John Kariuki: Tragedy of boxing champ basking in fame amid abject poverty

By Roy Gachuhi

In Summary
Even boxing, the one and only trade upon which all his hopes of freedom from bondage are pinned, has many times resulted in a shattering heartbreak
I remembered the long hours spent shooting him and the joy and intensity with which he told his story, which is the story of Kenya’s marginalized underclass

Everything about the life of John “Koki” Kariuki, flag bearer of the venerable Nakuru Amateur Boxing Club and current Kenya national lightweight champion, is about bondage.

PHOTO | SULEIMAN MBATIAH | FILE John Kariuki (L) trades punches with Ben Oluch at the Nakuru's Madison Square Garden on December 11, 2012.  NATION MEDIA GROUP

PHOTO | SULEIMAN MBATIAH | FILE John Kariuki (L) trades punches with Ben Oluch at the Nakuru’s Madison Square Garden on December 11, 2012. NATION MEDIA GROUP

Every day, beginning before dawn, he must trek two kilometres or so from home and head for the dust or sludge of Nakuru Wholesale Market where he heaves 120 kilogram bags of oranges, mangoes or potatoes on the back of his 60-kilogram body to make Sh20 each time he hauls a bag from the lorry to the storehouse.

Some owners think this Sh20 is too much and try to bring it down to Sh15. Those are the good ones; others just drive off after the work is done, leaving Kariuki nursing his hurting back – and penniless. In the tough language of the street, such an outcome is described as “maahia”, meaning he has burnt his fingers on that deal.

Home is Lake View Estate, a name that can easily mislead an outsider into conjuring images of a breathtaking view of Kenya’s world famous haven for millions of flamingos.

But this is a tough, teeming slum and the lake is nowhere in sight. Navigating though it involves jumping over sewerage streams every now and then amidst crowds of bemused children. Kariuki’s home is a one-room affair, measuring eight square feet – bedroom, kitchen, living room – everything. “Hii ndio mambo yote (this is everything),” he says.

All four of the whole family – father, mother, son and daughter- sleep on one bed; the adults on one end and the children on the other. The children are aged nine and four.

“Every living thing,” he says, “all the birds in the air, must finally find a place to rest after their day’s labours. This is mine.”

HUMBLE BACKGROUND

But peace is seldom assured. In bad months, the family could reach home to find the door sealed with three heavy padlocks. Those are the days when the Sh20, or Sh15 as the case may be, didn’t add up to the Sh1500 for the monthly rent. In fact, it’s more the rule than the exception that Kariuki must play hide and seek games with the landlord’s agent at the end of every month.

Even boxing, the one and only trade upon which all his hopes of freedom from bondage are pinned, has many times resulted in a shattering heartbreak. One day in 2006 as Kenya novices’ champion, he turned out for the national youth team in a tournament involving three countries. He defeated a Seychellois opponent at Nairobi Charter Hall to win the gold medal.

“The Kenya national anthem was played for me. You might think that was a big deal; it should be. Only the highest achievers in society merit that honour. And it takes the severest struggle – “ni mng’ang’a’no!” – to get there. But I returned to Nakuru empty-handed, except for this medal you are looking at.

“Nothing, absolutely nothing, was given to me. As I was taken to Nairobi by bus, so was I returned by the same bus with not a single penny in my pocket. I looked at my wife and I thought: ‘I can’t buy her even the cheapest bra.’

“But food was the immediate problem; I had no money for food. That is when my wife started looking for odd jobs upon realizing that being champion did not mean anything except the name. To this day I don’t have a job – and I am now the national lightweight champion. Now you know why these shoes are laughing at you.”

He points to his sneakers whose big holes at the front reveal his toes. The sneakers are covered with the sloth of the filthy market and it is hard to read the brand.

His bondage seemed to start from his birth in 1987. He was born of an illiterate single mother in Pangani, Nakuru and there wasn’t enough food to go around for the family of three. Nor was there enough money for education and he couldn’t go beyond Standard Seven. His mother died before she could tell him who his father was, if ever that was important.

The skills to fend for himself in the wild streets of the slums’ urban jungle thus came early to him. Long before he reached his teens, he was a street tough. Yet a good one for, as he likes to emphasize: “I have never been involved in crime. Many of my friends were and many have gone to waste. Many have been consumed by either the law or drugs or both. But not me. God is with me.”

OVERWHELMING PRESENCE

God is an overwhelming presence Kariuki’s life and his articulation of his relationship with Him is itself a spectacle. It is as compelling as the furious fists and dancing feet that have hauled him to the top of Kenya boxing in his weight and into the World Championships currently going on in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

“If you worship a human being,” he says, “you are wasting your time because you will never be able to satisfy him. Faith belongs to God alone who made me see the daylight and who makes me live. He makes me rise in the morning and he knows why he does it. My suffering, my distresses, my heartbreaks all belong to Him – He’s in charge of me. One day, He will free me from all this because doors and their keys are His. He is the alpha and the omega – there’s nothing else.

“For this reason, I never give up. I look forward to that day when He will free me from this slavery. If I fall, I pick up myself and move on. And when I am on my knees every morning, I don’t just pray for myself; I pray for the deaf, the blind and all handicapped and marginalized people.”

It is 10 long years since Nakuru Amateur Boxing Club, beloved as Madison Square Garden and home of Kenya boxing, produced a national champion and destiny has determined that it is John Kariuki, poster child of the nation’s underclass, who will fly the banner.

