Lost bout: Kenyan boxers’ struggle with depression and poverty
Former medal-winning boxers struggle with mental health issues with no help coming their way.
Nairobi, Kenya – Suleiman Wanjau Bilali, one of Kenya’s finest boxers with international wins behind him, has been in and out of rehabilitation centres three times because of his alcohol addiction and depression since he was sacked from his job in 2012.
He is unkempt and seems unable to coordinate his mind while speaking in sheng (Swahili-English slang) while chewing miraa – a stimulant also known as khat. It takes a lot of probing and patience to understand what he is saying.
Bilali looks pale and thin in his old black T-shirt and oversized khakis. You can smell the alcohol on his breath. His hands tremble as he sits down.
His situation is widely documented. Many Kenyans have been protesting on social media and local media outlets since 2012, calling on the government and sports bodies to help the former boxing star who Kenya was once proud of.
Despite this outcry, the government has never come up with a plan to help Bilali.
After intense public pressure last year, former Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko paid for his treatment at a rehabilitation centre using his own funds.
“Sonko took me to a rehabilitation centre,” Bilali told Al Jazeera.
“When I left the centre late last year after spending three months there, I went back to alcohol and miraa. I have no house and I struggle for food. Friends help me with food and a place to sleep. Some of my good friends give me little cash which I use to buy alcohol and miraa.” Bilali sometimes visits the Muthurwa Community Centre on the fringes of the Nairobi business district.
In addition to the medals and representing Kenya at the 2000 and 2008 Olympics, Bilai has also received the Head of State Commendation.
But two accidents – in 1998 and 2004 – started his fall.
“In the first accident, I was knocked down by a speeding car while training along the road and I had a fractured leg. In the second, I got head injuries and a fractured shoulder.
“I lost my job in 2012 and my life has been full of misery since. I was depressed and my life took a totally different turn. I lost all my investments and my wife left me. Due to the sickness, making ends meet is my biggest challenge.”
Bilali says many boxing stars are struggling with mental health issues and while he is willing to coach youngsters interested in the sport, without help he is unable to come out of depression and fight off the urge for alcohol.
Stephen Muchoki, 65, is another former national boxing star. He now lives alone in a small compound in Nairobi’s Dandora estate.
His life is a struggle despite him raising Kenya’s boxing flag high in international arenas.
“I retired from amateur boxing in 1978 after winning the world title at the World Amateur Boxing Championships in Yugoslavia. The same year, I won gold at the Commonwealth Games in Canada,” Muchoki told Al Jazeera.
For five years, Muchoki was a professional boxer in Denmark but returned to Kenya in 1983.
“My heart was in Kenya. I wanted to serve Kenya and represent my country. Sadly, my life has never been the same. There were no proper structures to facilitate and take care of former boxers like myself. I was on my own. The little I had invested finished and I was back to zero.
“No one bothered to even give me some pension after I had brought fame to Kenya.”
Muchoki now volunteers as a coach at the Kariokor Boxing Club in Nairobi.
“Smoking makes me feel good. It is not easy as a former star to live in poverty. I have no pension or anything that brings money for me, this kills me slowly.”
David Munyasia is another bantamweight boxer (54kg) who lives on the hope that, one day, his legacy will be remembered and appreciated.
Munyasia started his career in the early 1990s when he participated in junior championships. He later represented the Kenya Defence Forces and the country at international events.
Now, Munyasia has no work and is addicted to chewing khat.
“I feel depressed because I have no job despite being a boxing legend in Kenya,” said Munyasia.
Kenya’s culture and sports ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Dancun Kuria, a communications director at the Boxing Federation of Kenya, agrees that there are many former boxing stars living in deplorable conditions.
“We have been accused of neglecting former boxers,” Kuria told Al Jazeera. “Some of them did well at amateur level but things changed when they went professional. We cannot intervene in the case of professionals because it is not within our mandate.
“In professional boxing, players deal with a boxing commission where agents and promoters arrange for games.”
Kuria said he is aware of the situation Bilali, Muchoki and Munyasia are in.
“Our hands are tied. We don’t have enough sponsors and some of these cases are difficult to handle without financial support.”
Kuria also said some of the boxers put themselves in the situation they are in.
“Many of these boxers did not have a plan for their post-boxing lives. They got carried away by fame and after boxing, their lives changed and many are now depressed and suffering from other social problems.
“We are encouraging new boxers to take education seriously through our current training sessions so that they have an extra skill. We also bring on board trainers on financial management, therapists, and psychologists.”
Given the treatment some of the former boxers have received, Charles Mukula, a coach at Dallas Boxing Club, is worried about the future of a sport he believes can take Kenya far.
“I’m a volunteer coach. I have children as young as five coming here to be trained,” Mukula told Al Jazeera.
“I don’t have proper boxing gear for training. It pains me when I see the zeal for boxing from youth yet no one cares.”