I had made a list of things I wanted to
accomplish while my feet were still on, rather than under, the
ground: learn Spanish, hike the Appalachian trail, be more honest
and generous, start my own business… and compete in boxing.
The latter ambition was partly sparked by the ’04 Olympic
games in Athens,
which I watched around the clock while back in the USA, arranging
my vacation time around the two hours of boxing matches NBC aired
So by the time I came back to Guinea, I was itching to get in
the ring. I wanted to be able to call myself a boxeuse
-- a woman boxer -- and not feel like a sham.
If you have been keeping up with my essays, you will know that
I had already been training with Guinea’s national boxing
team for some time now. Training had been an invigorating challenge
– running speed laps with my fellow boxers in the relentless
heat, wailing on the bags for 12 consecutive rounds, doing squats
with as much weight on my shoulders as a single mom supporting
Though boxing as macho of a sport as you can get, the guys accepted
me readily, exalting my courage and strength. I could do a solid
two minutes of speed flurries on the sacks without crying uncle.
And though I couldn’t quite run as fast as the guys, I could
at least match their time spent on the track. But I still felt
like a fake. To this point, I had for the most part been spared
the bona-fide act of combat.
Be careful what you wish for.
Soon after my life resolution to finally get in the ring, our
kick-boxing maître (master) Hafia Bangoura announced the
organization of Guinea’s first-ever kick-boxing gala (not
KING or KINK-boxing as it is often misnamed here; this would be
an opportunity to sensitize people to the proper name of this
noble art). An opponent would come from neighboring Senegal to
fight our maître; as I had been cross-training both in English-style
boxing (hand combat only) and kick-boxing (feet and hands), they
would put me in the ring for a demo combat with a young Guinean
Fatoumata was new to the sport, but having previously taken kung
fu, she took to it rather naturally. She was one of several girls
who had come and gone in the 18 months I had trained with the
team. One got pregnant by another boxer (or so everyone says but
him). The director’s 14-year-old daughter, a little toughie
who in my first-ever spar gave me a jab that made my head snap
back, had also trained with us until she got too busy with school
to continue. Other women had actually been a part of the national
team, but quit after they had trained hard for a competition and
then were barred from participating because of their gender.
In general, Guinean women and girls have as many obstacles to
sports as they do to most other male-dominated endeavors. There
is the overt and direct discrimination such as the women team
members had experienced. And from childhood on, girls also simply
have less free time, having much more household responsibility
even from a young age, be it cooking and cleaning or watching
over their younger brothers and sisters. Even Fatoumata was ambivalent
about training, as it kept her from her after-school job braiding
hair. But we were both lured on by the glory of our upcoming competition.
To prepare I got in the ring with the guys, figuring if I could
survive their coups, I would easily pummel my half-pint opponent
on the day of combat.
I have decent form when on the bags – on guard, chin lowered,
a good feint and slip, just the right distance to jab in and back
out of reach. But once faced with a real opponent and not a passive
sack, I forget it all. Punching a bag versus punching an opponent
is like archery versus hunting. The contrast is more extreme yet,
as in the ring, you are both hunter and hunted. One punch and
I’m stunned like a deer in headlights, unable to get out
of the way or get in a good counter-punch. Plus those gloves are
so damn big and intimidating – they look like those giant
hammers that mice sneak up on cats with in Looney Tunes cartoons.
Still, every once in a while I would get a glimpse of the boxer’s
Zen state of mind, hyper-alert with a steady calm.
These guys hit hard. Really, really hard. There are no consolation
prizes here, no good sport awards. One guy got whacked hard in
the stomach during a combat and asked to step down. He was the
laughingstock of the center for the rest of the day.
I would sometimes watch in awe from the sidelines, trying to pick
up style tips, though the blows come so quick I could hardly keep
track of what was happening. Sweat, following the trajectory of
a hard blow, flies across the ring. The sounds of the punches
ricochet off the walls, making you want to duck even from the
Even during Ramadan, when Muslims cannot eat or drink from sunup
to sundown, the guys work out just as hard, showing superhuman
strength and discipline that I cannot fathom. I can hardly make
it across the room when I’m fasting, let along run five
The heat kicks everything up a notch, too. The boxing center is
cement-walled, without a single fan or other form of ventilation
besides the occasional breeze wafting through the few windows.
