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Autumn 2010

The Olympic Boxing Club is in Kibera, Nairobi’s biggest slum. The boxers have no ring and little equipment—some weights, a skipping rope, tape for binding bruised knuckles. They only acquired a punch bag when a photographer donated some of his earnings from an exhibition to pay for it. “It’s been torn open a few times,” the photographer says. “But it keeps going.”

The pictures here are taken by that photographer, Jehad Nga, an American raised in Kansas and England, who now divides his time between New York and Nairobi. What he likes about Nairobi, he says, is that people live more for the moment than for some prospective reward, and this is especially true of the boxers.

Nga came to fine-art photography as a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, after coming across Natacha Merritt’s book “Digital Diaries”. He switched from erotic portraiture to covering the invasion of Iraq for the New York Times, via a stint as an intern at Magnum. Since 2004 he has worked extensively in Africa, but it wasn’t poverty that drew him to the boxing club. “It wasn’t Kibera at all. It was boxing, a boxing team, a small band of brothers, hearts beating together. It was like being embedded in Iraq in a way, the way men come together, fall together, then disband.” 

The poverty helped in one way. The club has no electricity, and training takes place at 5pm, in the hour or so before the sun sets. “I liked the way the light moved through the windows then. Although when it was overcast outside, it was practically pitch dark inside.” 

The defining image of Nga’s photo essay is the shadow, passing from the rafters, pooling in the corners, and quick-lived from thrown punches. The men mostly box their own shadows, landing blows on the darkness that moves with them. “I saw the shadow as an alternative reality,” Nga says, “facing off against something bigger.”

What about the boxers? A boxing gym is traditionally where you go to straighten out and sober up. Here at the Olympic, the boxers are already sober. They are nearly all observant Muslims who neither drink nor smoke, but instead derive some ascetic pleasure from their workouts. They pray before their bouts. The goal is to win a national championship, and the club has representation from featherweight to heavyweight. The hope is that winning will get the men a place in the Kenyan armed forces and an escape from slum life. Since the judges seldom give a points decision to a boy from Kibera, that usually means milling for a knockout.

The Olympic shares its building with a shelter for street children. Training sessions tend to begin with the boxers chasing the children back to their bunks on the other side of a partition. After training there is talk about boxing legends. Prince Naseem Hamed, the British Muslim fighter, is a favourite even though he has now retired. Nearly all of the boxers were affected by Kenya’s 2008 election crisis. Whole sections of Kibera were torched and ethnically cleansed. Hundreds of men were butchered by opposing tribes or shot by the police. One of the boxers had his hand split in half with a machete. He punches on.

Nga often returns to the Olympic Boxing Club. “The boxers call me up, but never ask for anything.” His work has been shown at the M+B gallery in Los Angeles and Bonni Benrubi in New York. He would like to shoot the shadow boxing again, this time in Polaroid. “It’s more organic,” he says. “You can’t manipulate a Polaroid.” ~ J.M. LEDGARD

Owino Otieno, a 25-year-old bantamweight, shows off his mouthguard

The boxers get down to work after chasing the street children back to their bunks

Kamau Nganga, 21, a bantamweight, has some time out during a training session

The home of the coach, Hassan. The picture shows Hassan’s brother, Salam Abdul Kadir, who won the Kenya Open Championship in 1996 and now helps train younger boxers

Frederick Hussein, 25, at another Kibera gym which the boxers use to keep fit between sessions. Hussein was a featherweight with awesome punching power, but the other boxers say he began to smoke pot and to drink. He is now in jail for assaulting his father

Sebit, whose feet are pictured here, is a 32-year-old middleweight who has now quit boxing. He says he injured his hand protecting a woman from being beaten; others wonder if he might have been caught up in the post-election violence

Mohamed Medi, 22, a featherweight, uses a speed ball during training. The gym has no electricity, so the boxers make use of the last few minutes of daylight

The boxers doing press-ups at the end of a session

A homemade punch bag hangs outside a boxer’s house

Majid Mohamed, 38, a middleweight, wears a tattered T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of Mike Tyson, the former world heavyweight champion. Majid was one of a few boxers at the club who turned to drink. He stopped boxing. “You can’t serve two masters,” says the coach

Harun Ibrahim, 23, shadowboxes during practice. Ibrahim fights in the lightweight category. The limited equipment means most boxers shadowbox during the training sessions