Conjestina Achieng is, by and large, Kenya’s most popular female boxer of all time, not only for her hard-hitting knack, but also for her good-humoured pre-match banter.
Her post weigh-in press conferences endeared her to boxing lovers countrywide, and she build a reputation as the most-feared and extrovert African female pugilist.
Conje’s popular “early days” Swahili slurs of kujeni mapema, nitamaliza mapema (come early as I will finish it early) went viral and drew a myriad OF spectators to boxing venues — so ingrained was her love for the fabled game of hooks and jabs.
Conje was nicknamed “Hands of Stone” and was once ranked in the top five in the world. She became the first African woman to hold an international title when she beat Ugandan Fiona Tugume to take the vacant WIBF Middleweight title
Then came the most successful Kenyan female boxer in Fatuma “Iron Fist” Zarika, who entered her name in the annals of Kenyan boxing history as the first local boxer to rack up the prestigious World Boxing Council (WBC) belt, a title she held for four good years until she was dethroned by Mexican Yemileth Mercado in Mexico. WBC is no doubt the most prestigious belt on planet earth.
Women boxers in the country have always looked up to Conje and Zarika for success. But the success story doesn’t just end with the two legends of the girls’ game.
Elizabeth Andiego aka ‘Liz’ became the first boxer to represent Kenya at the Olympics in 2012 in London while Christine Ongare, who recently qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in Dakar earlier in the year, is currently the only Kenyan women amateur medalists after she got her mitts on a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.
Ongare was a member of the pioneer Kenyan women’s team which visited Barbados for the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championship.
The team also included Joselyn Mare, who also became the first female boxer to join the national amateur governing body, BFK, as Assistant Competitions Secretary.
Judy Waguthii, a Tae-Kwon-Do exponent turned pro-boxer also won the WBC silver belt which handed her the bragging rights as a top contender for a WBC title, which she never accomplished prior to hanging up her gloves recently to concentrate on slum girl mentorship in Kibera.
The quest for boxers of national repute hasn’t hit a stone wall just as yet.
At the present, Kenya Defence Forces boxing team, better known as Defaba, is working to inspire the next generation of female boxers. Rightly so, the multiple Kenyan league champions have literally embarked on a long-term initiative to champion for women in sport.
The soldiers, who have featured prominently on the local arena for decades, believe “this noble initiative can be another turning point for the growth of women’s boxing and the reason the sport will catapult to desirable heights,” said Defaba Officer In Charge, Lt. Col. Paul Mungori.
Defaba’s has committed to support competitive athletes, invest in the next generation at the grassroots level and deliver more innovative and compelling facet for women pugilists.
Veronica Mbithe made history last year by being the first female boxer to be recruited into the army. This also followed the recruitment of Pauline Chege, who is currently in military training. Mbithe is a product of Dallas Muthurwa boxing club under coach Charles Mukula while Chege is from Kayole, under the tutelage of Kennedy ‘Valdez’ Ochieng.
“Pauline is still in military training and she is set to be the newest member of our team after passing out. For now, we just wish her all the best,” remarked Mung’ori.
Mbithe says she is overly excited to be the first woman soldier to play in the BFK National Boxing League.
She started her career in the cradle of Kenya’s boxing at Muthurwa back in 2014.
Mbithe wasn’t inspired by anybody. But after watching the likes of Conje, Waguthii and Zarika, she just took herself to the gym and asked Mukula to allow her do her thing in a set up which has produced some of Kenya’s finest boxers including the late Harish Ouma, the Bilalis (Suleiman and Ibrahim) and Steve Muchoki among others.
Women’s boxing in Kenya started in the 1980s, thanks to the late Coach Papa Musi, who is the brains behind the now Olympic-recognised sport.
Mbithe said: “When I started boxing, it was hard for me to concentrate with training because my mum was not supporting me to do boxing as a sport simply because she believed that it was a sport for men only. But this ended after my coach convinced her and she understood. I was discouraged by both friends and family because of joining a male-dominated sport,” says Mbithe.
“It was also tough in training because we were not getting paid after training and after tournaments. We didn’t have enough training equipment’s and training gear either. I would candidly advice aspiring female boxers to put God first in each and every thing they do, and work extra hard to achieve what they want in life because where there is pain there is gain and never listen to people because they will always work to despise you. And to know that boxing always pays and it’s not meant for men alone.”
