Editors' Choice

Africa: Where The Fighters Are Hungry

by Peter Valing

Suspicion reigned at the Zimbabwe/Mozambique border. It was a month or so following the controversial re-election of President Robert Mugabe, and the border guards had their eyes peeled for trouble-making foreigners, especially journalists. Having mingled with members of the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change), Mugabe’s opposition, and several families of white farmers, Mugabe’s scapegoats, I now feared complications exiting the country.

"Open." The word was spoken quietly but with an air of command. Unclasping the top of my packsack, I wondered what incriminating evidence I had forgotten to destroy: an editor’s business card, the address of one of the farms I had visited, an e-mail contact? Again came the voice, this time softer, more inquisitive: "You are a boxer?" Two worn gloves protruded from my packsack. "Yes," I answered, looking up at the guard. "Mugabe was a boxer," I quickly added. To my surprise, his face soured. "Ah, Mugabe," he sighed. Next to me Neal was opening his luggage — one of his gloves also rested on top. "You are fine," said the guard, pointing at Neal. "You can go," he continued while shifting his attention to some of the crates arranged alongside our bus.

There is respect and passion for boxing in Africa. Mandela was a fighter, as were more unsavoury characters like Uganda’s Idi Amin, not to mention all the sons of Africa that made it big overseas: Louis, Leonard, Foreman, Ali…:. By instinct, I knew to bring gloves. One ambition I had as I prepared to travel Africa was to somehow tap into this love of the "sweet science" — a latent love that lay beneath the surface like much of the continent’s natural potential.

When I packed the gloves, visions of another "Rumble in the Jungle" danced through my head. Now, after having cleared Zimbabwe, I had two months and eight countries to shape this vision into a reality. But how? Where would one find the fighters, the venue, a welcoming audience and receptive authorities? For the first "Rumble" (1974), Don King had Ali and Foreman, the refurbished Kinshasa Stadium, the international press and the helping hand of Joseph Mobutu, Zaire’s flamboyant and attention-hungry dictator. For the budget sequel we had two sets of gloves, two mouthpieces, a cheap camera and a dream.

Cape McLear is a fishing village on the southern shores of Lake Malawi. It is a Mecca for tourists, though the flow had tapered off in recent months due to the unrest in Zimbabwe. Darkness and silence were our only hosts when we arrived. With the minibus disappearing into the night, we walked across a sandy beach towards an illuminated sign reading Steven's Resthouse. From the lake, which is one of the largest in Africa, shone dozens of tiny lights — sure indicators that the fishermen were busy at work.

Third-class travel had stiffened joints and atrophied muscles, so the next morning, following breakfast, Neal and I decided to pull out the gloves and go a few rounds. On a stretch of beach between the Resthouse and the Lake we loosened up, jabbing at each other, throwing in the odd right hand, circling back and forth over sand that grew warmer under our feet. Before we started travelling together, Neal had never boxed. But being naturally powerful, built of long lean muscles, he was learning the basics quickly.

And it wasn't long before we had ourselves a small audience. From the corner of my eye, I watched the young men and boys draw closer until around us they formed a loose ring. The Resthouse staff came out on the patio, the curtains parted in one of the rooms, and the ship-builders had stopped hammering and gazed through the ribs of an unfinished hull.

The crowd didn't remain spectators for long. The young boys playfully began to push each other, the older ones mimicked our motions — the jab, the right hand, the footwork. Their conversations revolved around boxing. How did I know? Because "boxer," "box" and "boxing" were the only words I understood and they were repeated over and over amidst the laughs, squeals and jeers.

In this Malawi village, we had stumbled upon a perfect venue for the "Rumble in the Jungle II."

Putting on a boxing card is no easy undertaking. I have witnessed cards take shape only to fall apart at the last minute due to absentee fighters, uncooperative commissions, lack of interest, etc. Anyone who has seen the documentary When We Were Kings (the account of the original Rumble in the Jungle) can appreciate the promoter's headaches/heartaches. Since neither Neal nor I had prior experience in the field, we could only expect worse, though lack of interest didn't seem to be a factor that could have killed the card. One needn't be a pollster to recognize that here boxing, or at least the idea of boxing, was popular. Our gloves had disappeared into the centre of the village, where they were being swapped among enthusiastic youths who swung at each other to the cheers of a steadily growing audience.