Then you put on headgear and heavy gloves that have the effect
of putting on a wool cap and mittens while running circles in
On sparring-practice days, we would all get in the ring together,10
at a time, coupling into five pairs. We would box a two-minute
round with one partner and then swap partners.
I wanted it both ways. I wanted the guys to take me seriously
and not treat me like a girl, and yet I didn’t want them
to be too rough on me. Most of the boxers toed that line, not
being too soft on me but also not hitting with the full force
I knew they were capable of.
One day, I got paired with Hablai, the sweet-talker who had supposedly
knocked up one of the girls. He played around, taunting me by
spiraling his fist in the air, not bothering to try to hit me
or escape my powder-puff blows.
“Work seriously!” I yelled at him. He bought the bait,
giving me a good wrench to the gut that made me gag. I did my
best to smack him back good, feeling furious. Then he snuck in
a hard cross to the right cheek that made me staggering backward,
sending my left cheek straight into another boxer’s hard
elbow, a tag-team right-left combo. A feverish vertigo overtook
me and I stumbled to the ground.
“Bête! How dare you? Don’t you have
any control?” I yelled, momentarily forgetting that I had
literally asked for it. The other boxers started yelling at him
as I climbed down from the ring, the trainers running after me
to see if I was okay. I tried to hide my face and stifle the tears,
but that just led me to hyperventilate.
I forgave Hablai after I calmed down, and we continued to spar
in the weeks counting down to the big event. In addition to the
battle of the sexes, Fatoumata and I would also box together.
The girl was half my size (and I’m only 5’2”)
and pretty slow, but she packed a surprising punch. The strength
of an African woman seems to be genetic, a gift from God to help
them endure their hardships, just as their big beautiful butts
are a gift to help their husbands endure their hardships. (One
day I tried to start up our small generator at work, which is
akin to starting up a lawnmower. Despite my regular weightlifting,
I had to call in a local female colleague with no sports training
to crank it up for me. )
As the day of the gala approached, I began to get nervous. What
if I cried or hyperventilated in front of everyone? What if I
just got beat? I couldn’t back down. This was on my list
of things to do before I die -- even if it was the thing that
Everyone would say that we were both victorious for having the
strength and courage to get up there and go at it. They would
say that we weren’t competing per se but collaborating in
solidarity for girl athletes everywhere. But personally, I was
competing for white girls, and I wasn’t so scared of the
pain but the shame of losing.
To insure that I would have a cheering squad there to motivate
me, I invited all the expats I knew in Conakry, from the Peace
Corps volunteers all the way up to the American ambassador, himself
a committed runner. The organizing committee hung banners all
around town, and paid for radio announcements and TV interviews
with our beloved Bangoura. They printed t-shirts with a photo
of Bangoura in a tough boxer’s stance. I had even asked
Saroudja (only half-jokingly) to pray for me in the mosque and
offer a sacrifice of kola nuts, which in Guinea is a non-negotiable
act before an important event.
The competition never happened. The Senegalese foe didn’t
show up on his appointed flight, and after many attempts at rescheduling
the match, there was always some logistical problem, though I
suspected the Senegalese shared the same fear of failure I had.
Guinea is a tough place to survive in, making it a perfect breeding
ground for hard, lean pugilists. We may have not had any boxers
compete in the ’04 Olympics, but that was more a lack of
opportunity than a lack of ability, in my opinion.
So we will never know who would have mocked who, if I would have
brought pride or shame to my country. Still I was proud of my
KO, the boxer’s merit badge -- even though it was me who
received the KO. And perhaps someday women’s boxing will
be an Olympic sport, and I will get that chance to fulfill my
resolution. We’ll see if I will fight for the red, white
and blue or Guinea’s red, yellow and green.
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