Travels

 

Boxeuse



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 every day.

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 six children.

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 girl.

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 sidelines.

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 miles.

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 a sauna.

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 killed me.

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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