What we needed, above all else, was a liason between ourselves and the village — someone who could translate our desires to the community, someone who knew what channels to go through, someone charismatic and bold.

He was young and handsome and he called himself "Snoop" — a name which he later put on his mailing address. His reputation preceded him. While in Blantyre, a city approximately 200km from Cape McLear, I was advised to contact Snoop if I needed anything from snorkelling gear to Malawi Gold (marijuana). Snoop would surely "sort it out." And among the "beach boys" — a group of young men who catered to the whims of tourists — Snoop was the "Main Man." He told me as much when we first met.

In the shade of a thatched—roofed bar, we plotted and schemed with the King—like character, whose hair jutted from his scalp — not in a greying afro like Don's, but in tightly—wound dreadlocks. "First, we must see the chief," he advised us after we had laid out our plans. "The chief will decide if the boxing can happen." Although I had never met with a chief, I thought it easier to deal with one man over an organized bureaucracy. We only had two days for the card to materialize, and if we convinced the chief we would be halfway there. "What about the fighters, a ring and a place to hold the fight?" I asked. With an entrepreneurial glint in his eye he replied, "Don't worry. Snoop will sort it all out."

Cape McLear was, in fact, much larger than I had imagined. Nestled between the mountains and the Lake, the village was home to over 10,000 Malawians. Down the dusty road Snoop, Neal and I trekked towards the chief's house, past hundreds of tidy huts, a brick church, an abandoned mosque and a newly-built medical clinic; through fields planted with corn, across irrigation ditches bridged by boards. Dusk was settling on the village, the peasants were returning from the fields and from behind the dry—grass fences came the sounds and smells of dinner. My mind was filled with anticipation, my belly growled after the meats and flatbreads that were being prepared.

Suddenly, Snoop became very serious. We stopped a hundred meters from the chief's house and could only make out a dozen or so silhouettes sitting beneath an acacia tree. "The chief is in a meeting," Snoop whispered. "We must wait here."

So we waited, and the moon came up and the fishermen set out and the darkness was pierced by dozens of celestial and water-born lights. Eventually the silhouettes dispersed, and Snoop returned with an invitation from the chief.

Seated on the porch of his modest home, I believed that we were finally face to face with the chief. In fact, it was his translator — the chief sat somewhere in the shadows behind us. Snoop introduced us and after a pause, the translator asked: "What would you like from Chief Chumbe?"

I inhaled deeply and set forth our plan as clearly and decisively as my now overwhelmed mind could muster. "…With all due respect…big boxing fans…Rumble in the Jungle, 1974…African fighters: Louis, Ali, Tyson…brought gloves…village affair…children enter free…admission divided between the fighters, charity and the chief…would he agree?" After each point, I'd allow for a translation. From the shadows came a clearing of the throat, a few words and here and there, a chuckle. It was going well. I could feel it.

As it turned out, the chief, in his younger days, was a boxer in South Africa. His favourite fighter was the "Brown Bomber," Joe Louis (whom I had fortunately mentioned in the sales pitch), and he'd think it over, discuss it with the elders and we should return tomorrow for the decision. Thanking him for his time, we staggered home in the darkness. No electricity existed in the village proper.

Early the next morning, we began to make preparations. It was then that I realized how few resources we had at our disposal. Even the most basic boxing card requires certain staples: a ring, round cards, mouthpieces, a bell. To survive in Africa, one must be innovative and resourceful at the most basic level. If we needed round cards, we would have to make them. If we lacked mouthpieces, we could rely on the local craftsmen, who turned what would be considered refuse in the West into intricate toys and trinkets. No bell to start the round. Why not substitute in a bongo drum?

Establishing a workshop on the Guesthouse patio, our preparations were soon noticed by a group of volunteer English teachers from England. They agreed to help. At one corner of the table, Neil and I converted an old calendar into round cards by folding it over and stencilling numbers on the back. At the other end, several teachers squabbled over designs and translations for the fight posters that would be posted throughout the village. By overlooking the larger obstacles — the chief's permission, absence of a ring and fighters — the project began to gain momentum.

