Robert Wangila: A story of the tragedy of the Olympian who spoke quietly and punched hard

Robert Wangila

Robert Wangila

In life Robert Wangila endured a deprived upbringing and calmly navigated the crime-prone gangland streets of Jericho and Muthurwa to join the elite league of athletes who hold aloft the bouquet of flowers reserved for Olympic victors.
His death in the ring stunned the country and sparked a legal duel over his last resting place that brought a constellation of lawyers that would have put last year’s presidential election dispute in the shade.
It is 20 years since he died and this September, he would have been 47. Long after the final chants of Salat al-Janaza, the Islamic prayer for the dead, his friends in Kenya’s depressed boxing fraternity continue to remember him. It is obvious they will do this to the ends of their own lives.
They still have a photo of him in the place of his career birth, the rundown gymnasium of Dallas Muthurwa Social Hall, or whatever remains of it. The hall has long been a target of wheeler-dealer fly-by-night businessmen who have always wanted to sell it and deprive Wangila’s successors a place they could train in.
The hazy colour photo taken during the 1982 Kecoso Games at Nyeri shows Wangila, resplendent in the fashion of the day – bell bottom trousers – in the company of the man who introduced him to Dallas, Aloise “Les Les” Muiruri. The other boxers in the photo are George Findo and Morgan Oduor, nicknamed “Ma-steam”.
Muiruri, a veteran of the once fabled Hit Squad, was Wangila’s bosom buddy and he must have been the happiest man in the world when his friend took that gold in Seoul via knockout. But he has fallen on extremely hard times.
Wangila was a quiet man whose most eloquent speech was made in the ring with his fists, especially the right one. He littered the canvas with many opponents using it, but he was never known to look for a fight in the streets. That was for thugs and this was no thug. He kept away from street fights.
He always wore a faraway look, the look of a preoccupied man. When he won, he smiled, but there was a distinct look of sadness in the smile. He was extra-ordinarily committed to training and when the sessions, to which he gave every last ounce of energy, ended, he departed quietly, usually alone. He liked his own company.
Charles Mukula, the boxing coach who has made a superhuman effort to save Muthurwa Social Hall from its predators and who once upon a time shared time with Wangila, remembers him thus:
“He was a quiet and humble man. He liked keeping to himself. He trained hard. He was an awkward fighter, by which I mean you couldn’t figure him out. You could never get in the ring saying Wangila fights like this. He would surprise you. He was good at reading his opponent and adjusting accordingly. And he had a deadly right hand, which he depended on heavily. If you look at his record, you will see many knockouts. They usually came from it.”
Indeed. The Olympic gold was won that way.
“He was also not a woman’s man. We knew him to have only one steady girl friend, the one he eventually took with him to the US. He was a disciplined man.”
After cutting his boxing teeth in Muthurwa during which time he turned out for Kenya Railways Boxing Club, Wangila moved to Kenya Ports Authority, another Kecoso member. It is there that, as Kenya Open champion, he caught the eye of scouts from Kenya Breweries. In the 1980s, Kenya Breweries ran a robust sports programme with no less than 11 sports in their portfolio. All had the full backing of the company financially.
Breweries offered Wangila a job as a truck driver in keeping with his humble educational qualifications. He never let the company down and the 1987 Kenya, East and Central and Central Africa and All Africa Games champion proceeded to win Africa’s first Olympic Games gold medal in 1988. He was the hottest name in Kenya boxing at that time.
Olympic champions attract world attention as a matter of course and Wangila would be no exception. An American by the name Akhbar Mohammed happened on the scene and the next thing Kenyans knew, Wangila had turned professional. He departed for the US, taking with him Grace Akinyi, his long time sweet heart.
The fortunes of Kenya’s best professional fighters abroad have never been rosy. Philip Waruinge didn’t hack it in Japan and neither did Stephen Muchoki in Denmark. That fate would stalk Wangila in America. There were reports, as yet unverified, that the boxer was suffering bouts of homesickness and wanted out.
But it has remained difficult to establish his exact intentions and state of mind before his tragic last fight against David Gonzales on July 21, 1994 in which the referee stopped the contest to save him further punishment. Wangila went to the dressing, on his own strength, but shortly afterwards, lapsed into a coma from which he would never wake. He died three days later. Akhbar Mohammed stood by his dead fighter and arranged to have his remains freighted to Nairobi. And there, Wangila’s last fight, this time over his cold body, began.
Soon after the body arrived in Nairobi, Wangila’s young widow, Grace Akinyi, started making arrangements for the funeral. But she was soon slapped with two separate injunctions from the High Court stopping her from burying him as stated in his will. Claims were made that Akinyi and Wangila had divorced in May, 1992, and that she had since remarried twice.
