The Magazine of Ethiopian Airlines

Boxing Dreams

Women fighting for more in Katanga.

“Moving time!” Diana Tulyanabo, 20, calls out, keeping time on a simple Nokia cell phone. At her command, a flurry of movement begins and a dozen men and a few women shadow box and practice their footwork on the packed mud floor of Rhino Boxing Club in a Kampala slum.

Two minutes later, Diana calls out, “Resting time!” They pause, touch their toes, wander around and catch their breath.

Rhino is less a gym than an absence of other buildings in this crowded neighborhood, its boundaries demarcated not by a ring but by hanging laundry on one side and a video club that blasts Luganda-dubbed Kung Fu movies on the other. There’s a distinct smell — a blend of burning trash and cheap soap — and when the wind blows, the iron sheets on the roof shatter and shake. A hole in the layers of sheeting makes a kind of skylight, framing Kampala’s skyscrapers in the distance.

The gym is in a sliver of a neighborhood in Katanga — a few thousand people getting by in a low-lying patch of swamp stuck in the middle of Kampala: to the north, downtown’s shiny new glass towers filled with banks, mobile phone companies and more; to the west, Makerere University, one of East Africa’s most respected educational institutions.

To exit this neighborhood requires a literal climb up to Kampala’s ground level and, figuratively, so much more.

Instead of leaving, Diana and her sisters Moreen, 22, and Helen, 23, head to Rhino and stand their ground as some of Uganda’s best female athletes. When I first went looking for female boxers in Kampala, one local boxing coach told me there weren’t any. There were some, he eventually admitted, but in his opinion women just aren’t tough enough to box; they should play netball instead.

But he’s never met these sisters.

It’s rare in Uganda, where most women outside the capital don’t even wear trousers, for women to box. But these ladies can — and they’re good. Helen won first place in her weight class in an East Africa championship, pounding on her Tanzanian and Kenyan competitors in 2011, and Diana is often praised by her coaches for her potential.

There’s a rich history of boxing here. Before he was an infamous dictator, Idi Amin was a famous boxer. And Ouma Kassim, a former Ugandan child soldier, is the reigning National American Boxing Association middleweight champion. 

But these three don’t think much about this legacy — they’ve got their mother to look up to. Sara Bagoole was a great Buganda wrestler in her day. She wore shorts under her gomesi, a traditional, floor-length dress with puffy sleeves, as she pounded on her opponents in matches.

When Sara wrestled, she didn’t face the same challenges that her daughters do. For her, it was just a pastime. For Helen and Moreen, it’s everything. Diana knows that boxing alone won’t support her forever, so she is also studying to be a nurse. When Diana talks about her ambitions, her sisters fall silent. The conversation picks up again when Moreen teases Helen about their school days: “She fought with boys, girls, young, old, handsome, ugly.” Helen glares back. And then they all laugh.

Most people who live in neighborhoods like Katanga have few options and fewer opportunities. Diana is whip-smart but bogged down by school fees, study schedules and household responsibilities. Helen and Moreen just work to get by, often helping in their other sisters’ shops.

They had each hoped to be among the first female boxers at the summer Olympics in London, but without funding for travel or more training, and with little support from the Ministry of Youth and Sport, their hopes were dashed early on. Instead, they’re planning for 2016.

In the meantime, the girls share a one-room home with a half dozen or so other sisters and children, when they’re not staying with their mother or other relatives elsewhere in Katanga. The walls are covered in medals from tournaments and formal portraits of the girls showing their fighting faces and boxing gloves.

When it’s time to head to the gym, they grab the gloves that hang from a ceiling rafter (they all share one pair) and head out the door, emerging between the sign for New Life Ministries Church and the coffin maker, then down the steep and narrow muddy path that passes through kafundos (local bars), hair salons, shops and homes.

Every day, they choose boxing. Every day, while their friends hang with boyfriends and watch music videos, they pummel a heavy bag held up by a makeshift melded stand.

“Boxing is my boyfriend,” says Moreen, who has never had a boyfriend.