Snoop arrived with good news. He had "sorted out" the material for a ring and found a potential venue. His association with the card had bolstered his status in the village and he was now committed to its success. "Let's go look at where we can have the boxing tonight," he said. "Shouldn't we go see the chief first?" I replied. He winked. "Today is the chief's drinking day. We will meet him in a bar later. It is better that way." Before we departed, Snoop picked up one of the posters. "What is mayhem?" he asked. I looked at the poster. "It's sort of like Malawi craziness," responded one of the teachers, the coiner of the slogan.

The venue was perfect. In the enclosed courtyard of the Top Quiet Resthouse we would put on our tribute to the monumental Ali/Foreman showdown. There was enough room for a fair sized ring, seating for several hundred spectators and because it was enclosed, it would allow us to control the gate and collect the 10 kwatcha admission. The only catch was that the owner wanted a piece of the action. Shrewd negotiations on Snoop's behalf resulted in the owner agreeing to 20% of the gate and profits from food and beverages sold.

The ring was our next challenge. Snoop had convinced several villagers to lend us some fence posts (which were little more than thick branches) and a length of rope. He had also organized volunteers: young boys who, enticed by the promise of ringside seats, were eager to help.

With whatever tools were not being used on the fields that day — three homemade hoes and several dull machetes — we set to work. Beneath the sun, which had climbed over the mountains and now hung directly above us, we dug in the posts, secured them with rocks and lashed them together with four lengths of rope. It was touching to see everyone working towards the same goal, happily, energetically, without pause, without a word of complaint. When it was completed it wasn't pretty, but it was sturdy and would contain the fighters, which we still didn't have.

From bar to bar we searched for the chief. The posters had been distributed and word was spreading fast. The children, especially, took to the idea and throughout the village they greeted us, yelling: "Boxer! Boxer!" Walking alongside of us, they grabbed at our hands and tried to impress us by throwing punches into the air. One boy even staged a convincing stagger as if the knockout punch had just been landed. The dormant passion had come to the surface.

It was the kind of passion that must have vitalized Ali's heart, giving him the will to defeat a stronger, meaner George Foreman in ‘74. We experienced only a fraction of what "The Greatest" must have felt doing his roadwork in Kinshasa to the screams of "Ali, Boom—By—Ay!"

At Thomas's Bar sat the chief, his translator and two others. Following Snoop's advice, we had made preparations for the card without the chief's final approval (a similar trick used by King to sign Ali and Foreman, knowing that at the moment he didn't have the money to pay either fighter). Now, I was worried. Had the chief heard? Would he be offended? Would this former pugilist put an end to the card?

It was hard not to stare at the chief — this old man, this old fighter — no doubt a former heavyweight, judging by his still solid frame and large fists. He was more than I had imagined in last night's shadows. A fan of the "Brown Bomber" he was, and no fan of Louis could resist a live display of boxing, I thought, as I ordered a round of beers.

Like Mobutu years ago, the chief could not attend the event, though for different reasons: Zaire's dictator feared assasination, the chief had pressing business in a nearby village. Nonetheless, he gave our fight his blessing. "The chief believes it will be good for the village," pronounced the translator. Looking into his eyes, one glazed by a cataract, the other still sharp, I thanked him. He enclosed my extended hand in his boxer's mitts.

The fights had to be over before the sun set. Otherwise, the audience would be paying to watch silhouettes trip over each other in the dark. On the posters, the bouts were scheduled to begin at 4:30PM. At 5:00PM the courtyard was empty and the stick-and-rope ring began to look a little pathetic. Only Snoop remained optimistic. "Don't worry, Peter, they'll come," he said, staring down the dirt road that led up to the Resthouse.

By 6:30 we had about 100 spectators, mostly children who were admitted for free. By 7:00 there was a crowd gathered at the gate and Snoop and I collected the tattered notes in a burlap sack. The men, especially, had all the reasons for why they couldn't pay the nominal admission: "No fish caught today." "My friend will pay later." Many reeked of booze and my sympathies waned each time a little boy or girl offered up a folded bill. The only way for the men to enter free was to fight, and those who had read and accepted the offer on the poster were being organized in the back by Neal.

