Me Against the World

Serbit Said, called Hajy by all who know him, is a famous face all over Kibera. Hajy lives in Makina, on the same plot of land that his Nubian family settled on several generations ago. Hajy's home is certainly one of the nicest in Kibera, where Hajy and his father are the landlords to about 30 families. Generally landlords have a notorious reputation for being real bastards among slum dwellers, but this is not why Hajy has a big name. He is a boxer. However, it’s not just his boxing which gives him such prestige, it is what he represents in a complex system.

Now you see, in Kenya the most seemingly innocuous organizations, teams, or associations usually have a much darker underbelly than you would expect. Not that boxing is the most harmless sport, but it is certainly no exception.

In addition, Hajy works, as a receptionist, at the Kenyatta National Hospital nearly 20 hours a week. In order to compete in any official boxing tournament in Kenya, a boxer needs to be registered with a team, company, or club. Recently, Hajy struck a deal with the hospital to be his boxing sponsor – allowing him the appropriate time off to fight in the hospital’s name. Before this deal, Hajy had not fought a match in two years. Now that he is 30, he sighs, "I have to give it another chance, it might be my last round. That's a joke…"

I accompanied Hajy to his first match – the final qualifiers for Kenya’s national boxing team. In the semi-final round, Hajy won by default because his opponent didn't show up for the match. For all the matches, each competitor was given a side, red or blue. The blue gloves and helmet looked full and new, compared to the red ones, which looked like they should have been retired from the ring a long time ago. On the official match list, the fighters that comprised the blue side were all either from the Nairobi police or the Armed Services teams. The fighters robed in red were from other Nairobi sponsors or other Kenyan provinces.

Hajy's fight was the eleventh and last fight of the day. Luckily Hajy saw his competitor, David Wamala, fight in the semi-finals the day before. Unfortunately Wamala K.O.-ed his opponent in the first 30 seconds with a killer right hook. David is about 4 inches taller than Hajy, and unfairly seemed like he should’ve been in the bigger weight class. Then again, most of the matches seemed oddly matched – with the advantage in the blue.

The match was electric, easily the most exciting of the day. The match went all three rounds, and I was positive that Hajy had won by points. But in the end the ref raised the blue glove as the winner. I was devastated, seemingly more so than Hajy. I ran over to the judges’ table to find out what the final score was, but the cards were blank, instead I was told the judges voted 2 to 1, in favor of the Nairobi police team. On the bus back to Kibera, Hajy explained, “The only way to beat a police boxer was with a knockout, you can never beat them in points. It would be embarrassing for the police to lose from anyone from Kibera."

The world of boxing is a microcosm of the general tension between the Nairobi police and Kibera residents, who feel targeted, unprotected, and looked down upon by the police.

Hajy says, "corruption is our culture here." There has only been one Kibera boxer to break this tradition of corruption – Robert Muhammad Wangila. Wangila was also the only Kenyan to win an Olympic gold medal in boxing, bringing home the gold from Seoul in 1988. Before his death in 1994, Wangila was Hajy's mentor.

Considering Wangila's legacy and the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Hajy asserts, "The only way I can beat this system is to knock him out in the rematch, to bring glory home again where it belongs."

The rematch is scheduled for December 10th.