This is the one club that knows how to defy death because it is the club of Maxie McCullough’s. McCullough was an Irish veteran of World War II who settled in Nakuru and was a manager with the Kenya Farmers Association when he established Madison Square Garden in 1957 by converting a disused garage into a gymnasium.

The burly former paratrooper and boxing coach wanted to give the marginalized a life-line and he did. The gym soon beckoned to the town’s drifting but talented youngsters, the greatest of whom was doubtless Philip Waruinge, perhaps Kenya’s most stylish ring craftsmen ever.

Waruinge first participated in the 1964 Olympics. He won a bronze medal in the 1968 Olympics but the real story was that he was awarded the Val Baker Trophy, given to the best boxer of the Games, always a gold medallist.

Organizers were making up for an incomprehensible semi-final decision against Waruinge. Madison’s rich alumni list includes Sammy Mbogua, Waruinge’s brother and other Kenya legends such as John Nderu, Kamau Mbogua, Sammy Mbagara, Isaiah Ikhoni, Peter Manene, Francis Mbagara, Gabriel Musonye and Lawrence Kariuki.

Col Cyrus Oguna, currently spokesman for the Kenya Defence Forces and once a boxer himself, says: “Nakuru ABC is where my umbilical cord was cut and buried. I have the deepest sentiments about that place. Say hi to all those good people when you next see them for me.”

This is John Kariuki’s heritage. And some people are working with a religious devotion to the legacy of McCullough to help him cross the river and banish his bondage. Led by club chairman Stanley Njoroge and the ubiquitous “Don King” – everybody calls Kenya boxing’s walking encyclopaedia Mwangi Muthoga that – the members of Madison Square Garden have raised money to support Kariuki’s family while he is away.

PRIDE OF NAKURU

They have also petitioned the County government to offer him a job better than the back breaker he is currently doing. He is their pride and the pride of Nakuru, they say, and he is living proof that you could be born and raised in the country’s dungeons and yet rise to fly the country’s flag by dint of hard work, perseverance and faith.

Is a man known by the company he keeps? Yes, it has been said. But he can also be known by the pictures and quotations he hangs on his walls. The walls of John Kariuki’s shack are plastered with pictures of David Beckham, Christiano Ronaldo, Lewis Hamilton, Bob Marley, a big American-style mansion and a love poem.

What do all these mean to you, I ask.

“Let’s talk about the sportsmen first,” he says. “These are great achievers who made their money through outstanding sports performance, not formal education. I really admire that. It gives me hope and convinces me that even if I reached only Class Seven, I still can be somebody.

“It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t proceed further in formal education and it wasn’t my mother’s fault. That was my destiny as decreed by God and I have no time to waste decrying that. What I dream of is my daughter to become a medical doctor and my son to become a pilot. But as for me, these two hands are all I can depend on and that’s what I am doing to the best of my ability even as I go hungry sometimes.

“I love Bob Marley’s song, Get Up, Stand Up because it urges me not to give up the fight. Every morning, I look at all the certificates and medals that I have won in the ring but which have so far brought me no money and no stability but just an intangible recognition. When I am momentarily stricken with despair and I feel so weak, I look at Bob Marley telling me to get up, stand up, and ‘maze, Koki, don’t give up the fight.’ I get going, convinced that I will one day live in a house like that one. Huu ni mng’ang’ano! (This is a struggle!)”

After watching Kariuki hauling bags of farm produce weighing more than twice his own weight, I waited to see what he would carry home. He bought three onions, four tomatoes, a tiny packing of dhania and a small cabbage, all weighing at most one kilogram. They were packed in a small transparent paper bag which he dangled on his fingers. With some ugali added, it was going to be his family’s meal for the day.

He arrived at his shack with much pomp and circumstance because of my film crew. The entire neighbourhood – comprising almost entirely of women and children – seemed to have come out to find out what the fuss was all about. Kariuki addressed them with great gusto.

“I told you people, one day I will leave this place! One day I will board an aeroplane! See now? See these people? Do you now believe me? But rest assured: I will never forget you. Wherever in the world I go, I will never abandon you.” The women hooted with delight. The children looked bewildered.

NAMED TO THE NATIONAL TEAM

He was saying that more in jest than anything else. But sure enough, a short while later, he was named to the national team and Don King and his people embarked on a frenetic exercise to get him a passport and to take measures to ensure that his family was in food while Kariuki was in camp and then away in Kazakhstan.

But on that hot and dusty day, the image of his tiny shopping paper bag, acquired after such slavish labour, lingered long and heavy. When leaving him, I thought of Byron’s poem: Oh freedom!/thy banner, torn but flying/ streams like the thunderstorm/against the wind!
And on Wednesday, I read in the Daily Nation that he had lost his bout against his Mongolian opponent by a unanimous points decision after suffering a deep cut above his right eye.

“Kariuki gave a good account of himself but the deep cut he got early in the fight affected his moves,” Kenya coach Patrick Maina was quoted as saying.

I remembered the long hours spent shooting him and the joy and intensity with which he told his story, which is the story of Kenya’s marginalized underclass. Bob Marley, his hero, would doubtless have taken little note of that reversal and sang for him:

Get Up, Stand Up

Don’t give up

The Fight!

Don’t give up the fight!

Don’t give up the fight!

Don’t give up the fight…..!

Content House’s boxing documentary, “A Way Out”, featuring among others John “Koki” Kariuki, is due for release early next year.