Intermittently, Neal would emerge from within his growing stable of fighters to confer with Snoop and I. "I've got four big guys, two short ones and a skinny one back there. Is there a chance that we could get two more big guys?" Or, "That guy over there, Isaac's his name, I think — he doesn't want to fight anymore." Or, "Pete, the sun is starting to set. We got to get this show on the road!"

With a little more than an hour of sunlight remaining, it was time to shut the gate and begin the bouts. Those who came late or refused to pay could still see the action from across the gate or from several vantage points along the mountain that bordered the Guesthouse.

The joy of the moment is hard to convey, and walking towards the ring I made sure to make a mental note of each detail, for I knew that no matter what life had in store for me, it was difficult to imagine an occasion that would rival this in intensity, passion and beauty. At the centre of our small universe, enclosed by the mountains, the jungle and the sea stood the stick-and-rope ring with its apron of freshly-raked sand. Around its perimeters sat the children, half-clothed, wide-eyed and brimming with anticipation. The next tier consisted of the women, gathered in small groups, some cradling babies, others making eyes at the men who stood in line next to the gloving table. Finally, there were the men (those that weren't fighting), leaning against the chipped stucco walls, hanging around the gloving table and in the corners, where they inspected — with an "expert" eye — the stools, spit buckets and drums. Dispersed though out the crowd sat the English teachers, their cameras at the ready and Snoop stood in the centre, beckoning me to enter.

I spoke, Snoop translated, and together we introduced our tribute to the original "Rumble" to the villagers of Cape McLear. It was obvious that the names Ali and Foreman were not forgotten here, for at their mention the crowd responded with claps and cheers. When the intro was over, it was time for Neal and I to stage an exhibition bout. And there and then the card nearly came crashing down.

One pair of gloves lay on the gloving table, and the other was nowhere to be found!

Panic: searching under the table…Panic: searching around the ring…Panic: running in and out of the bar and restaurant…Restlessness (in the crowd)…Restlessness (in the fighters)…Restlessness (in all those who dropped a creased bill into the burlap sack in anticipation of an event that they sensed was teetering on the brink). At one point Neal began to wrap towels around his fists.

We were desperate.

A card is not a card until both fighters stand gloved, face-to-face, in the centre of the ring. King must have been swallowing his tongue when he was informed that Foreman had sustained a cut over his eye only days before the scheduled bout. Though postponed by several weeks, "The Rumble in the Jungle" eventually materialized, as did "Malawi Mayhem", due to Neal's quick thinking and his even quicker sprint back to my room where the gloves lay on my bed.

Dashing off our sandals, we laced up our fists and slipped between the ropes. We needed to recapture the crowd and before the drum sounded the beginning of the bout I told Neal to hold nothing back. I would keep my hands low.

And he tore into me with a viciousness that I didn't expect. The punches were undisciplined, but they came from all angles and thumped hard on my temples, off my chin and off the exposed parts of my ribs. Some experienced fighters hate fighting "Green Guys" (inexperienced fighters) because they are unpredictable. Neal was certainly "Green" — unpredictable, and what's more, strong as a bull.

On the stool, "Softie," my corner man, rubbed my shoulders and poured water over my head. The sand burned under my feet and my brain was a bit clouded from the barrage that Neal had laid on me. But the crowd loved it and when the bout was over, it had set a standard, which each successive set of fighters either matched or surpassed.

The gloving table was in a state of pandemonium, crowded over by a dozen or so men and boys, all of whom were trying to help in some way. My gloves were yanked off and laced on the next fighter in line. Mouthpieces were rinsed, dropped in the sand, rinsed again and place upside down in open mouths. Neal, with the list of fighters in one hand and a glove on the other, was frantically searching for one of the fighters. Meanwhile, I stretched a pair of latex gloves (part of our first aid kit) over my hands and jumped though the ropes to ref the next bout.

Boyson vs. Edwards, Issac vs. Jeff, Simon vs. Phoenix, Stephan vs. Justice, Chico vs. Billy — 5 fights, 3X3-minute rounds, a half-hour of sunlight left.