Mbithe aspires to represent the country over and above bringing home a medal in the military games, Olympics, Commonwealth Games and All Africa Games.
“I also want to inspire young girls who have decided to take up boxing as a sport and show them that the sport has good fruits if only they commit themselves,” Mbithe added.
Mung’ori said: “My plan is to at least recruit ladies every time an opportunity arises. So far so good. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Mbithe is a very good pioneer, disciplined and focused on both careers. My leadership philosophy in the team is… scale the heights and chew gum at the same time… pursue boxing and military courses for career growth. Mbithe has done that and I am proud of her. BFK leadership also understand my position and we engage frequently in making the best decisions for the boxer. Soon she will rise through the ranks and pursue her dreams in boxing. Gender mainstreaming is a national duty and obligates all government entities.”
National team coach Benjamin Musa said: “Women’s boxing is set to blossom given the current conducive environment that has seen the emergence of a big number of women boxers with great potential.”
Women boxers were first involved in the Olympics in London 2012. Although they have participated in boxing for almost as long as the sport has existed, their fights have been effectively outlawed for most of boxing’s history, with athletic commissioners refusing to sanction or issue licenses to women boxers, and most nations officially banning the sport. Reports of women entering the ring goes back to the 18th century when Elizabeth Wilkinson fought in London. Billing herself as the European Championess, she fought both men and women. In those days, the rules of boxing allowed kicking, gouging and other methods of attack not part of today’s arsenal.
During the 1920s, Professor Andrew Newton formed a Women’s Boxing Club in London. However women’s boxing was hugely controversial. In early 1926, Shoreditch borough council banned an arranged exhibition match between boxers Annie Newton and Madge Baker, a student of Digger Stanley.
An attempt to hold the match in nearby Hackney instead was defeated by a campaign led by the Mayor of Hackney, who wrote: “I regard this proposed exhibition of women boxers as a gratification of the sensual ideals of a crowd of vulgar men.” The Home Secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks was among those opposing the match, claiming “the Legislature never imagined that such a disgraceful exhibition would have been staged in this country.”
The story was reported across the country and even internationally. Women’s boxing first appeared in the Olympic Games at a demonstration bout in 1904. Its revival was pioneered by the Swedish Amateur Boxing Association, which sanctioned events for women in 1988. The British Amateur Boxing Association sanctioned its first boxing competition for women in 1997. The first event was to be between two thirteen-year-olds, but one of the boxers withdrew because of hostile media attention. Four weeks later, an event was held between two sixteen-year-olds. One named Susan MacGregor (Laurenckirk, Aberdeenshire) and the Joanne Cawthorne (Peterhead, Aberdeenshire). The International Boxing Association (amateur) accepted new rules for women’s boxing at the end of the 20th century and approved the first European Cup for Women in 1999 and the first World Championship in 2001.
Women’s boxing was not featured at the 2008 Olympics. However, on August 14, 2009, it was announced that the International Olympic Committee’s Executive Board (EB) had approved the inclusion of women’s boxing for the Games in London in 2012, contrary to the expectations of some observers. Around these (2009) hearings, in conjunction with AIBA (International Boxing Association), the International Olympic Committee agreed to include three additional women’s weight classes to the 2012 London Olympic Games.
However, a new ‘gender-appropriate’ women’s boxing uniform was in the works, this would require women (under AIBA rules) to wear skirts during competition. Traditional gender role sentiment was prominent to the news of women and skirts. To include top armature coaches, who have been documented stating: “Women are made for beauty and not to take blows to the head’ and ‘by wearing skirts…it gives a good impression, a womanly impression’.
The issue was widely ignored until amateur boxer and London student Elizbeth Plank, brought light to the issue and created a petition at Change.com to end this sex-based mandatory uniforms.
Although women fought professionally in many countries, in the United Kingdom the B.B.B.C. refused to issue licences to women until 1998. By the end of the century, however, they had issued five such licenses. The first sanctioned bout was in November 1998 at Streatham in London, between Jane Couch and Simona Lukic.