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