It took me years in the gym to loosen up enough to throw and take punches half—naturally. Here, it was different. Their movements were fluid, their bodies rhythmic and the commonplace observation that white fighters are "stiff" and "starchy" was reinforced in my mind each time one of these novices threw a slick combination that would take many pros years to master. I'm not trying to make stereotypical divisions between black and white athletes — I am merely stating what I saw and measuring it against a decade of boxing experience. I was very impressed by the natural talents of the locals.

Halfway through the card, the sun dropped behind the mountains and darkness descended on Cape McLear. The Resthouse manager turned on the outside lamps, which barely illuminated the walkways beneath. The remainder of the card would unfold in an incandescent half-light.

When Chico entered the ring, the crowd went frantic with delight. He was a pocket-Tyson, with a compact turret for a torso and two muscle-clad barrels for arms. Word around the village was that Chico was the strongest of all the Cape men. Billy, his opponent, either didn't know or didn't care. His demeanour was calm and confident until the punches began to land.

Chico didn't waste a second and when the drums sounded to commence the round he ran at Billy, unleashing such a fury of blows that Billy's rear soon kissed the sand. Parting the fighters, I sent Chico to a corner while counting out the knockdown. At the count of three, Billy stood up and seconds later was again arse-in-the-sand. Chico was too much for Billy, whose backside graced the apron twice more before he finally gave up.

And this was the only victory that was easy to call, since the preceding fights were so close, and myself being occupied with refereeing, time keeping and keeping the round-card bearers out of the ring during the action, that I scored most of them a draw. No sense in creating bad blood in the village, I thought. Especially among men who were putting on such a valiant display of boxing prowess.

This was to be the last fight of the night until Neal rushed over to inform me that he had two young boys that desperately wanted to knock each other about. One last time we rinsed the mouthpieces, laced the gloves and sounded the battle drums.

They came at each other, conserving nothing, fearing nothing, the boldness of youth coursing through their veins. I was amazed, and at the same time concerned about what might happen to them if they continued. Several times I broke them apart, pleading with Snoop to warn them to take it easy or else I'd call the fight. To these instructions they nodded their heads, threw a light jab or two and then, as though we had all disappeared, they ran each other around the ring to the drumming and screams of the fans.

In the middle of the second round, I put an end to it. They could return to fight another day when they were a bit older, a bit wiser.

Neal poured the Dettol across the gash in my back and I winced with the pain, wondering in which round it was that a fighter had run me up against one of the corner posts. Neal, Snoop and the manager were gathered around a table in the office, counting the gate. Snoop emptied the sack and Neal sorted the money. When the count was complete, the card had earned 800 kwatcha (approx $15 U.S.) — laughable by Western standards, but in Malawi where the Per Capita GNP is $180 U.S. it could be stretched.

Outside, the fighters were eagerly awaiting their cut. Inside, the atmosphere was that of some dingy cubby-hole in the back of a 1930's fight club where the promoters, managers and sycophants parcelled up the blood money of some poor, punch-drunk journeyman. The Resthouse manager wanted more for the use of his facilities, Snoop was eyeing up the coins and Neal and I feared the consequences of not giving each fighter a fair shake.

One by one we gave the fighters their purse (approx $1 U.S.). "Just think of the possibilities if we had $100 dollars of our own to donate," said Neal. He, like myself, didn't appear comfortable dividing up such pittance for so brave an effort. I felt like some miserly headmaster from Oliver Twist, doling out the lumps of porridge.

With the fighters paid, we had enough left over to buy the chief a bottle of Tanzanian Brandy, as recommended by Snoop. As for charitable causes, we had nothing left and consoled ourselves with the thought that those who came to the card would remember it and those who fought in it might further pursue the "sweet science" in Africa. To this end, we left Snoop our gloves and mouthpieces as well as a promise to send more equipment when we returned to Canada. "Now, I can organize more fights," he said with a smile.

Two weeks later, in Tanzania, when all of this had already slipped into the recesses of my mind, I was reminded of what it was that I was trying to find in Africa when I had packed boxing gloves for the journey.

On a beach, amidst dilapidated hulls of fishing vessels, I saw him circling. Jab…jab…then left hook into a fishing buoy suspended from a tree. He wore old ski gloves and he hit the heavy bag hard. Lennox Lewis, watch out. In Africa the fighters are hungry.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For an archive of these stories go to the Editors' Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.


Read more from Editors' Choice, Peter Valing

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