Wangila’s feisty mother, an old lady by the name of Eunice Moraa Mabeche, paraded two men, one John Mabeche, whom she told the media was Wangila’s father and Karani Ang’ira Kanyimbo, who claimed to be Wangila’s biological father but whom Moraa said was also her husband though not Wangila’s father. She wanted Wangila buried in Kisii, his ancestral home as she claimed. Moraa’s lead lawyer was Charles Nyachae, the current chairman of the Constitution Implementation Commission and included Mr Paul Buti, Mr Patrick Kiage and Mr Abel Ogenche.
Justice Andrew Hayanga granted them a temporary injunction restraining Akinyi from burying the body.
Later on the morning of the same day, three men from Busia filed a similar injunction to stop the burial. They were John Nandike Bwire, Washington Wafula and David Wandera, represented by lawyer John Khaminwa. Their plaint was filed against Moraa and her men and against Mr. Peter Orwa, the chairman of the burial committee. They said Wangila’s ancestral home was Busia and wanted him buried there. Justice Hayanga consolidated the two cases.
Next on the scene was the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, Supkem. They wanted Wangila, who was said to have converted to Islam while in the US, to be buried in accordance with Islamic customs – and as quickly as possible. Hayanga ordered them enjoined as defendants. Supkem’s litigants included Mr Ahmed Khalif Mohammed, an Assistant Minister for Research, Technical Training and Technology, Sheikh Mohammed Ali Shee, the Imam of Nairobi’s Jamia Mosque and two Supkem executive members, Mr. Issa Kuria and Mr. Sharrif Hussein Omar. Their lawyer was Ahmednasir Abdullahi.
Willy Mutunga, the current Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya, was the executor of Wangila’s will. He was also a member of Wangila’s national burial committee. His lawyer was Ms Betty Murungi, the former vice-chair of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission.
Akbar Muhammed weighed into the proceedings. He wanted a refund of the US$ 25,000 he had spent freighting Wangila’s remains from the US to Kenya. His claim was directed at Akinyi and the Wangila national burial committee. Apart from Mutunga and Orwa, other members of that committee included Dr Julia Ojiambo, a former cabinet minister, and Memba Muriuki, a lawyer and boxing enthusiast.
Akinyi herself was well represented. Her lead counsel was Murtaza Jaffer of the Public Law Institute assisted by Nancy Baraza, the former Deputy Chief Justice under Mutunga, Ms Abida Ali, Mr Swaleh Kanyeki, Memba Muriuki himself, Ms Grace Githu and Ms Betty Mwenesi.
The arguments came hard, fast and furious. Mr Jaffer, for the widow, asked the court to “advise” the plaintiffs to withdraw their suits. He told the Judge: “The Kisii claimants are technically out of these proceedings because they have not been named in the will at all. The Busia claimants, though acknowledging that Wangila was a Muslim, cannot bury him in Sio Port, Busia District because it is the widow’s responsibility. They can only negotiate with the widow.”
Dr Khaminwa, for the Busia claimants, responded that there was enough evidence that Wangila’s father came from Busia. Wangila’s names, he said, spoke for themselves. He dismissed the Kisii claimants’ right to claim the body. Then he lavished praise on Wangila for being the embodiment of a “true Kenyan” – having a Kisii mother, a Luhya father and a Luo wife.
Buti lay in wait. On the second day of the case, he dropped his bombshell. He told the court that he would provide evidence to prove that Wangila had divorced Akinyi in May 1992 and that she had since remarried twice – once to a Mr. Keith Green and then to a Mr. Walter Mungai. Justice Hayanga ruled him out of order, cautioning him against introducing “extraneous matters inappropriately.”Jaffer and Khaminwa had strenuously raised objections to his “proof” of her remarriage by way of a letter from the US.
All this time, Akinyi, who was the centre of gawking attention from the crowd, maintained a stoic, studious silence. She always stood next to the courtroom door and as soon as the proceedings ended, she dashed out and disappeared in a car before journalists could reach her for comments. In sharp contrast, her nemesis, Ms Moraa, courted the media and freely posed for pictures with the two men in her life. She was readily available to give interviews.
The courtroom was always packed to overflow and despite repeated admonitions from the judge to reserve the front bench for the lawyers, quite a number of the large battery of counsel found themselves addressing the court from the public benches. Khaminwa was one of them.
In the end, Justice Hayanga ruled neither for the Busia nor for the Kisii claimants to Wangila’s remains. He ordered the body buried in accordance Muslim rites, a victory for Supkem.
The road to Kariokor Muslim cemetery was lined with crowds craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the last journey of the Olympic champion. Boxers walked ahead of the cortege, shadow boxing with the air. It was well that Wangila could finally be laid to rest after a life of so many struggles marked by calm faith and austere discipline. The fight over his body was a great indignity but it is common in the country of his birth.
It will be 30 years to the next Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. And nobody has replicated Robert Wangila’s achievement.