my eyes to its darkness. Plastered all over the walls are photos of Uganda's past and present boxing champs, reminding me how much this tiny East African country relishes its ring heroes. We have been there for more than an hour. Nakalema's competitor, Moreen Nakiryowa, a 21-year-old single mother with four children, is there, but there is no sign of Nakalema or her coach.

"Don't worry," Kizito said, "they will come."

In the corner, a dilapidated boom box blares the song, "I Love You" by a local duo named Radiator and Rascal. It is Kizito's favorite song and he sings the words to me in English: "If you look into my eyes, I will tell you how much I love you. I'm going to tell your aunties and your sisters, how much I love you."

When Kizzo finally arrives 10 minutes later-- giving no explanation for the tardiness -- he tells us that Nakalema developed an eye infection and won't fight today. "She got it from this new boyfriend," he said. "She is not supposed to have a boyfriend." Kizzo doesn't need to say anything more. Male adulation comes with a high price in Uganda, and the country has one of highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. Now someone has told Nakalema that he loves her, and Kizzo knows that a lovesick teenager can end up pregnant, or worse.

Ring fever

With no Barbra, it means Moreen, who has the compact physique of a gymnast, must fight a woman named Justina, who is almost 30 pounds heavier. "Normally a weight difference like that can be dangerous," Kizito says. "But because Moreen is more skilled, it will even out."

Moreen's coach duct-tapes the Velcro on her borrowed gloves. Kizito, who has offered to referee today's spars, helps to look for her mouth guard. Twenty minutes go by. I hear the owner of KBC, Mohammed Hassen, finish praying; the Muslim worship hour is ending. And now, it's game time.

The boxers enter the ring. Kizito looks both women in the eye and then says, calmly and in English, "Fight." The women lift their fists and slowly begin to move. Moreen attacks first. Caught off guard, Justina closes her eyes and throws her arms out in defense. Moreen goes in again and again. With each blow, Justina's head snaps back. I cringe. Suddenly, Justina lurches forward. She grabs Moreen by the neck and pulls her roughly into her chest. I have never seen two women fight, but I know that this fight has just turned primal -- each woman brawling, as if someone were hurting her child.

From the sideline, Moreen's boxing companions, Hellen Baleke and Diana Tulyanabo -- with whom she lives and trains at the Rhino Boxing Club across town in the Katanga slums -- cheer her on in the local language of Luganda. Also single mothers in their early 20s, they will be fighting next.

She is not better than you.

How can you box with that style?

You are strong; apply it.

Use your right. Jab, jab, move around!

Up high in the hills of Kampala at Uganda Christian University, the girls play basketball and speak fluent English. But down here, where malaria is rampant and the girls don't go to school, they box and speak Luganda. The language is fast and energetic, almost like how they move in the ring.

After four more women spar, both Kizito and Kizzo end the session. The other male boxers want to use the ring. When Hassen demands that someone pay for the gym time, everyone looks to me for the money. I am caught off guard, and then I get it. I had wanted to see these girls fight, and so I would have to pay to play. I hesitate, not sure whether I am uncovering a story of grit and determination or helping to create one. The moment quickly becomes uncomfortable, and I do hand over six dollars. Hassen then turns his attention back to the male fighters, while I pack up my camera bag and the girls go change into their street clothes.

The lines around my role as objective observer had become blurry, but I had brought it on myself. I had sought them out. Almost as if he could hear my worried thoughts, Kizito walks over to me. "Those girls came out with all their hearts," he said, as we walk side by side away from KBC.

"I know," I tell him.

I also know that the road out of Kampala to anywhere is a long one. I remind myself that for these women boxers in Uganda, just getting into the ring is journey enough. And as far as looking for that ultimate underdog story, I know that I was right there, in the middle of it, witnessing it firsthand.